How this entrepreneur is working to solve how people manage and save their money.

Roya Kachooei

By Hailey Eisen  

 

When she was just 11 years old, Roya Kachooei remembers a friend asking her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her response is something she recalls clearly to this day. “I told him that I wanted to have my own business first, buy a sports car next, and then get married,” she says with a laugh. 

After earning a computer engineering degree and a number of tech jobs later, Roya is now living her childhood dreams. “I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who makes the world a better place to live in, and I believe that in building our start-up, Walletifai, I’ve found a strong way to contribute,” she says. (She still has her eye on her dream sports car.)

In 2019, Roya was working as a software engineer for FreshBooks when she and a business partner decided to start building out their idea for Walletifai. It wasn’t the first time they’d worked together on an idea, but this one definitely had more traction. 

“Over the past seven years, I’ve had 4 or 5 serious business ideas, but the first one we developed as a side project ran into some international difficulties, so we put it aside,” she recalls. 

This time around, after many coffee shop discussions about the state of the world and the future, Roya and her partner were ready to go. In conversations, they kept coming back to the idea of personal finance and what the future would look like in terms of money management and savings. This fueled the plans for Walletifai. 

“I saw a problem that needed solving, and I’ve always been someone who likes to solve problems, to fix things.” 

“I saw a problem that needed solving, and I’ve always been someone who likes to solve problems, to fix things,” Roya explains. The immediate problem was that no matter how many apps she tried — and she tried many — Roya could not find a solution that would help her manage her personal finances better than the spreadsheet model she’d always employed. “As a user, I thought, if I can’t find a solution on the market, I’ll build one.” 

The goal was to build a personal finance management application that would help people understand their spending — in the past, in the form of visualized spending history, and in the future, in the form of prediction; this would help people identify how else to spend their money, and how to make the most out of money that they make. It makes saving more intuitive and more fun, cutting back on fees, and avoiding human error, Roya explains. The overall focus would be to maximize what’s left in a person’s wallet at the end of the day. “I truly believe that savings is a great contributor to getting the things you want in life.”

Using machine learning and automation, Roya has developed a mobile app that can predict expenses and provide insight into a person’s spending history. It works with 20,000+ banks and financial institutions, allowing users to connect their bank accounts and manage their personal finances. The app will soon launch a “savings challenge” component, something Roya is especially excited about. “It’s different from all the savings tools out there, and it will help users shift their perspectives and expectations around savings.” 

Walletifai is free, and eventually the app will have a premium offering for those who want to pay for additional features. Roya is currently working on developing partnerships which will tie into their savings feature. 

“I don’t have a business background, but I’m passionate about learning, and having good advisors available to use, to help unblock you, to brainstorm with, and correct you along the way is incredibly valuable to any start-up.” 

She’s excitedly tracking the app’s milestones while working hard behind the scenes to continue to grow and develop its offering. “When we reached the first 100 users on our platform organically, that was an amazing moment,” she recalls. “It proved that what we were building had demand.” When she talks to early adopters, she says, the response is overwhelmingly positive. “Some people — including potential investors — may try to make you doubt your decision, but if you know the product really helps crack the code and it isn’t out there yet, then that gives you the confidence to push forward.” 

In order to gain more support and help Walletifai reach the next level, Roya applied to ventureLAB’s Tech Undivided program, which offers a comprehensive 6-month program to enable women-led tech companies to scale their businesses through access to critical pillars like capital, talent, technology, and customers. Tech Undivided curates a supportive community focusing on equality, open dialogue, and overcoming obstacles — all things Roya is eager to embrace. 

“We met with ventureLAB last year when we only had an idea and a presentation,” Roya recalls. “They liked our idea and said to me as many others had, ‘prove to me you can do this first and then come back’.” 

After their first release in 2020, they went back to ventureLAB and were chosen to be part of the third Tech Undivided cohort. “I’m so excited that we were accepted into the program and I’m really looking forward to seeing how they can support us on our journey,” Roya says. “I don’t have a business background, but I’m passionate about learning, and having good advisors available to use, to help unblock you, to brainstorm with, and correct you along the way is incredibly valuable to any start-up.”

Is that surface clean? This new technology will let you see the answer.

