While most businesses talk about developing a kickass idea, Toronto-based scaleup 20/20 Armor is taking the art of kickass and bringing it into the 21st Century.
Upgrading the art of kickass
20/20 Armor is a sports technology company that produces connected equipment for trainers and match runners to keep track of scores and performance. The company has already released a chestguard that tracks the progress of a match or training session and includes ten game modes for students and teachers to use.
In an interview with DX Journal, cofounder and CEO Ali Ghafour spoke about the larger vision for the company, and how electronic tools like 20/20 Amor’s chestguard can help bring a new sense of cool to the sport.
“When you do martial arts in North America today, it’s maybe not necessarily cool. If you play basketball, it’s cool, you play soccer, it’s cool. We want to take it to the point where you play martial arts and you wear this headgear that looks cool, you wear this vest that looks cool, you use this app that makes it look like you’re playing Street Fighter in real life, that’s cool.”
The kind of tracking that 20/20 Armor enables is being done in martial arts, but only at high level competitions — the kind of level that Ghafour has competed at during his 25 years of Taekwondo experience. But 2020 Armor is bringing the competitive nature of points tracking together with gamified elements to promote more performance data and a video-game-like scoring system to gyms and clubs all over the world — where 99 percent of the market for martial arts products lies.
— mesh (@meshcon) November 22, 2018
For Ghafour, coupled to the appeal of producing metrics and granular performance data for martial artists is the ability to expose a wider audience to the sport.
“No one knows how the hell how martial arts works — any of it. Boxing, Karate, Taekwondo. If they don’t play that sport, no one knows how the scoring works. I thought if there was a way to make the sport accessible and understandable to the general public, then you increase the interest, and grow the sport overall.”
Ghafour believes that martial arts is a life skill that applies throughout society, teaching attitudes and disciplines that you don’t get from a conventional education or career path. He’s passionate about broadening interest in martial arts, and you can see that passion, as well as the 20/20 Armor chestguard, in action during the company’s pitch on Dragon’s Den.
Adding to the arsenal
The armor itself is getting a big upgrade in 2019, when the company will add a high-tech helmet to its line of products, which will integrate fully with the current chestguard setup. The company will also dedicate significant time and effort towards developing an app to compliment the armor’s existing tracking and gamified aspects.
The company is also looking ahead in a big way to a future in China — a world unto itself when it comes to martial arts culture and manufacturing prospects. Ghafour said he hopes to have 60-70 percent of the company’s manufacturing done in China. The development of the 20/20 Armor app and final manufacturing assembly will remain in North America.
Get a coach if you want to grow
A serial entrepreneur and four-time Canadian national team member in Taekwondo with an HBSc in computer science, Ghafour had never started a hardware company before developing 20/20 Armor. His athletic experiences taught him the value of consistent coaching, something that has absolutely contributed to how he views the innovation ecosystem in Toronto, and how it can benefit the efforts he and his fellow team members make to grow 20/20 Armor.
Ghafour recently pitched at the mesh conference meetup, held at Spaces in downtown Toronto. There, he emphasized that the community around 20/20 Armor was vital to the growth and success of his business.
The company is a MaRS client, and is also one of the original 14 companies to work with leAD Sports, a sports business accelerator. The organizations recently helped the company close another round of funding for a total of $1.2 million.
In a broader sense, Ghafour also spoke to the need for outside input to build an original business and learn about the challenges of growing a successful hardware company: “You can’t really Google those sort of things — you have to meet people who are going through the same things that you are. I honestly don’t think you can do it without talking to people.”
In fact, mentorship and coaching through the scaleup process remains the core lesson that Ghafour would impart to fellow scaleup leaders.
”Get a mentor, and talk to them consistently. For an athlete, that’s a normal thing, we’ve been coached all our lives. That would be the biggest thing that can help build your company faster than you even thought possible.”
Calgary college launches new program in response to a changing workforce
Businesses in Alberta have seen an upswing in the need for trained IT professionals, and with the launch of a new Information Technology Systems diploma this fall, Bow Valley College is prepared to provide the talent.
