By Francis Moran and Leo Valiquette

Siblings Katie and Luke Hrycak are in that category of entrepreneurs who could be called reluctant innovators. They found themselves in the midst of a problem they felt compelled to solve.

That problem was the quality of the experience in attending a major sporting event live versus watching it on television. They both found themselves dissatisfied with the experience of attending NHL games and UFC matches. Why? Because fans at the event can’t hear the live commentary.

“The question became ‘Why don’t fans have the commentary at the game?’” said Luke. “Can’t we combine both the audio and visual experience of sports? We believed that fans want and need a special feature that will enhance whichever sport they enjoy most.”

But neither Katie nor Luke had an engineering background. They were starting at zero in terms of having a product design, startup capital and any kind of market validation beyond their own fan experience and that of their friends.

In this first post, we will explore how CommentAir has since progressed to having a prototype earpiece in development, a business model that relies on more than just the wow factor of the technology and the ear of the major sports venues that have the power to make or break the startup. Future posts will chronicle CommentAir’s ongoing efforts to bring its technology to market on a shoestring budget and secure its initial customers.

Doing the homework

Katie and Luke began their adventure by educating themselves on telecommunications and wireless technologies. While regular visits to the library provided the necessary base of knowledge, it was in levering the power of their networks that provided the guidance they needed most.

During her last year at Carleton University, Katie taught English to Chinese business students. This connected her with Li Zhu, a PhD candidate in wireless communications, who became an invaluable resource. He introduced her to Dr. F. Richard Yu in the department of systems and computer engineering, who helped develop the initial proof of concept.

The siblings then engaged with Carleton’s Lead to Win program in the fall of 2010 with associate professor Tony Bailetti, a well-known booster of student entrepreneurship in the Ottawa area.

“Lead to Win is an intense six-day ‘business boot camp’ to see if you actually have something viable, with many cuts along the way,” Katie said. “In the end you have a solid network of extremely intelligent individuals who all went through the same gruelling process as you, and the support that comes with that.”

The siblings also engaged with various other events and organizations between Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal, including Third Tuesday, Social Media Breakfast, Fresh Foundersthe C100, the International Startup Festival and Sprouter, to absorb all the insight and perspective they could from other entrepreneurs and stakeholders in the commercialization ecosystem.

“I know the term ‘hustle’ gets thrown around a lot, but I have attempted to make it to every event in the city and talk to everyone possible about CommentAir,” Katie said. “Through this interaction we have developed and changed our business model, and ended up with a lot of fans along the way.”

Developing the concept

After the siblings completed Lead to Win, Bailetti introduced them to Ed Strange, professor/primary investigator, special projects, at Algonquin College, who embraced the concept and threw the college’s resources behind developing the second prototype. They have also added an industrial designer to their team. At this point, the prototype is a couple months away from being ready for small-scale testing in a stadium to get the necessary user feedback and data to continue with development.

With CommentAir, the goal is to create an earpiece which fans can purchase inside the venue and either keep or drop into a recycling receptacle on their way out as they would 3D glasses at the movie theatre. The earpiece taps into the feed from the commentator booth inside the venue.

Katie and Luke are working to create much more than just a passive wireless device which can easily be duplicated. CommentAir will feature programmable technology that will enable fan-specific advertising and marketing.

“It provides a way for stadiums and teams to brand, as well as get in touch with the customers who they previously had no direct contact with,” Luke said. “Multiple revenue streams from advertising, merchandising, and branding will boost our profits, as well as the stadium’s.”

Getting in the door

But developing the concept is one thing, getting in the door with potential customers is quite another. This is particular true in the sports industry, which the siblings have found is quite tight knit.

“Your product can have all the secret sauce in the world but if they don’t like you then your product or service will never reach the market,” Katie said.

To date, CommentAir has engaged in talks with a number of major sports venues to validate the technology and their business model. They have carried out customer surveys with fans inside stadiums to test their assumptions and hope to run trials with fans using the prototype within a few months.

“We are setting up talks with a variety of stadiums to run market tests and get some legitimate measurable data,” Luke said. “Without data to back you up, anyone of influence in any industry won’t care about you. So, that is the next step and it’s a very exciting one as we continue to push forward.”

Burning the candle at both ends

They challenge for both Katie and Luke is that all of this effort has been shoe-horned around a day job as they attempt to bootstrap their way to market. Business meetings after 9 p.m., letting the wardrobe grow threadbare and valuing every dollar of friends and family financing is par for the course.

“I think the most difficult aspect about bootstrapping is resisting the urge to job search for something that will pay a ton, but also take up all of your time,” Katie said. “People get accustomed to certain lifestyles and it is very difficult to let that go. You have to commit to a job that is less challenging for less money, but ultimately allows you more time for your own venture.”

In our next post on CommentAir, we will talk more about the fine art of hustling.

This is the first article in a continuing monthly series that will chronicle the growth path of CommentAir Technologies, a startup based in Ottawa, Canada. CommentAir is developing a wireless technology fans can use at sports venues to receive the same real-time commentary as fans watching from their televisions, a wireless technology that also creates a platform for targeted consumer interaction. We invite your feedback.

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