Picking up the pieces from a research and development misadventure

By Francis Moran and Leo Valiquette

It’s been three months since we last touched base with CommentAir, a period in which the startup has gone through a near-death experience and continues to face an uncertain prognosis.

When we last spoke with Katie Hrycak, she and sibling co-founder Luke were eagerly awaiting the outcome of their research project with Algonquin College’s Applied Research and Innovation department, in which a team of students, faculty and an external engineering consultant were working with $50,000 in government funding to develop a prototype of CommentAir’s wireless earpiece.

For Luke and Katie, having a functional prototype in hand is crucial to securing the initial stadium contracts which will provide the market validation to make investors and lenders take notice. As self-capitalized entrepreneurs who have been bootstrapping the venture around their day jobs, they saw Algonquin as a more economical means to develop their prototype without incurring the costs of contracting a professional R&D shop.

CommentAir’s original timeline with Algonquin called for a functional prototype to be ready by mid-November, 2011. However, months later, they have yet to see a prototype due to personnel issues at Algonquin.

For Katie, the delays have threatened to derail CommentAir. Since we last spoke, she has relocated to Toronto and taken a new job with a well-funded and rapidly growing startup.

“Commentair isn’t dead, but it’s time to pivot,” she said.

Katie speaks with a certain frustration of her experience with Algonquin. She says that, after the initial delivery deadline was missed last November, the lines of communication with the students and their instructor degraded. Her efforts to manage the project hands on and get regular status reports were confounded by a lack of cooperation.

“I thought that having two students and an engineer working for me, this wouldn’t happen and I just blindly followed along,” she said.

Getting answers

Determined to get answers, Katie worked her way up the org chart to Project Manager Riccardo Brun del Re and Director Mark Hoddenbagh of Algonquin’sOffice of Applied Research and Innovation. At the very least, she wanted a full technical overview of the status of the project, what remained to be done, what technological issues were encountered and what attempt was made to resolve them. In other words, everything she would need to pick up the ball and have the work continue elsewhere.

Brun del Re and Hoddenbagh admit that CommentAir’s project is one that did drift off course due to “unanticipated delays.” However, they are now working with CommentAir to fulfill Algonquin’s obligations as quickly as possible. Hoddenbagh added that his office has worked on 300 applied research projects over the past five years and only four have run into problems. In this year alone, there are about 80 projects on the go.

“Our projects are largely managed by professors and sometimes things do fall through the cracks but as soon as we were made aware of the situation we got back on track,” he said.

At the time of publication, the Hrycaks have been invited to come to the college and see a demo of their prototype. According to Hoddenbagh, the prototype is complete, but still has a software glitch related to digital tuning of the wireless signal. An expert in military communications is being brought in to resolve the problem.

“If we solve that we’ll not only have a functional prototype, we’ll have a fully working prototype,” he said.

While this will be great news for CommentAir, the experience has nonetheless left Katie wary of again entrusting such a mission-critical project to an academic institution.

The hard-won lessons

“Despite all of this happening … I don’t blame the students and I don’t blame Algonquin,” she said. “I’ve received a lot of valuable lessons concerning ‘free’ money, working with students, project management, product design, how far I can push myself, and to take failure graciously. I’m happy where I am now and feel confident this isn’t the end, but just another massive roadblock that will either bring me to a new product or an entirely new project.”

While Brun del Re and Hoddenbagh are quick to refer to the hundreds of successful applied research projects that have been completed at Algonquin in recent years, Brun del Re does emphasize that the college is first and foremost an educational institution. Given student involvement, it is difficult for projects to be on a critical path and the college does not guarantee that delivery deadlines will be met.

“One of the things we tell clients is we avoid the critical path,” he said. “The first priority for students is their academic work. We are not a contract engineering shop.”

Hoddenbagh has this advice for anyone who is working with a post-secondary institution on a research project:

“If you are not getting a response from the student or the professor, don’t stop – go up the food chain and get to the people who will give you the satisfaction you are seeking,” he said.

For her part, Katie has found the move to a new city and a different startup scene has given her fresh perspectives on getting a product to market.

“This move has allowed me to continue to grow my network since Ottawa became so stagnant,” she said. “Every time I went somewhere or talked to people, I always knew the majority of people or was starting to hear the same answers.”

At this point, it is difficult to predict where CommentAir will go next.

“It’s hard to figure out a new strategic direction when you have nothing to go off of,” Katie said. “So much time has been spent trying to find a different route but we have come up empty handed. I think here in Toronto I will find the person we need to fill our technology gap and let the project take off again, with or without Algonquin’s half-finished or fully finished prototype.”

Next time, we will see how the prototype has turned out and what steps the Hrycaks are taking to pivot CommentAir and get back on track.

This is the sixth article in a continuing series chronicling 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.

Francis Moran
Francis Moran
Francis Moran is principal of Francis Moran & Associates, a consultancy that provides business-to-business technology ventures with the strategic counsel required to make their innovations successful in a highly competitive marketplace. Francis can be reached at [email protected].

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