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Back when floppy disks and dial-up internet were the height of technology in the office, concepts like 3D printers and self-checkout machines were pure science fiction.
It’s only been 20 years since then, but the world has since gone through a digital transformation that’s impacting businesses everywhere.
In a 2016 survey conducted by the global enterprise software company IFS, 86 per cent of senior business leaders from 20 different countries said that this digital transformation will play a key role in their market in the following five years.
This shift into a digital marketplace has also affected what kind of skills employers need, and Calgary’s Bow Valley College is working to provide the training needed to fill those in-demand roles.
Training rooted in industry demand
With the launch of the new Information Technology Systems (ITS) Diploma this fall, students will be given the most up-to-date IT education to provide a skilled workforce to businesses across Alberta.
Jeff Clemens, program coordinator and instructor at Bow Valley College, played a role in creating the ITS program, and said the process started with consulting industry professionals across the province. All of the companies consulted said they were in need of more trained IT experts to support the technology that keeps them running.
“Industry demand was a big reason why we launched this program,” said Clemens. “The main feedback we got from consulting with people was: ‘We need more graduates.’ Even our own IT staff here at Bow Valley College are saying, ‘When will you be getting these graduates, because we need more people’.”
Hector Henriquez is a desktop analyst in Bow Valley College’s IT department and said he’s also noticed an influx of companies in the city searching for IT professionals over the past few years.
“Nowadays, having IT is more and more essential,” said Henriquez, “Even the basic services that everyone takes for granted, like internet and email and printing, they need to be maintained and updated and secured. You can’t run a business now without IT.”
Entry-level positions lead to exciting careers in tech
During consultations, Clemens said that businesses specifically pointed to a gap in finding people to fill entry-level IT positions. Many only wanted people in entry-level positions for approximately a year, ultimately looking to move them into something more specialized, like the growing need for cyber security.
“The move toward cloud computing and the focus on cyber security and data security is reflected in the number of jobs that are now in the market,” said Phil Ollenberg, Team Lead of Student Recruitment at Bow Valley College.
“There are now self-checkouts, so there are fewer actual cashiers, but there are IT professionals and data analysis professionals in the background who are supporting that technology — and those are higher paid jobs.”
Ollenberg added that the need for IT seems to be clear to students too, as the two-year ITS diploma already had applicants before it was even officially announced.
“Our prospective learners are seeking this career out,” he said. “They’re looking for what they know will be a guaranteed job.”
When the first students graduate from the ITS program in 2021, Clemens is confident that they’ll be ready to take on the industry demands. With solution-based training in the latest cloud and security software, they’ll be prepared to tackle the next technological advancement — even if it seems as futuristic as 3D printing did in 1999.
“With IT, you can’t just sit back and expect that things will stay the same,” Clemens continued. “This program is very hands-on. We’re giving them the base, but teaching them that the base will change, and that’s OK because they’ll still have that ability to learn and come up with solutions.”
For more information on the ITS program, visit the Bow Valley College website.
DX Journal covers the impact of digital transformation (DX) initiatives worldwide across multiple industries.
Which innovations will shape Canadian industry in 2019?
Canada is in the midst of an economic shift. New and traditional industries are increasingly being driven by innovation and these advances in technology are shifting the economic landscape at an unprecedented pace.
This is the assessment by Borden Ladner Gervais, which is Canada’s largest law firm. The company has issued a new thought leadership report, titled “Top Innovative Industries Shaping the Canadian Economy”.
The report weighs in on the opportunities and risks Canada faces in order to maintain its status as an international leader in innovation across eight key industries: cybersecurity, the Internet of Things, smart cities, cryptocurrency and blockchain, autonomous vehicles, fintech, renewable energy and cannabis.
To find out more about the report and its implications for Canadian businesses, Digital Journal spoke with Andrew Harrison, a partner at BLG.
Digital Journal: Where does Canada stand as a global tech innovator?
