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20/20 Armor brings Street Fighter dreams to life with innovative tech

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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.

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.”

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Leadership

Interview: Shannon Pestun, Women’s Entrepreneurship at ATB Financial

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“The female economy and understanding its power is a very important conversation no matter who you are.”

Shannon Pestun, Director of Women’s Entrepreneurship at ATB Financial brings the notion of gender intelligence to the conversation of economic transformation, specifically on the entrepreneurial potential of women in Calgary.

Having noticed the imbalance in opportunities given to male and female entrepreneurs, Shannon became a champion for women to reach their full economic potential, never shying away from asking tough questions in the company of male business leaders.

Shannon also shines a light on areas outside of technology that she calls “the main street,” and the importance of shaping a clear way forward for new entrepreneurs and small businesses so they can be a part of Calgary’s economic transformation.

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Culture

Digital transformation for a more sustainable world

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Sure, they’re confronted with business challenges every day, but the world’s top business leaders have a significant part to play in solving the world’s challenges — economic, technological, societal and educational. 

As Christian Klein, Co-Chief Executive Officer of enterprise application software company SAP succinctly puts it in a blog post for the World Economic Forum, “Companies today don’t just prosper based on their financial performance, but on how they make a positive contribution to society.”

Ahead of the World Economic Forum’s 2020 meeting — taking place Jan. 21-24 — Klein outlined how digital transformation can be a force for good in the world, and be a way to create a more sustainable world.

Critical minds, he starts, might wonder why companies would take the time, considering their primary goal of making money. “These critics should not underestimate the power of the consumer,” he argues, explaining that while customers do consider their decisions based on products or price, but the company’s values. Employees act in a similar way, choosing to join companies “that embrace their responsibility towards humankind and the planet.”

Almost every person on the planet knows that technology plays a profound effect on just about every facet of our lives, from jobs to wages to health to security. Meanwhile the need for business to undergo digital transformation, simply to stay relevant and alive, is hardly big news anymore. 

“But transformation is also about a change of culture, which requires a radical rethinking of people, processes and technologies,” Klein writes. Included in this are “tectonic changes” that go into a company, and how employees interact within the whole system. 

“And just like a business cannot digitally transform unless – or until – its people transform, I believe that, while they come with their own environmental costs, technology and digitalization can play a crucial role in developing solutions for a better tomorrow.” 

Some examples? Blockchain’s potential to add traceability (and by extension, trust) to food supply chains. The empowerment of people with disabilities through AI, which, when properly applied, can reduce bias in the hiring process. Smart cities, powered by everything from sensors to open data to better supply services and protect resources.

[Related reading: How 5G and the Internet of Things can create a winning business]

“There is no doubt that technology and digital transformation break down silos and create transparent and unified data for objective decision-making,” Klein writes. “But even more so: they change how companies manage their relationships with the wider world.”

Creating a sustainable world requires us to look beyond corporate borders, toward the communities around us, creating an ecosystem of trust “that allows us to exchange ideas to create a safety net for the most marginalized.”

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Investment

Four steps for CIOs undertaking DX

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CIOs are in a unique spot in any organization’s digital transformation (DX) journey. 

With one foot on the business side and the other firmly planted as a technical leader, CIOs are a vital piece of the puzzle, especially with the many challenges and constant management required on the road to digital.

As Gustavo Gomez, founder and CEO of intelligent process automation software provider Bizagi, explained in The Enterprisers Project, “Only CIOs have the broad perspective to ensure that transformation deployments can reach both deeply into organizational silos and broadly across lines of business.”

How can CIOs put their organizations onto a digital transformation path that’ll lead to a better likelihood of success? Gomez outlines four essential steps:

1.) Embrace different perspectives

CIOs aren’t always the catalyst for digital transformation. Frequently, leadership from many parts of the organization will “have a “wouldn’t it be great if we could…” epiphany,” as Gomez explains.

As the bridge between technical implementation and business objectives, the CIO needs to recognize and address this divergence before it undercuts the actual transformation,” he says.

How? Clear and steady communication between the transformation teams and stakeholders, with a goal of understanding what transformation will accomplish.

2.) Focus on incremental wins

According to Gomez, organizations will encounter two competing narratives: “Start immediately on disparate pilot programs (risking control and scalability) or meticulously craft the perfect comprehensive transformation (risking months or years of delay with limited return).

A clear, goals-driven strategy is key, but feasible milestones that are regularly achieved can go a long way in showing steady results to stakeholders or the board. 

3.) Win hearts and minds

Organizational change of any kind is often met with resistance, and it’s no different when it comes to digital transformation. But given that DX is a key part of ensuring long-term success, Gomez explains, employee participation is “a matter of survival.”

The trick to getting everyone on board? Departmental management. By on-board these leaders to the larger vision, their role within it, and bigger-picture business objectives, “CIOs can help evangelize the change, ensuring it trickles down to all levels of the organization.”

4.) Identify a scalable solution

As Gomez explains, it’s one thing to complete a successful trial transformation in a small team, and another to turn around and roll that change out across an entire organization. 

He identifies two considerations: First, it’s possible to achieve micro-scale DX wins that end up siloed in a single part of the organization. Two, transformations that work in controlled, smaller settings but fail when scaled up for broad release.

A key indicator can be a heavy reliance on IT involvement in modifications,” says Gomez. “Digital transformation must evolve to meet changing business realities, and anything that leans too heavily on IT for those adjustments will quickly stall.

All digital transformation journeys have hurdles, but through the unique position of CIOs as both business and technology leaders, success is more likely when they actively work to effectively hear from all sides, embrace smaller-yet-frequent milestones, win over stakeholders, and ensure that the DX journey goes where it’s needed. 

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