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Training university students to become the core employees of a company developed by their professor is at the heart of a new model for bringing academic research and entrepreneurship together. Hossein Rahnama, research director of Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone in Toronto, and a computer science instructor, is spearheading the effort as chief executive officer of Flybits Inc.
Hossein Rahnama, research director of
Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone
The company’s software provides customized data for people in public places. For instance, Flybits deployed its technology for research and development in the Paris Metro in 2010, and included a system to assist low-vision or blind passengers. The system is now in use on Line 14 in Paris.
Rahnama likens the company to a kind of reverse Google—the information goes in search of individuals. In an airport or hospital, it can provide data to help visitors or patients find their way to escalators, washrooms, doctors or pharmacies. Flybits has 17 employees based in Toronto, and intends to expand soon in London.
Rahnama, 32, started his research as a master’s student working on a mobile dating system that could connect people in, say, a bar or a conference, by their preferences and similarities.
Could you describe what your software does?
Think about buildings, museums, public settings. A farm, a university. If you think about how you use your mobile phone now, you go to a centralized repository like an app store and you download tens or hundreds of apps and keep them with you all the time. Our idea is that you will get very specific information based on your context and your needs, so you don’t have to search for data any more. Apps will show up based on your preferences and context. The general research statement was—how do you build applications that can become a transit assistant when you go to a train station, but when you use that app at an airport, it becomes an airport assistant, or if you go to a foreign airport, it becomes your assistant there, so it adapts itself in a context-aware way?
To what extent were you thinking of business?
What I wanted to do always was to see how you can be entrepreneurial and stay in academia and prove it’s no longer a paradox. I was looking to see how you can build models to turn a research group into a company, grow it, hand it off to students and then work on the next one. Flybits is an example of how a company can co-exist with a university and create some sort of a reciprocal advantage between the two entities. Ryerson owns about 10% of the company. MaRS Innovation [a local incubator that provided seed money] and myself also own shares, and a portion of the shares are allocated for the students as options.
Tell me more about the students.
While they were studying, I was testing them to make sure they were going to be the core team. There’s a great relationship between all of them because they all grew within the same system starting from second year computer science. We needed a very strong ecosystem for growth, so DMZ [Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone, an innovation hub] was crucial to connect us to the industry.
What is your strategy for going global?
Unlike other companies that, as soon as they grow, go to Silicon Valley, I decided to travel east—to position the company in Toronto and go after the European market, because of the adoption rates of mobile services in Europe. We’re going after five major sectors in North America and Europe. Those are travel and transport, public safety, manufacturing, retail and mobile health. In all of these five verticals, we have one or two partners. So we’ll hand off the technology to one of our channel partners to grow it, whether in a geographical area or within a particular sector.
How do you do this and be a professor at the same time?
Ryerson is extremely supportive. They allow me to spend some of my time to grow this initiative. On my teaching assignments, I allocate 40% of the course to industry projects, usually sponsored by one of our industry partners. Flybits sponsored two groups last year to work on solutions around context-aware computing. We had a large retailer that sponsored the rest of the course. My interest is to be able to build new experiential learning models at the university, and build models around Flybits that other entrepreneurs and researchers can follow, and grow their company from a university ecosystem.
What is the lesson for other Canadian universities in supporting the commercialization of ICT research?
If you give the intellectual property to the entrepreneur, the impact that the technology will make is much greater than if a university holds on to the IP. The other thing that universities can learn is to de-silo their departments. So instead of people walking into an engineering or business building, bring them all together under one umbrella. It doesn’t matter if they’re undergrads, PhD, post-doc, masters; if they are all working in a collaborative open environment, the impact in terms of their research getting commercialized is going to be way more visible. A business student can identify the potential in a computer science project and they can form a team. In a classical university setting, you don’t see that because intentionally you silo people.
One thing we’re doing at Flybits and at Ryerson is to see how we can generate graduates who are technical experts and great researchers, but who can also communicate with the business community to move that research and make it relevant for the industry.
What are the revenues of the company right now?
I cannot disclose the data, but we’re cash-flow positive and we are adding more people to our European office [in London], probably two more engineers and a business developer. We want to create a Canadian gateway for other tech start-ups to find their way to London because there is a lot of potential to work together and compete together against Silicon Valley.
This interview has been edited and condensed.