Appetite for innovation

Through innovation, entrepreneurial spirit and a lot of persistence, U of S grads are proving that there actually is an app for that. Here are a few stories of apps our alumni (including our own Computer Science alum) who have had a hand in developing, marketing and selling over the past couple years.

From farm to phone to fork

Kim Keller

When Kim Keller met with some other U of S alumni for drinks one evening, little did she know the entrepreneurial adventure it would lead to. Following graduation, Keller (BA’06), who majored in Native studies, started working at SGI. That career path took a sharp turn in 2011 when, upon returning from helping with harvest at her family farm in Gronlid, Sask., north of Melfort, she met her future business partner. Himanshu Singh, who was working on an MBA and knew next to nothing of farming, asked “a ton of questions,” Keller recalled. Fatefully, he asked her how farmers keep track of what’s in their bins.

Keller explained it was all written down by hand on “a white sheet of paper on the kitchen island and all the bins are drawn out as circles and every time you change whatever’s in the bin you’ve got to run into the house, erase it and rewrite it. And he goes, ‘Oh my God, you’ve got to be kidding me.’” Singh, who had already started a small software development company, asked her if she wanted to build an app for her farm, and she readily agreed. Neither one of them were software developers.They came up with Farm At Hand, which enables farmers to digitally store all data related to their operation and call it up on their mobile device—all of their equipment, part numbers, what they had seeded, what they had in their bins, what they had contracted and delivered.“It brought their entire farm into one place,” said Keller. “They didn’t have to be at the house or at the shop when they conducted their farm business. They could pull it up on their phone and it would be right there.”

After receiving positive feedback from family and friends, the pair put Farm At Hand on the App Store. Within two months they got 500 downloads. Then came a call from a grain marketing consultant, asking how he could use the app to communicate with his farmer clients. “He said, ‘I need to know what’s in their bins all the time. They already share that information with me. If you could make it easier through your platform, like, how do we do this?’” Keller recounted. “We thought, ‘holy smokes,’ we actually have a really big opportunity here.” Their plan was to provide the app to farmers for free, and charge agronomists and market consultants for access. A vital feature was to enable farmers to share their information, while also retaining ownership and control of it, Keller explained.

“Everyone thought we were crazy that we’d built an app and we were giving it to farmers for free,” Keller said, explaining that she and her partner didn’t feel farmers ought to pay for a better way to manage, when a wellmanaged farm benefits the entire agricultural industry.Their venture took a huge leap forward in 2013 when they got an invitation from GrowLab, a startup business accelerator program in Vancouver. For Keller, it meant spending a year without a paycheque. The payback was equity investment from GrowLab, participation in a three-month “boot camp” and the chance to learn from others who had built successful companies.

Keller said in particular they learned to work faster, since in technology “things happen fast.” At the end of the three months, the pair stayed in Vancouver and kept building their company. They raised investment money from contacts in the prairie agriculture industry, $1.6 million in total, Keller said. On the surface, the app looked simple to build, but Keller said it was actually quite complicated because of the sheer volume of information collected. It also had to have offline capabilities, enabling farmers to access it even when out of cellular range. Keller said she and Singh were also mindful of the trust farmers placed in them, and the responsibility that went with it “especially when agriculture is based on relationships … and we took that incredibly seriously.”

At the end of 2015, one of their early investors, Winnipeg-based FarmLink Marketing Solutions, bought Farm At Hand. The following spring, Keller and her fellow founder stepped away from the company. Keller said she is happy with the way it turned out. “I learned more in four years building this than I think I could have ever learned in a lifetime, and that is priceless.” She moved back to the family farm, which she now operates full-time with her parents and brother. But don’t count her out of future entrepreneurial ventures—she said she and her former partner are “always talking about new ideas … I would build another company with him in a heartbeat.”

Paperless patients

It was back in 2014, during a health hackathon—an event bringing together health-care professionals, entrepreneurs, designers and developers in order to create solutions to health-care problems—that Dan Merino (MSc’12) and Ryan Sander (BSc’01, MD’05) discovered they had something similar in mind. That was, a way to electronically gather information from a patient and transmit it to a physician before their face-to-face clinic visit. Merino was thinking in terms of a self-reporting tool for patients, while Sander had an information-gathering tool for physicians in mind. The latter is what took shape, Patient Prep by TrueVation Technologies Inc., a venture that Nick Rutherford (BSc’15) and Jeff Wandzura (BSP’13) also joined. “One of the very cool things is that Jeff actually was a judge in the hackathon competition,” Merino recounted. “That’s how I met Jeff there. And because of his diverse background we wanted to have him on the team.”

With Patient Prep, a patient fills in an online questionnaire, either at home or on an iPad in the clinic office before seeing the physician. There are more than 100 questionnaires available, suited to different situations, and physicians can also customize them or create new ones to fit their practice. The usual starting point is to have the patient select a symptom, condition or reason for the visit. Further questions follow, with that information transmitted to the patient’s electronic medical record (EMR). It not only helps streamline the doctor-patient visit, it also helps ensure that all the questions that should be asked are asked—an especially important consideration in a time-constrained health-care system, Wandzura noted. Better patient care decisions is the end goal, a goal Sander had initially tried to reach using paper questionnaires in his clinic. “Rather than having a hundred different sheets of paper based on the broad type of conditions that family physicians see, using an iPad or other type of tablet really lends itself well to the problem they were trying to solve, to gather that relevant information that would drive the clinical decision-making process,” Wandzura said.

