When Kim Kardashian and her sisters posted photos of themselves in underwear sprawling around a park this summer, most people didn’t see past the skimpy outfits. Halifax startup Dash Hudson saw the analytics beneath the underwear and observed the sisters had given Calvin Klein an Instagram engagement of 2.43 per cent above its average 0.42 per cent.
Dash Hudson also found the sisters together did better as a group than alone, and the most popular was on a picnic blanket at nighttime, followed by two black-and-white shots. Why did Dash Hudson do this? Because, since its founding in 2013, the Halifax-based company has grown from a startup team of five to 65 full-time employees selling Instagram insights to Conde Nast, Vevo, Estee Lauder and many, many more.
It’s the kind of innovative ability to create work out of thin internet that has delighted Malcolm Fraser since he took over as Innovacorp president in 2017. “It’s inspiring, because we need more of that in our economy. We find people willing to take on a challenge that is globally relevant and willing to build a world-class business out of it,” he says.
He reels off a list of Nova Scotia up-and-comers that have caught his eye: Densitas, which uses health data to provide more effective diagnoses of breast cancer; clean agri-tech company TruLeaf, which he says is “redefining what it means to grow vegetables” and Proposify, which helps people handle sales proposals and relationships with business prospects.
Fraser says a lifetime of living as an entrepreneur himself means the Innovacorp job is the first one he’s ever had. Back in 1995, he started Internet Solutions Ltd. (ISL), later called MODE, to break ground online. “We were helping companies understand what the internet is, how to use it to help grow their business,” he says. In 1997, he started a company that used internet-enabled cellphones to do wireless payments.
“The way we kept ISL a competitive business was constantly innovating and taking on state-of-the-art knowledge and delivering it to our clients as advice and services,” Fraser says. “We didn’t have the same cohesion in the province that is focused on supporting these types of businesses as important to the growth of our province and our economy. You were a little bit on your own, doing your own thing.”
Fraser is paying that hard-earned wisdom forward now, and thinks established Nova Scotia companies can do more to help startups. Specifically, he and his team at Innovacorp want local businesses to be more open to “piloting” new approaches from startups.
“I don’t mean buying, but helping the companies validate, in a commercial situation, whether their product or service works and delivers on the promise that has been proposed,” he says.
Thomas Rankin, Co-Founder and CEO of Dash Hudson, posts a different picture of launching a tech startup in Nova Scotia. He grew up in Halifax and earned his MBA at Dalhousie University. Volta helped them grow, as did Creative Destruction Labs, ACOA, Innocacorp and Build Ventures.
“I love Halifax and wanted to do something that was interesting,” he says. “I wanted to sell out into the world, not thinking about things too locally. Halifax is a place where really smart people like Laura and Jenny are living and want to do interesting things.”
That would be Jenny Pratt, his Director of Customer Success and Laura Park, Director of Demand Generation. Like Rankin, both are Maritimers who got their MBAs from Dalhousie. Pratt says their clients often assume they’re based in New York and it’s only once the relationship is established that they learn the truth. “They always have lots of questions about Halifax,” Pratt says. “It’s always a fun icebreaker for those customers that are curious.”
Park says the young company stays fresh by hiring co-op students from programs at Dalhousie, Acadia University and the University of Ottawa.
Dash Hudson says Halifax has played a big role in getting the business up and running. The only thing missing, they say, is a little more celebration.
“I think awareness that there are real and interesting opportunities for people here in Halifax,” Rankin says. “I think the community is super-supportive here.
The government programs are amazing. I think we get more here than most places do, so there’s no excuse.”
Mo AlGermozi is another raised-in-Nova Scotia success. He started Graphite Innovation and Technologies (GIT) with Marcel Gaier in 2017. GIT produces a material called graphene nanoplatelets. “At first, we didn’t know what to do with this powder, but our engineering backgrounds came together and we found a way to make a coating,” AlGermozi says.
