techlife magazine

The Celebrate NAIT's 50th Anniversary Issue

Words: Kristen Vernon
Images: Blaise van Malse and NAIT Staff Photographers

This Web Exclusive was featured in Volume 6, Issue 1 of techlife magazine.

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Updates on innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs from the first 10 issues of techlife magazine

People, technology and innovation are at the heart of the stories we feature in techlife. After 10 issues, we decided it was time for an update on ideas, projects and business ventures we've covered over the years. Here's where a few of them stand today

The hawk has landed
Read the original story: Batteries Included, Vol. 2.1

If it's above 6 C and not raining, Nap Pepin (pictured above) can be found commuting to work in his almost entirely hand- built, two-seater electric trike - described in a recent St. Albert Gazette article "as something out of NASA or Blade Runner."

Pepin started building the $26,000-Lithium Hawk two years ago, after making room in his garage by donating his first electric vehicle (EV) - the Lithium BugE - to the Reynolds-Alberta Museum.

His intention was to learn what he could from the BugE, built partly with a kit, and apply that to a new EV built from the ground up. The Hawk addresses many of the BugE's shortcomings. "It's just a lot more robust," says the Electronics Engineering Technology grad (class of '85). It's heavier, has a longer range, better suspension, is almost completely silent and will perform just as well on a low battery as when fully charged.

Pepin, who has put more than 5,000 kilometres on the Hawk since August 2011, spent last winter designing a sophisticated battery management system (he made more than 23,000 spot welds to link 1,976 cells) and is now refining the front-end suspension and adding power assist to the steering.

As for whether there's another EV in his future, Pepin isn't sure. "All the manufacturers are coming out with electric vehicles," he says. "So unless I can do something unique or better - why?"

The EV advantage

Range: 210 kilometres per charge
Equivalent fuel economy: maximum 0.81 litres/100 kilometres (348 miles/gallon)
Top speed: 170 kilometres per hour, though Pepin has never travelled past 115 ("It can be pretty scary trying to test [a hand-built] vehicle for higher speeds.")
Acceleration: 0 to 100 kilometres per hour in approximately six seconds

Davis McGregor, CEO of Mobile Data TechnologiesDollars for data
Read the original story: Firestarter, Vol. 3.2

Few entrepreneurs opt to keep bootstrapping when investors come to the table.

Yet the four engineers behind Mobile Data Technologies, which designs and sells sensor monitoring and recording units for the oil and gas industry, decided that it wasn't the right time for external investment - despite a successful pitch to the angel investors of the VentureAlberta Forum in early 2010.

Less than a year later, however, it was a different story.

In early 2010, Mobile Data Technologies was selling about three units a month. In August, it sold seven. In November, it sold 11 in a single day - and 16 that month. By late 2010, the former novaNAIT incubator client needed a cash infusion to keep pace.

Mobile Data Technologies got the investment needed and moved into a 560-square-metre (6,000-square-foot) shop in Acheson, a few minutes west of Edmonton. The company also started hiring, expanding from five employees to its current 24. Today, the product line has grown considerably, and demand has been so high that eager customers have bought the prototypes for systems still in development.

As its 2011-12 fiscal year closes, the company is exactly where president and CEO Davis McGregor predicted in his initial pitch to the VentureAlberta investors. Back then, he forecast sales to grow from $114,000 in 2009 to $5.8 million in 2012.

With sales for the year closing in on $6 million, "We're right on track," he says. "We're actually ahead of that curve."

Mobile Data Technologies has since expanded from Western Canada into the United States, and sales south of the border will be the company's focus for the coming year. By 2015, McGregor expects the focus to shift even further afield. In the meantime, the company's engineers are working on a prototype for a new product - a prototype they had not intended to sell. Demand, however, proved too great.

"Once again, the customer stepped up and said this is what we need now," McGregor says.

Tanya and Ryan Clarke of Dr. Scientist SoundsPedal power
Read the original story: Frazz Dazzler and the Sunny Day Delay, Vol. 1.2

When Ryan and Tanya Clarke returned from their wedding in Tofino in the fall of 2009, the duo behind Dr. Scientist Sounds needed to find a way to up production of their boutique guitar effects pedals. After all, they were almost a year behind filling store orders.

Ryan (Electronics Engineering Technology '05), who engineers the pedals, now outsources the build of the circuit boards for two of their four pedals. Tanya (Graphic Sign Arts '02), whose designs give the pedals their unique look, no longer applies finishes, but instead has her designs printed and applied by a company in the United States.

As a result, they've largely eliminated the backlog (at most they're a month behind these days). And they are able to produce more than twice as many pedals, shipping about 120 a month to 35 stores around the world.