Natalie Ambler

By Hailey Eisen  

 

Being part of an emerging health and safety technology company with a focus on hygiene outcomes is an interesting place to be more than a year into a global pandemic. For Natalie Ambler, Co-Founder and Director, Innovation and Development at OptiSolve®, the past year has been significant to say the least. 

“Understanding cleaning has become a lot more important, and while I used to spend time explaining why infection prevention was important, since COVID-19, I no longer have to do that,” Natalie says. 

OptiSolve was born out of business expertise in the cleaning and disinfection industry, and as a result of the big, important questions a small team began to ask. Its two key offerings are a proprietary surface imaging technology that enables you to visualize contamination, and a quality management system that produces a comprehensive program to validate cleaning and disinfection. Essentially, you’re enabled to answer the question: “Is this clean?” 

Natalie began working on the technology behind OptiSolve more than five years ago as part of a team at an existing company that formulates and manufactures cleaning products.  The team began working with an academic partner to find answers to their own questions about product innovation. Specifically, they wanted to know what more could be done about two key issues: despite living in a microbial world, people have high expectations for clean, healthy spaces; and despite leaps in sanitation, medicine, and technology, one of the world-wide causes of death remains infections. How could they better support practitioners in maintaining healthy spaces? How could they improve education and training? And how could they identify when a space was clean? 

“Understanding cleaning has become a lot more important, and while I used to spend time explaining why infection prevention was important, since COVID-19, I no longer have to do that.”

“In the beginning, we started taking images of surfaces to determine the efficacy of products, but quickly realized that being able to come up with new test methodologies was an extremely innovative and interesting area to be working in,” she explains. 

Early on, the team was able to secure grant funding which allowed them to transition their research project into the development of a surface imaging technology. “We knew the industry standard for cleaning and disinfection validation was predominantly visual assessment and checking a box, which wasn’t necessarily the best methodology.” 

OptiSolve became a stand-alone company two years ago— but the journey began long before that for Natalie. In university, she completed an undergraduate degree in sciences, fueling a desire to find answers and an interest in systems thinking. She went back to school later in her career to complete a Master’s in Business Strategy and Sustainability. She found her passion point in the intersection of science and business.  

“My career has been focused on having a scientific mindset for finding real-world solutions through innovation, strategy, and business development,” she says. “In the work I’ve had, that’s been a pillar for me.” 

As a mom of young daughters, Natalie says it’s important to demonstrate what passion looks like. “We talk about following your purpose,” she says. “I’m in start-up mode and spend a lot of time working, and they’re so supportive of what I do because they can see the passion I have.” The excitement Natalie feels about this technology and its potential is palpable — which has certainly helped as COVID-19 has ushered in a whole new set of challenges and opportunities. In 2020 change came fast and furious for many industries, especially around cleaning standards. While the OptiSolve technology and services were deployed in healthcare and food services settings, they are now also targeting commercial facilities, hospitality, government, and other places where health and safety have become a lot more important. 

“We provide systems, tracking, and reporting for cleaning and disinfection productivity which helps facility managers support their duty of care responsibility,” Natalie explains. This is often a big part of the re-opening strategies for many companies.  

“I love the collaborative aspect of the business, knowing that the sum is always greater than the individual parts.”

Looking ahead, OptiSolve is also focused on the idea of precision cleaning, which is another area Natalie and the OptiSolve team are very passionate about. “Precision cleaning uses resources more effectively for better outcomes, saving time and effort,” she explains. “In response to COVID-19, many have been employing ‘deep cleaning’ which may include spraying entire rooms with chemicals without knowing the unintended consequences. Our aim is to help people better understand what’s on a surface and how to clean it with the appropriate products and processes.”   

With a small but dedicated team — including a chemist, CTO, marketing coordinator, and supportive business advisor/investor — OptiSolve now relies on strategic partnerships to accelerate its growth. “We’ve worked with one of Canada’s leading R&D medical device companies on the engineering side, as well as fantastic academic partners, and software and digital experience experts to enhance our technology,” Natalie explains. “I love the collaborative aspect of the business, knowing that the sum is always greater than the individual parts,” she says.

