Written by Deena Douara
For the majority of us, the automobile’s inner workings and temperament are unknowable mysteries. Breakdowns are unpredictable and costly, and repairs invisible and frustrating.
So car owners will want to take note of Pitstop, whose founder is bringing service up to speed with manufacturing — moving away from costly and inconvenient repairs, to predictive maintenance.
Shiva Bhardwaj grew up around his father’s repair shop, spending his free time in and around mechanics, disassembling parts and lending a hand.
“It was the perfect lab or playground,” he says.
He began to notice a significant gap between the technology in cars and the training received by mechanics, which he explains results from inadequate communication between manufacturers and dealerships.
He could see there was a need to leverage vehicles’ ever-evolving electronic systems, but he wasn’t going to learn that on the floor.
Through his studies in Waterloo’s engineering program, and co-ops with top electronics firms, Bhardwaj was the ideal candidate to, as he says, transform the service industry.
The innovation consists of two parts: a telematic device that can plug into any post-1996 car’s onboard diagnostics (OBD) port. The second component is the app, through which an array of valuable information is shared, including data on how parts are degrading, manufacturer recalls and services that are due. The business actually evolved from an algorithm predicting when coolant would leak, which could ultimately lead to engine failure.
The result is a “proactive virtual technician” that communicates car failures and maintenance needs to the driver and, upon request, to a driver’s service centre.
Bhardwaj understands how mistrust can develop between customers and mechanics and says that Pitstop removes some of that subjectivity, basing communication on what’s read from the car’s “brain,” and what’s predicted based on driving habits and big data gleaned through Pitstop and third parties.
While machine learning can be taught in school, learning how to run a business “is one of those things you have to experience.”
“It’s super easy to build something; but then you get to the cost problem,” he says. He credits Communitech and Velocity for helping him to “build technology for many people, rather than just building something that works.”
“The Canadian tech ecosystem definitely helps,” he adds.
“There’s a lot of value in Toronto,” says Bhardwaj, explaining that, compared to Silicon Valley, investors here seek and create space for robust sustainable businesses, rather than just lucrative unicorns.
He laments that “all these amazing engineers in Waterloo,” often end up in Silicon Valley, but credits hubs like Communitech that allow startups to easily communicate with and bolster each other.
“Without that environment, it would be literally impossible.”
Key to that support is introductions. “At the beginning, it’s all about the network,” Bhardwaj explains. “If you don’t have the right network, it’s hard to do anything, no matter how smart you are.”
Pitstop’s own network quickly expanded to include MaRS and its Investment Accelerator Fund, Extreme Venture Partners, the Research Innovation Commercialization Centre and the Vaughan Business Enterprise Centre.
Much of Bhardwaj’s confidence in building his business was also gleaned through years of observation. Watching how conflicts between clients and staff at his father’s shop got resolved. Watching how customer loyalty developed. Watching his dad try to raise capital, manage expenses, make sales and keep a team motivated.
“He created an environment where people want to learn, where they’re willing to push themselves and make mistakes in order to learn, but not make same mistake more than once.” He notes how his father’s mechanics often eventually open their own shops or become master technicians with his guidance. “That’s something I want to cultivate in my own company,” says Bhardwaj.
“Pushing hard to learn and grow and be better. Being better is the key.”