If you walked in to the Salesforce Wear keynote at Dreamforce, the annual mega-conference hosted by cloud software vendor Salesforce.com, you might think that you were in Toronto instead of host city San Francisco – given the lineup of speakers, it would be an understandable mistake.
Daniel Debow, now the senior vice-president of emerging technologies at Salesforce.com, opened the session. Formerly the co-founder of Toronto-based Rypple (acquired by Salesforce in late 2011), Debow went on to introduce a series of guests with a distinctly Canadian connection. Waterloo, Ont.-based Thalmic Labs CEO Stephen Lake took the stage to talk about how his muscle-sensing arm band can be used to control smart glasses worn by field workers. Chris O’neil, the former head of Google Canada and now the head of Google Glass, talked about how Google is trying to “enable the hands-on worker” with its wearable device.
Talking about wearables, the new category of device that seems to be taking off like a rocket, Debow displays some entrepreneurial exuberance.
“We see this consumer trend happening really fast and we don’t want to wait, we want to be ahead of this,” he says. “Of course wearables is early stage. I don’t want to oversell this, but it’s growing at five times the pace of smartphones.”
In an interview conducted while Debow walked between his appointments in the Moscone Centre, he made clear Salesforce Wear isn’t a division siloed off from the rest of the company, but an initiative the entire company is participating in. The effort that launched last June is all about making it easier for wearable device makers to support the Salesforce1 platform. It released an API kit alongside six “starter apps” that were to serve as programming examples for developers interested in wearables. That included three apps for devices with Canadian connections – the Nymi Band, Myo, and Pebble (company founder Eric Migicovsky is a University of Waterloo graduate).
Meanwhile Salesforce is putting its money where its mouth is. Salesforce Ventures, the investing wing of the business, participated in a $14 million Series A round for Nymi Inc. in September 2014. Recently renamed from Bionym, the Toronto-based company wants to create a platform for persistent identity.
“They’ve been huge supporters. They are one of those companies that are always getting involved in pioneering new platforms,” Nymi president Andrew D’Souza says.
Both Debow and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff are personally invested in Thalmic Labs, according to Stephen Lake, the firm’s CEO.
The partnership has benefitted Thalmic Labs because of Salesforce’s reach into its large customer base of enterprises, he says. Now those companies can use the Salesforce platform to deploy Myo into an application that helps their workers.
Being interviewed at his demo booth right next to Nymi’s booth, Lake has also noticed the Canadian connections to wearables at Salesforce.
“For whatever reason there’s all these wearables companies popping up in Toronto or Waterloo,” he says. “Some investors have termed the area wearables alley.”
Debow has his own thesis to explain the phenomenon. He points to the work of Steve Mann, a computer engineering professor at the University of Toronto known for wearing futuristic-looking smart glasses or EEG-reading head gear. Mann’s lab has spun out at least a couple of wearables startups in Toronto, including InteraXon. Then in Waterloo, you have the legacy of BlackBerry, which has spent the last couple of years shedding employees.
“Throw a rock at someone in any one of those companies and you’re going to hit someone who used to work at RIM,” Debow says. “Because they’re the people that know how to do large scale manufacturing.”
When asked if his selection of companies to work with is influenced a bit by patriotism, Debow smiles. “As much as I’d love to say it, we’re just picking the best hardware with the most innovative solutions. They just happen to be Canadian,” he says.
It wouldn’t have surprised anyone if Debow eventually moved on from Salesforce in the months after Rypple was acquired. The founder of Workbrain before Rypple, Debow is well-known in Toronto’s entrepreneurial community and many might consider him a startup CEO – someone that comes in to boot up a concept, turn it into a profitable business, make an exit, and then bow out and move on to the next project.
It’s a commonplace scenario and Salesforce has seen it happen with other acquisitions. In 2013, several Radian6 team members left the company to found a new startup in New Brunswick, Introhive. (Though CEO Marcel Lebrun remains at Salesforce in a role as general manager of the Radian6 division).
By having Debow tasked with an initiative focused on turning an emerging trend into a business eco-system, Salesforce may have found a way to feed his entrepreneurial appetite while keeping him on board.
“Whats the risk of not being the innovator in a space that’s incredibly important,” Debow says. “We don’t focus on the risk of what could go wrong, but of not being there first.”
At Dreamforce 2015, Debow expects to showcase the results of pilot studies of customers that have put Salesforce Wear to work. You might just expect there to be a Canadian connection to that story.