Merino said one of the most arduous tasks in developing the software was to make sure it complies with all of the regulations under Saskatchewan’s Health Information Protection Act. To make sure everything was extremely secure, “we developed our own specific system to be able to handle and encrypt all the information end to end,” he explained. Another hurdle was convincing physicians and clinic managers to adopt this new technology, Wandzura said. Even getting their attention was tough, he recounted, since they had to compete with drug company sales reps with much bigger marketing budgets. TrueVation cold-called and networked through LinkedIn. It also forged a relationship with the Canadian company QHR Technologies, which describes itself as the largest single EMR platform in Canada.

A big break came when Sander got the chance to demonstrate Patient Prep to tech-savvy physicians at a conference in Mexico. Initial sales bolstered by word of mouth carried the venture forward. And then, they took part in BluePrint Health, a business accelerator program in New York City where they saw “an intersection of health care and technology, and how you can make a meaningful impact if you do innovate and find a meaningful avenue for change,” Wandzura said. He also credits the U of S for the way it encourages constant interaction among students from multiple disciplines, allowing for cross-functional teams to develop and really innovate. “I think they do a great job of making sure that the right people are at the table and allowing for those organic natural interactions to happen that allows companies to form like this,” he said.

On the money side, winning the $50,000 grand prize in the Tech Venture Challenge—an annual business startup competition organized by the U of S Industry Liaison Office—helped get them going. Another $10,000 came from winning first prize in the i3 Idea Challenge, a business idea competition for early stage startups, put on by the university’s Wilson Centre. The group has since sold the Canadian rights to QHR Technologies, which in turn was recently bought by the Loblaw grocery and drugstore chain. Wandzura and Merino expect by press time that Patient Prep will have launched within the QHR network, bringing the technology to more than 7,500 physicians.

A shift in scheduling

One would not necessarily expect a regional health authority to turn to a mobile game developer for help in scheduling staff, but that’s what the Saskatoon Health Region (SHR) did. Noodlecake Studios, known for fun-and-game creations such as Super Stickman Golf, got down to serious business with its subsidiary NC Consulting, formed to help clients develop software and mobile apps. A pitch on the pitch helped bring the two together.

Tom Ross, Erik Frederiksen and Kyle Drever of NC Consulting

Erik Frederiksen (BEng’09, BSc’12) was a programmer at Noodlecake when he got an email from fellow U of S alumnus and soccer pal Kweku Johnson (BA’06), a manager of staff scheduling at SHR. Initially, NC Consulting built a system for SHR to keep track of interpretations of collective bargaining agreements, ensuring the same question would get the same answer no matter who it came from. An essential services database followed. Then a chat about problems in the scheduling department led to the creation of NC Consulting’s flagship product, NC Smart Call.

Up to that point, backfilling staff who called in sick was a slow and labour-intensive task. An average of 200 SHR staff call in sick every day, said Tom Ross, CEO of NC Consulting. Every time it happened, schedulers would pull up a list of employees who could be called to fill that shift, based on their skill sets and union seniority. They would then go down the list, manually dialling phone numbers to contact people one-to-one. At times, it would take close to a whole shift to find a replacement. “A person doesn’t need to be dialling a phone number, a person doesn’t need to be leaving a message. Software can do that. And that’s what we’ve been able to accomplish here with NC Smart Call,” said Ross (BComm’06).

It went live in June 2014. Now, NC gets an upload of unfilled shifts from the health region’s scheduling system. It then sends out notifications through an interactive voice recorder phone call or through text message. Employees can not only control how they wish to be notified, they can also set the parameters. For example, if they don’t want to work Mondays they will never be offered backfill shifts on that day. If more than one employee responds, schedulers can figure out which is the best choice. For example, one may incur overtime while another would not.

NC Smart Call has brought multiple benefits to SHR. Scheduling-related grievances have dropped by more than 80 per cent, Ross said. Managers, schedulers and employees all have access to an audit trail, “so if (employees) think that they might have been missed for a shift they can go back and take a look and see for themselves if they were notified or if they weren’t, and the reasons why,” he explained.

He also said the number of schedulers being deployed to deal with 200 daily absences has been reduced from 16 to four, and the remainder can now focus on scheduling vacation and other types of leave several months into the future. As well, the software has resulted in an estimated savings of $500,000 annually in operational costs. NC Smart Call has turned out to be a great opportunity for Noodlecake, said Frederiksen, now chief technical officer with the consulting subsidiary.

In the business of game development, a company typically invests money until it starts to run out, and then it’s under pressure to release what it has no matter how far along the product has come. The hope is that, at the end of it, someone wants what the company has built, Frederiksen explained. NC Consulting was set up to bring in more revenue, allowing for a longer development cycle, he continued. Unexpectedly, it led to something far more. While SHR put up the initial money to develop NC Smart Call, the health region allowed the company to assume ownership and build on it. “We’ve been very aware from the start that we’re solving real problems, and that people want what we have, they’re crying out for it, they need it,” Frederiksen said. “So I think it’s been pretty safe because we know that the work that we do is worth it, and we’ve got clients that are willing to pay for it.”

While other industries also have computerized scheduling systems, software developers have been reluctant to pursue the health-care market, Ross said. Through its partnership with SHR, NC Consulting was able to gain an insider’s perspective, and develop a communications tool that complies with the stringent requirements of collective agreements, he continued. That meant having to learn not only what’s written on paper, but how the agreements are interpreted and implemented. “We very quickly had to become domain experts in the workings of a massive health-care organization,” Frederiksen explained. A further component called Smart Leave, which automates the vacation request process, has also been added. “When you look at the full suite, there is no one else out there that is doing it,” Ross said. Cypress Health Region in Swift Current and Northern Health in British Columbia have signed on as clients, he said. He is now marketing NC Smart Call to health regions across the country and beyond

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