Written by Andrew Seale

Anna Pogossyan and Temirlan Toktabek are buzzing. Less than six months ago, their startup Vacant, which allows students to see available study space across campus in real-time, was non-existent.

Now they’re fresh off a win at the Red Bull Basement University competition in Berlin, the star of over 800 entries from students in 16 countries, and hitting the ground running. Oh, and they’re about to graduate, Pogossyan from OCADU, where she studies environmental design, and Toktabek, from Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Management where he’s wrapping up his global management studies alongside entrepreneurship and strategy.

“Everything happened so last minute,” says Pogossyan. The pair had been best friends since they were 13, with the friendship evolving into a serious relationship (“I guess we reconsidered our friendship and became closer,” says Pogossyan with a laugh.)

Toktabek’s professor had reached out to let him and his classmates know there was a competition happening with Red Bull Basement University – a program where students can submit innovative ideas and Red Bull responds to the best with “an integrated network of development, workshops, mentorship, and funding.”

“We found out it exists two days before it was due,” says Pogossyan. “People had months of preparation… but we very quickly figured out it was too good of an opportunity to pass on.”

They pulled together a video to submit, made the cut, and Red Bull connected with them to tell them they really liked the idea for Vacant.

Toktabek says amidst the blur of the past few months, he still remembers the moment they left that first meeting in the Red Bull Basement University space. They’d just received a breakdown of the funding, the support for their prototype, the mentors they’d be connected with, and the details for their trip to Berlin.

“With huge smiles on our faces we quit our day jobs,” says Toktabek. What followed was a rigorous month of work on Vacant, streamlining the concept (which didn’t even have a name yet) and preparing for the competition. “It was an incubator in itself.”

Initially, the idea was to use a series of motion sensors to identify desk and room availability in real-time. But since winning the contest, the Vacant co-founders are starting to see a wider opportunity.

“It’s developed into space management/analytics/progressive responsive human architecture project,” says Toktabek. Instead of only providing information on space availability to the end user (in the initial concept: a student) they wanted to make it beneficial for the owner of the space by analyzing how the space is used. The data could then inform how to make adjustments to the space to improve user experience and reduce costs.

Not just for student centres and libraries but for malls, universities and co-working spaces.

“What if the spaces could be designed in a way that if the user changes their behaviour in it, the space could be changed as well?” says Pogossyan. “There is no real-time data available for that yet.”

The technology exists, but it requires a change in the way we use it, and how we perceive space, says Toktabek, and that’s where the Vacant co-founders see the future. “It's treating buildings as this alive thing that could be repurposed for the user.”

Photo Credit: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)