By Andrew Seale
James Wu rarely dips into Toronto’s labyrinthine PATH network but when it comes to explaining the problem InnerSpace, a indoor mapping and navigation system startup, is trying to solve, the intimidating underground walkway makes perfect fodder.
“(Torontonians) get it immediately,” says the co-founder and co-CEO. “If we were in a city that didn't have this massive underground people were afraid to enter, maybe it wouldn’t resonate quite so well.”
But grievances amongst the uninitiated PATH navigators aside, the underground pathway wasn’t the spatial inspiration behind the automation platform. It was a missed connection between Wu and InnerSpace co-founder Jason Gamblen at New York’s sprawling Metropolitan Museum of Art that ignited the pair’s interest in bringing GPS-like wayfinding indoors.
The pair was on a trip to New York City while working for e-reader company Kobo (Gamblen handled project management and Wu handled product design) and decided to meet at the Met post-meetings. After failing to find one-another and wandering around for hours on their own, they eventually re-connected back at the hotel.
They swapped annoyances that all this wayfinding and mapping exists outdoors thanks to GPS, yet indoors, you’re still “relegated to walking around a museum with a paper map.”
“It just seemed very strange that at such an advanced day and age that was still the case,” says Wu.
The conversation stuck with them and when their time at Kobo was drawing to a close, Gamblen and Wu struck out on their own, tapping Matt MacGillivray – a fellow Kobo alum – as a co-founder. In 2014, the trio set to work developing a system that could use LiDAR (light detection and ranging) a technology developed in the 1960s, to scan and map a room in minutes then deploy signals into the space that can be read with smartphones and wearables.
“It’s as simple as plugging our sensors in much like you might plug in an access point – a router or a smoke detector,” he explains. “Once that happens the rest is automated so you don't need to pay a professional service to to come and create a map of your building or update your instruments.”
The company has since set up shop in the IBM Innovation Space and tapped both Michael Serbinis founder and CEO of League and the founder and CEO of Kobo as well as startup evangelist, serial entrepreneur and lawyer Jeff Dennis as advisors.
InnerSpace has built the medium, but there’s a message there too: analytics that can be used by businesses to track foot-traffic, determine consumer behaviour; complex navigation, like moving through a hospital in emergency situation; asset tracking, tag expensive products and keep tabs on them – the options are virtually endless once a location has been mapped by InnerSpace.
Wu says, like the way mobile apps have clung to and built sophisticated tools of location services provided by GPS, InnerSpace has the potential to open the door to a whole new era.
And it’s a homegrown story, one that Wu is proud to tell – even if it means shedding the Canadian archetype of modesty.
“The Toronto ecosystem is an amazing one, there are so many ideas and companies per square foot that nobody’s ever heard of because people don't tell enough stories about what's going on in Toronto,” says Wu. “Canadians aren't wired to say: ‘I'm going to go out and change the world.’
But he got used to hearing that sort of confidence during four months at 500 Startups – an early-stage venture fund and seed accelerator in Mountain View, California. And after more than a decade working within Toronto’s tech community, he says it’s time the startup ecosystem steps up its game and takes a page from Silicon Valley’s playbook.
“I don't ever want to be a big brash quintessential loud American but at the same time, if we want to compete and (earn Toronto recognition) as an amazing place to build businesses then we've got to tell the stories louder and we've got to tell the real stories,” he says. “We can’t just cover them up with our humble Canadian-ness.”