Andrew Harrison: Canada has always been at the forefront of innovation. Products developed by Canadians or Canadian companies encompass a variety of industries and include medicinal insulin, the snowmobile, the telephone, the pager, BlackBerry Messaging, IMAX, the Canadarm and the goalie mask, to name a few. Canadians are also fast adopters of new technologies; email money transfer between individuals, which was inconceivable only a few years ago, has been used by 63 per cent of Canadians.
This is why Canada is recognized worldwide for its research and technological know-how, but we have to be mindful of the challenges in a global competitive market.
DJ: What potential does Canada have to grow faster? Is this sector specific?
Harrison: Canada is well positioned to succeed and take the lead in all innovative industries, but there are definitely sector-specific challenges that could limit this growth. For example, the lack of regulation as to whether cryptocurrencies are considered securities or not is creating uncertainty, which may restrain investment in this sector.
DJ: What are the risks that could hamper innovation and development?
Harrison: For any new product, financing is always an issue; with innovation, money becomes an even more crucial element. Companies must have access to capital – including from individual and institutional investors – if they want to bring their innovative product/process to life. Evolving politics and policies can also have a significant impact.
DJ: What framework will Canada need in the future to secure its innovation potential?
Harrison: The key element is finding a proper balance between regulating the issues that might be created by the innovation itself or its use and providing a space where innovations can thrive without too many restrictions.
DJ: What does the Canadian government need to do?
Harrison: In many cases, laws and regulations were enacted long before we saw these innovative technologies and products brought to life, so they need to be updated. In certain sectors, such as cryptocurrencies and autonomous vehicles, the Canadian government has yet to provide a framework that would define the playing rules for all participants.
The government will also need to take a look at its current regulations on privacy: the coming into force in May 2018 of the European General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”) and recent high-profile data breaches have created the need for stronger privacy guidelines. Failure to do so could prevent Canadian businesses from accessing the European market.
DJ: What can academia contribute?
Harrison: Universities play a big role in fostering innovation – they could be the home of research and innovation and incubators of ventures, entrepreneurs, and tech talent. Universities can partner with industry players and have their researchers work closely to solve key industry issues. This is already happening in Canada. The Smith School of Business and Scotiabank, for instance, have partnered to set up the Scotiabank Centre of Customer Analytics at Smith School of Business to bring together professors, graduate students and analytics practitioners to collaborate on applied research projects in customer analytics. The academia plays a big role in creating an innovation ecosystem.
DJ: What is Canada’s most pressing technological need?
Harrison: There is still much work to be done to connect with Canada’s rural and remote communities. In 2016, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) declared that broadband Internet amounted to an essential service and adopted minimal performance standards across Canada: 50 megabit per second download and 10 megabit per second upload. However, the evidence presented to the Committee by a variety of stakeholders shows that the digital divide remains prominent in Canada – it is estimated that it will take roughly 10 to 15 years for the remaining 18% of Canadians to reach those minimums. Canada needs to develop a comprehensive rural broadband strategy in partnership with key stakeholders and make funding more accessible for small providers.
DJ: What type of investment is needed with skills and training?
Harrison: Canada has a serious shortage of tech talent, which makes it imperative for both the government, the education, and the business sector to invest in raising and fostering STEM talents. To help businesses attract the talent they require, the federal government is offering hiring grants and wage subsidies to offset payroll costs for recent post-secondary STEM students and graduates.
#BoardForward crowdfunding campaign aims to boost female board leadership
Diverse board leadership is becoming a priority for public and private companies, and discussion around the topic continues to grow. From the business community to the public at large, the lack of diverse leadership is increasingly seen as a detriment to company performance.
Only 9 percent of unicorn companies — companies with a valuation of $1 billion and up — have board seats filled by women despite evidence showing diverse boards lead to better business outcomes.
While governments are starting to take note — California recently passed legislation to ensure that at least one member of a public company’s board is a woman — private and public companies are still being urged to build more inclusion into their company boards.