"We're just in a lot better control of how it all goes down now," Ryan says.

The long-term goal is "to keep growing at a rate that we find comfortable," Tanya says. After all, she adds, they do this for the lifestyle of working together at home.

Mark Holtom (left) and Ben Bertrand of InnovequityBuilding equity
Read the original story: On the Brink of Big, Vol. 2.1

Things haven't gone as planned for Ben Bertrand and Mark Holtom.

By now, they'd hoped to have revolutionized the construction industry with their Geometric Construction System (GCS), which can automatically build floors and walls, complete with wiring, plumbing and finishing coverings.

"We would have loved to have been selling our machine a couple years ago," says Holtom, CEO of Innovequity, a former novaNAIT incubator client.

Building the $1.4-million prototype of the GCS was, at times, a frustratingly slow process. But in summer 2010 the machine built its first floor, complete with plumbing, electrical and HVAC lines.

Since then, Bertrand, Innovequity's chief technology officer and inventor of the GCS, has finished a beta prototype for building walls (minus insulation, a capability soon to follow).

Without a first client, cash flow is currently the largest challenge; at times, it has the company struggling to keep its Drayton Valley factory open.

But 2013 could be the year Innovequity's fortunes change. The company hopes to break ground on two projects. One involves building rental office and sleeper trailers for industrial use.

The other is a residential development tied to a major refinery project now underway. The GCS would be used to build a four-storey, 20-unit apartment block in Bon Accord, 30 kilometres north of Edmonton.

The Norbert-Amores familyWhat wood have been
Read the original story: No Car, No Furnace, No Problem, Vol. 2.2

The home of Conrad Nobert and Rechel Amores was designed to be net zero, producing at least as much energy as it consumes over the course of a year.

Three years after the NAIT staffers moved their family of four into the 200-square-metre (2,200-square-foot) house, it has yet to reach that goal. But it's come close - and Nobert wouldn't change a thing.

"I think it's probably harder than we thought to build a net zero house in Edmonton," he says.

Nobert and Amores (Computer Systems Technology '99) opted for baseboard heaters and a high-efficiency wood-burning stove to shore up their insulation and passive solar heating.

But because the energy from burning wood can't be accounted for on the electricity meter, when they stopped using the stove to test if the house could reach net zero, they fell short of their goal.

Had they installed a geothermal system - which can be accounted for on the electricity meter - Nobert has no doubt they'd have met their goal. "We learned that it's possible, but we didn't quite make it," he says.

The fact remains: the energy savings are remarkable. Net electricity use over a 12-month period for this home is between 1,600 and 2,600 kilowatt-hours (again, without burning wood, which can't be counted by the power meter). The average Edmonton home, in contrast, uses 40,000 kilowatt-hours (with natural gas consumption converted to its electric equivalent) over the same period.

The zero effect

By incorporating the following features into their home, Conrad Nobert and Rechel Amores almost achieved net zero status:
• 40-centimetre walls filled with cellulose fibre insulation
• large south-facing windows
• interior concrete floors that absorb heat during the day and then release it during the evening
• a six-kilowatt solar electric system fed by 32 photovoltaic modules
• solar hot water

 James Gray and Ryan Dilworth, creators of FreemailSpread the messages
Read the original story: Operator Assistants, Vol. 2.1

What started out four years ago as a class project and a desire to help the less fortunate, has not only assisted social agency clients, but the agencies themselves.

James Gray and Ryan Dilworth developed Freemail, an affordable system that allows social agencies to provide clients with their own private voice mailboxes.

To date, more than 2,500 voice mailboxes have been set up on the system, which receives an average of 1,800 calls a month by people leaving and retrieving messages. With all those calls being handled by Freemail, social agency staff members aren't spending time answering calls and tracking down clients, says Gray.

"I was looking to help people who needed a phone number and a contact, and it has ended up helping people and the agencies."

Gray (Telecommunications Engineering Technology '08), who now manages the system, says it generates enough revenue to sustain itself. With a full-time telecom job and other commitments, Gray says he hasn't had time to expand beyond the original two clients - the Bissell Centre, an anti-poverty agency, and the Youth Empowerment and Support Services (formerly Youth Emergency Shelter Society).

But, he says, "I can roll it out to any place, anywhere in Canada, instantly."

Randy Troppmann, creator of and Trackometer appsThe Running Map Man
Read the original story: Made to Measure, Vol. 1.1

Back in 2005 and 2006, and were in a dead heat, says Randy Troppmann, who founded the interactive website and companion Trackometer iPhone and Android apps. But MapMyRun, part of the MapMyFitness network, has since left the St. Albert startup in the dust.