That was two-and-a-half years ago and they’ve turned the powder into a paint to protect marine vessels and structures against corrosion and fouling. “We’re looking to take over most of the paint industry in this region in the next couple of years.”
AlGermozi says he wanted to stay in Nova Scotia and was able to do so with the help of the entrepreneurial community here, as well as government and university support. “Just being in Halifax is very beneficial for any company that is ocean-related,” he says. “The market here, the entrepreneurship community and ecosystem — it kind of promoted us to work here.”
Launch Dal helped GIT get started and Creative Destruction Labs helped them reach the next level. AlGermozi spotted one difficult gap for startups, however: many programs help founders hire staff, but few help them hire themselves. That means he had to work full time in his family’s solar business while also launching GIT. “There aren’t many programs that help founders get somewhere with their personal lives,” he says. “You can hire people, but you don’t have programs that are solely for founders.”
He thinks finding a way to let funders work full time on their startups could benefit everyone. “We got help in every way possible. This is just from a personal experience,” he adds.
Michael J. Mangano brings a different perspective. Before coming to Halifax, he was CEO of ReShape Medical in the U.S. and earlier president of Australian-based Sirtex Medical. He’d only been president and CEO of Nova Scotia’s ABK Biomedical for three weeks when he spoke to Business Voice, and he admits he’d barely heard of Halifax before moving to ABK. He was surprised to find the local community taking such an interest in business success. “I love it, I think it’s fantastic. I underestimated it.”
ABK was founded by Dalhousie graduates Bob Abraham, Daniel Boyd and Sharon Kehoe. ABK was created to commercialize the novel technology they developed at Dalhousie. They got support from ACOA, BioNova and other avenues.
Mangano sat on ABK Biomedical’s board for a year before starting as CEO, and in that time saw how the university-rich environment has helped the company grow. “We’re a science-based company in health care and in med-tech, so to have Dalhousie and the [other] universities there is huge. Having worked in Boston as well, having the MITs and Harvards, is a great advantage for companies in our industries,” he says.
“From a local perspective, how the Halifax government and some of the business environment they’ve created for us and the support they’ve given to the company, has really helped the company through some tough times, helped them survive and helped them persevere. The company would not be here without the local support.”
Mangano thinks Halifax can learn from Boston, where an innovative hub snowballs clusters of fresh businesses, talented workers and happy clients. Mangano was reached waiting for a flight in Boston, and ABK says that’s one area Halifax could improve: more direct flights to major U.S. cities.
His priorities with ABK are to see them finish development of two key technologies and either take them commercial or be acquired. He expects that to happen over the next couple of years.
“We’re very excited. ABK has been around for a little while. They’ve spent a lot of time doing great science, and that science has produced great patents and a great technology platform … we’re going to round those off into products that are really going to help patients and doctors,” he says. “The whole company is really excited right now.”
And perhaps everyone can learn from keeping up with the Kardashians. Dash Hudson reports the Calvin Klein campaign did best when it showed all the sisters together: “That clearly indicates that while they’re individually influential, they’re a powerhouse when together.”
Join us: Malcolm Fraser and three entrepreneurs speak at our 2018 Fall Dinner. Thursday, Nov. 1 at the Halifax Convention Centre. For details, visit www.halifaxchamber.com/events.
A perfect match
For the past several years, the Halifax Chamber’s Fall Dinner presenting sponsor, Stewart McKelvey, has shared their speaking opportunity with a charity of their choice. This year, they chose the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which was actually perfect timing as the Conservancy was working on opening Halifax’s first Wilderness Park.
The future of Halifax is increasingly connected to the innovation economy and as always, the Chamber is working to attract and retain talent. Halifax has a unique offering — the ocean. We have easy access to lakes and forests and now, we have an amazing Wilderness Park with breath-taking views, right in the heart of Halifax.
So, when choosing the perfect spot to highlight some of the companies that are helping bring innovation and numerous other economic and social benefits to our city, the Wilderness Park was the obvious choice.