Curated talent marketplace theBoardList is one such organization looking to drive change and empower female business leaders across industries and build a new kind of diverse boardroom. The organization already has more than 5,000 members, and is looking to increase its community through a new #BoardForward crowdfunding campaign.
The campaign seeks to raise $200,000 to help the organization find more female board candidates, prepare them for board service and help them find a board placement.
Shannon Gordon,CEO of theBoardList, spoke to DX Journal about the priorities of the crowdfunding project.
DX Journal: The launch video for the crowdfunding project states that “Boards lack diversity because networks lack diversity” — can you unpack that?
Shannon Gordon: The vast majority of board searches, in fact 96 percent of them, are filled via referral. So inherently, they’re dependent on networks. The only way you’re going to get diversity in the boardroom is if the networks are diverse, and today the vast majority of CEOs and boards are made up of men.
Of course it’s not true that men don’t know great women. But we do know that it’s a human tendency to find people who look like you, act like you, and think like you when looking for new colleagues. It’s that homogeneity in those networks, in part, that drives the lack of diversity in the boardroom in particular because it’s such a network-based form of search.
DX Journal: Now you’re launching the #BoardForward crowdfunding campaign. Why go the crowdfunding route?
Gordon: We have a really engaged community of people who are very excited and anxious to support an increase in diversity in the workplace generally, and are looking for the right tools and systems to help make that happen.
Because theBoardList offers a solution, there are so many different ways which we can advocate for diversity. Advocacy is a very important part of driving change, but we’re really passionate about providing a solution and a tool for people to use for when they come to realize that diversity is something that will help their company reach its peak performance. We’re there with a solution.
For us, the crowdfunding campaign is about harnessing that engagement and enthusiasm and desire to make change from both the community and the public. So much of the context in the last year plus has shifted, and I think people are looking to make their own personal impact.
DX Journal: You want to scale your platform — what does that mean?
Gordon: It’s a couple of things. The first is reach. We started initially focused on the tech community, but very rapidly moved beyond that, and now we cover virtually all industries.
We want to make sure we continue to drive depth into each of those industries. Every time someone comes to theBoardList, we want them to find the perfect board candidate. That’s our aspiration. So we want to make sure we are talking to, and reaching, all of those qualified women who have the potential to be that candidate.
The second thing is that we want to continue to make investments in our platform technology. As we scale the community, we need to be able to effectively match candidates with the right opportunity. So we’ll continue to make investments in our ability to do that matchmaking effectively in our search algorithm.
Lastly, we want to make sure that we’re driving demand. There are many companies that already see the value in diversity and are actively looking for female candidates. But there are also many that haven’t realized this yet. We want to be talking to those companies, so we’ll need to scale the team and scale the reach to be as effective as we want to be.
DX Journal: What kind of success has theBoardList seen so far?
Shannon Gordon: We’ve grown our community to more than 5,000 people so far, 80 percent of whom are CEO or C-suite or board of directors already, so it’s a very premium talent marketplace.
We’ve also had more than 550 searches on the platform since it launched in 2016. It typically takes about nine months for somebody to find a board director, and we’re exposing additional candidates who might not have been found before.
Finally, almost half of our placements have been women who are serving on their first board. Which means that through theBoardList, they found their first board seat. That’s really exciting for us because what we want to make sure we promote mobility for women who are perhaps just below board service, but haven’t gotten a chance to serve yet.
DX Journal: How have you been growing your network up to this point?
Gordon: It has been almost entirely word of mouth which is why we’re so excited about the impact we’ve had. But we’re also excited to use the crowdfunding campaign to help us get some of the capital we need to extend that impact.
In order to identify talent that is truly ready for board service, we leverage a network of board directors — people already sitting on corporate boards. They are some really impressive individuals that we know have impressive networks of people around them. We’re aggregating those networks. So inherent in our business is a word-of-mouth phenomenon, as we ask people to nominate women from their network for board service.
We want to extend that impact, which is why we’re launching the #BoardForward campaign.
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