“Our greatest challenge now is being able to scale, and that’s why I was so pleased to be accepted into ventureLAB’s Tech Undivided program,” Natalie explains. As part of the accelerator’s third cohort of the program, designed for founders building breakthrough solutions leveraging hardware and/or enterprise software technology, OptiSolve will have access to industry experience, strategic partner connections, and a dedicated ventureLAB advisor. “Working with Tech Undivided helps us think big about what we can do to make OptiSolve into a global leader for the detection, diagnostics, and surveillance of environmental risk,” Natalie explains. “It’s an exciting opportunity and we’re really looking forward to what’s to come.” 

How this entrepreneur is helping brick and mortar businesses navigate the digital-first landscape.

Karen Wong

By Sarah Kelsey  

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed the way we do many things — how we shop is one of them. Because of city and province-wide lockdowns and restrictions, many retailers have had to rapidly pivot to e-commerce and the online world — a strategy that can be quite costly if implemented incorrectly. 

“We’re now in a situation where most retailers don’t know how to digitize, and they are lacking the staff to help guide them,”  Karen Wong says. “It’s a very different thing to sell online. You find customers differently — it’s about SEO, online presence. It’s about digital marketing. Profits can get eaten up by shipping — something most retailers do at a great loss to their bottom line. It’s not as simple as it looks.”

If Karen sounds like she knows what she’s talking about, that’s because she does. She is the CEO and co-founder of TAKU Labs, a transformative point-of-sale (POS) software company that allows brick-and-mortar shop owners to open up online with next to no effort. The software can help an entrepreneur track everything from sales to customer data all while offering an accurate real-time view of inventory so consumers know exactly what is available to purchase when. 

Essentially, it’s a game changer for store owners who are now being forced onto the World Wide Web. 

“Retailers can get online in two weeks,” she says. “They upload their product information once, or we can help them do it, and then after that the retail experience is seamless. No more inventory issues, no more sales issues — retailers know exactly what is available when. The customer experience is vastly improved.” 

“By the end of everything, I was flying every week and I was working non-stop. The experiences I had were great. I did well, but I was burnt out.”

POS and managing a tech startup wasn’t something Karen ever imagined she’d end up doing when she graduated university. 

“I graduated with a B.A. and no real work experience, so I started doing admin work at Husky. There, I found out I really liked marketing.” 

She made the leap to CPG and worked her way through an MBA part-time. She tried her hand at running a wholesale home decor company (“I did everything I shouldn’t have done!”) and even moved to Asia for eight years where she worked in manufacturing and operations and eventually opened up her own retail business in Taiwan. 

“By the end of everything, I was flying every week and I was working non-stop. The experiences I had were great. I did well, but I was burnt out,” Karen says. So she returned to Canada. 

That’s when lightning struck. 

At every turn in Karen’s career, she found she was forced to work with disconnected systems to accomplish a variety of retail-based tasks. “There was a tool for marketing, another for sales, another for operations,” she said. “Nothing spoke to each other. Nothing was integrated. Nothing was simple.” 

Karen realized a system that could amalgamate all of these features could change the retail landscape. One purchase of a languishing company that offered the basics of this service and 5,000 customers later, and she had the beginnings of what would eventually become TAKU.

“My journey to become an entrepreneur… I would say it was no less risky than working at a big corporation today,” Karen says, alluding to the tenuous nature of employment during a recession. “But I wasn’t afraid of failure. In fact, you can’t be afraid of failing in this line of business. You have to adopt a mindset that it’s absolutely key to growing and learning, because once you make a mistake it’s unlikely you’ll make it again. It’s the most expensive training school you’ll ever have.”

“I know what that opportunity feels like. I was my clientele. Support is everything, and that’s what makes what I do rewarding.”

She notes building her business over the past few years has been possible because of the support network she’s built, including a key relationship with ventureLAB, a leading technology hub in York Region. 

Since joining ventureLAB in 2018, Karen has relied on ventureLAB for everything from sourcing funding to explaining “Silicon Valley lingo” in a way that was understandable. As a member of ventureLAB’s Innovation Space, TAKU also has access to exclusive collaboration and networking, as well as opportunities to showcase their product. TAKU was even selected by ventureLAB’s partner Digital Main Street for their community collaboration program, something that enabled Karen to bring select retailers online for free. 

