Communitech breakfast with Neverfrost, Peregrine* Labs, and Clearpath Robotics

This morning I attended a Communitech UpStart Breakfast Series event and listened to three guest speakers:

  • Khanjan Desai, co-founder of Neverfrost
  • Colin Doncaster, co-founder of Peregrine* Labs
  • Ryan Gariepy, co-founder and CTO of Clearpath Robotics

I enjoyed each presentation and wanted to share with you the insights they shared with all in attendance.

Khanjan Desai, Neverfrost

I hadn’t heard of Neverfrost until this morning, but learned that they are a nanotechnology start-up working on a durable, transparent anti-frost film (think: no more scraping your windshield in the morning, and other applications). Khanjan’s a graduate of the University of Waterloo‘s Nanotechnology Engineering program, which has already spawned a number of start-ups in the region.

In his 15 or so minutes, Khanjan talked about some of the challenges facing a nanotech start-up. For instance, with only a few similar companies in the region¹ it can be difficult to speak with peers and share knowledge. Plus, the field itself is so young that there aren’t enormous online repositories of information; instead, most material on the subject exists in academic journals and university research labs.

The next time I need to look up something in telecommunications, I’ll be thankful for all the items in the search results!

Another challenge Khanjan mentioned is one to which many entrepreneurs can relate: the equipment they need is very expensive, and in some cases unreasonably so. He shared two examples in which Neverfrost has built their own equipment in a few weeks for a few hundred dollars rather than spend tens of thousands. They also rent time at UW when necessary and when building their own system isn’t a possibility (say, for a scanning/tunnelling electron microscope).

While I took down no actions as a result, I enjoyed the presentation and learned about a local company solving a real problem.

Colin Doncaster, Peregrine* Labs

Peregrine* Labs makes software for special effects (particularly fur and feather effects, I believe) that have been used in many of the movies we’ve seen and loved; I didn’t know of them until today.

In case I hadn’t yet, I’ve definitely now been in a room with an Oscar winner! That’s right, in February Peregrine* Labs won an academy award for “Scientific and Technical Achievement” for the development, prototyping and promotion of technologies and workflows for deep compositing (as quoted from their website). So congrats to them!

Colin began by explaining his background (he joined Peter Jackson’s development studio, Weta Digital, early on and subsequently worked on the Lord of the Rings movies, among others; moved around a bit and worked on Avatar; spent some time at Electronic Arts) and how he came to start Peregrine* Labs with his wife: they were working for another company and figured they could do the same work for themselves, for their own company.

Colin explained some of the successes they’ve had (developing a solution for a customer but keeping the intellectual property, avoiding frivolous patent litigation) and challenges they’ve overcome (including one common to start-ups: surviving the payment terms of many customers), and shared how he has been hugely inspired by two books: Let My People Go Surfing, and The 4-Hour Workweek. I’d heard of both but have so far read neither.

Another nice part of Colin’s story related to his time at, and shortly after, Weta. While at Weta he was working on a solution to an industry problem, but ended up moving to another company. Once there, he discovered that they were encountering and working to overcome the same problem. Normally, non-compete agreements and such would make life difficult, but he spoke with Weta and got their blessing to work on the solution. The end result was an open-sourced solution that benefitted the entire industry, and if I heard the story correctly ultimately led to Peregrine’s Oscar. Hooray for collaboration overcoming legal BS!

What did I take away from Colin’s presentation? Well, I’m going to get around to reading those books, for one. In general, though, it was a nice feel-good story about a guy who’s worked for other people for much of his life and is now working for himself.

Ryan Gariepy, Clearpath Robotics

Clearpath Robotics has come up in a few of my conversations lately, so I’m reasonably familiar with the company (they make big, bad, useful robots). During this morning’s presentations I was standing with my good friend Nino, and as it happened Nino was a Teaching Assistant for Ryan a few years ago when Ryan was completing a couple of Mechatronics Engineering degrees at UW².

Ryan began by addressing a common misconception about starting up a hardware company, the refrain that “hardware is hard”. In Ryan’s view, hardware engineering is actually a much more understood model than software, as hardware companies existed and thrived decades before software companies. Instead, Ryan says, hardware just has a different set of challenges, but the challenges themselves are well-known.

For instance, with software you can look at your cash, look at your loaded labour rate (salary and overhead), and do the math on how long you have to start getting revenue. With hardware, things are a bit more complicated: you need equipment, you need inventory, you need lab space, and of course you still need to pay salaries. Different, but not hard.

Interestingly, Ryan also touched on payment terms as a challenge for start-ups. Many customers will insist on 120-day payment terms, and for start-ups that can be a killer.

While Ryan’s presentation as a whole was quite interesting, the part that had the highest impact for me was a relatively innocuous slide near the end about use of time. Basically, your time is spent in one of three ways: doing work, expanding your capacity to do work (“sharpening the saw”, for you Covey fans), or documenting/automating the work to contribute to greater efficiency. This slide got me thinking about my own use of time – in other posts I’ve mentioned some of the challenges facing my team at work and our need to efficiently scale, and Ryan’s chat has me thinking about those challenges from a slightly different angle.

…in conclusion

Definitely an hour well-spent! My thanks to the speakers for sharing their insights, and thanks as always to Communitech for running such great sessions.

¹I have to say, I think having even ‘just’ a handful of nanotech start-ups in the region is pretty damned impressive

²And Nino won some sort of “Best TA” award for his work with that class, so apparently he did a good job

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Posted in Books, Careers, Everything, Leadership

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