Earlier this year, MapMyFitness secured $9 million in a second round of financing. "My ability to close is not as sharp as it should be," says the NAIT e-learning development specialist of potential deals that have come forward over the years. Troppmann and partner Dave Hohm have recently brought on someone with business expertise who can help figure out how to monetize.

Despite falling behind its competitor, traffic to the site - which combines Google maps, a distance calculator and elevation computation - doubles year-over-year. Since January 2007, the site has had more 2.5 million unique visitors, and users have saved more than 400,000 routes. And when the iPhone app first launched in 2009, Trackometer spent two weeks on the list of top 10 health and fitness apps in the App Store.

Troppmann's mapping and app development expertise have also opened up many opportunities, from freelance work to having Adobe install the Android version of the app on the 5,000 Motorola Droid 2 phones that were given away at the 2010 Adobe MAX conference in Los Angeles. That year, his app was also featured at the Google I/O developers' conference in San Francisco.

And, in an unexpected boost one day this August, traffic to doubled when Lance Armstrong visited Montreal. "Hey Montreal - anyone want to run tomorrow? Meet me at the Monument to Sir George - Etiene Cartier. 6pm! 7.5km loop.," he tweeted, sending the city's runners to Troppmann's site.

Jim Barr, president of Seekers Media

Seek and you shall find
Read the original story: California Dreamin', Vol. 5.1

The 48 hours Jim Barr spent in Silicon Valley in June 2011 have been paying dividends.

The president of Seekers Media was one of 20 Canadian entrepreneurs invited to 48hrs in the Valley, a boot camp hosted by the C100, a group of Canadian entrepreneurs and investors in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, with the power to transform a startup into a multimillion-dollar concern.

At the time, Barr planned to expand SnowSeekers, the online and mobile guides to winter activities, into California. But the advice the novaNAIT incubator client received at the event was to fan out from his Alberta and British Columbia destinations.

Last February, he launched SnowSeekers Montana. And Barr says other U.S. destinations are on the horizon. Perhaps even California within the next two years.

The companion FestivalSeekers brand, meanwhile, expanded into aspects of event planning in June, producing Drumheller's DinoFest in partnership with the community.

It's a potential revenue stream Barr wants to continue to explore by providing campaign support and expertise on SnowSeekers events this winter. "This is a really exciting evolution for us," Barr says. "It helps us really further our name in destination promotion."

 Stephane Contre, creator of unique crime-fighting softwareCrack the ciminal code
Read the original story: Crime Fighter, Vol. 2.2

It was a tough sell. Certainly tougher than the developer of a crime-forecasting software anticipated, especially after the success Edmonton Transit has had using his system to more effectively deploy its security officers.

In 2008, Stephane Contré won novaNAIT's technology and business ideas contest, the Tech Comm Challenge, for Daily Crime Forecast, which analyzes crime data to identify patterns in criminal or suspicious activity and generates forecasts for when and where such activity is likely to happen.

The media buzz generated by the award got Contré in the door at a number of police services, but he wasn't able to convince the data analysts to buy his software. "[The award] opened up a lot of doors for me, but not in commercialization," he says.

The doors it opened were in consulting. Contré has since developed software for Northlands to assess risks at events and assign security accordingly. As a reservist, Contré applied his software while on a tour in Afghanistan to predict when and where road-side bombs might be deployed against the troops.

More recently, the senior information architect for the City of Edmonton developed a tool to help identify at-risk and high-risk youth who use public transit with the goal of directing them to early intervention programs. The Youth Violence Prevention Initiative won a 2012 Safety and Security Award from the Canadian Urban Transit Association.

Konrad Misiewicz's pig trackerThis little pig almost went to market
Read the original story: How the 2009 YTP-HATCH Prize Winner is Cracking the Oil and Gas Market,

Konrad Misiewicz is giving his pig tracker another few months. Despite winning the $20,000 YTP-HATCH business plan competition, sponsored by novaNAIT and the Youth Technopreneurship Program, in 2009, Misiewicz hasn't been able to crack the industry. He's only managed to sell three units and rent others.

Pigs, or pipeline inspection gauges, travel down pipelines to clean them, and are widely used in the industry. But pigs are expensive, and they can get lost or stuck. Enter, Misiewicz's improved pig tracker, which can fit inside a pig or be towed behind it, transmitting a signal for up to 250 hours.

To try to get his device travelling through more of the country's 500,000 kilometres of pipeline, Misiewicz is now marketing to pig manufacturers, rather than pipeline cleaning and maintenance contractors.

Even if the pig tracker doesn't work out, the attempt won't be a complete bust for the Marketing student, who plans to apply what he's learned to other ventures, including an emerging business manufacturing dials for pressure gauges on oil rigs. "There's a lot of little things that I find school won't teach you, but actually going and doing it will."