“ventureLAB has been incredibly supportive,” she says. “One of the biggest challenges for women in the tech space is there aren’t a lot of mentors. At ventureLAB, there’s a heavy emphasis on the practical and tactical tools you need to be a founder and woman in tech. I always tell people in this industry to do their research and find an organization you can lean on like I have with them.”

Karen’s other big piece of advice for entrepreneurs is to find a partner who can help lighten the startup load.

“No one knows everything, so unless you have a partner who can challenge you and push you, you’ll end up being an entrepreneur that works in a vacuum, and that’s not really valuable,” she says, noting many big organizations (even Google) won’t work with a company if they’re not headed by two or more people. “You have to have someone at an equivalent level challenge you and your assumptions.”

When discussing where TAKU goes next, Karen says it’s all about expanding the business to help retailers thrive and grow in a post-COVID world. Most of her current clients are medium-sized, multi-sector yet still independent outlets like cafes, pet food stores, grocers, antique shops, and specialty sellers like Kawartha Dairy.

“A lot of our customers have said it’s been incredible to have the ability to go home and work on the store from there — they can update product pricing or add inventory from home as opposed to only in the physical store,” she says. “It’s helped bring balance to their life — that’s particularly true for women — all while expanding and scaling their business. I know what that opportunity feels like. I was my clientele. Support is everything, and that’s what makes what I do rewarding.”

How this tech entrepreneur is disrupting the shoe industry.

Sophie Howe

By Sarah Kelsey  

 

The next time you’re wearing a pair of shoes, take a good look at them. How do they fit? If you’re like 75 percent of the population (this figure could be as high as 90 percent depending on the research you read) they’re probably the wrong size. And the repercussions of wearing shoes that are too small, too tight, too long, or too wide are many — from ingrown toenails to back and leg issues. 

“Everyone’s foot is so different, and buying shoes is not like buying a sweater or shirt, where if a seam is not aligned with your shoulders, it’s fine… shoes can be incredibly painful if they don’t fit,” says Sophie Howe, the CEO and co-founder of the innovative app Xesto (pronounced “zesto”). The app uses a smartphone’s FaceID camera to take a 3D image of a person’s foot. When integrated into the e-commerce sites of retailers, a person can virtually figure out which shoes will fit best (the app is accurate to under 1.5 mm). Over 10,000 people have used the tool, and the company now has major partnerships with several shoe manufacturers. 

“The first time I saw someone using the app my brain broke for a moment, because it was so surreal,” Sophie says. “But with the rise of e-commerce, it makes sense to have the ability to take a scan of your foot with your own phone.”

Sophie’s journey to become the CEO of an industry-leading, first-of-its kind app started straightforward enough. She studied finance and economics at university and realized that she really enjoyed problem solving. While many of her peers began to look for work in finance, she fell into the “uncool at the time” world of startups because of a friend. And that’s where things began to click. 

“I spent a lot of time learning about and trying to understand what technologies could exist in the future. There was a lot of not knowing and having to learn from the ground up.”

With no prior knowledge of how to run a tech startup or build an app, Sophie and her co-founder found themselves knee deep in conversations about the innovative ways smartphone cameras could be used for customization. A few dozen discussions about sizing and e-commerce later, and Xesto was born. 

One of the most impressive and inspiring things about Sophie’s journey to date is that almost all of her success has been built on the skills she learned through self-guided education. 

“I spent a lot of time learning about and trying to understand what technologies could exist in the future. There was a lot of not knowing and having to learn from the ground up. It was frustrating how bad the resources were if you wanted to learn about something. There were no websites saying, ‘if you want to learn how to code, go to this website.’” 

Sophie found herself digging through the Internet and doing deeper and deeper dives into specific areas where she lacked expertise; that would inevitably lead her to another Internet hole of research, and so on. “I would start creating mind maps of how everything was connected in the tech and AI world, and how things could come together,” she says. “I’m always looking for opportunities to learn and grow.”

That digging eventually led her to ventureLAB’s Tech Undivided a six-month program that emboldens women-led tech companies to scale their business. “We are at an inflection point and have a lot on our plate for the next six months, so it will be invaluable to tap into [the organization’s] advisors and mentors,” she says, noting that building a support system is key to making entrepreneurship work. 

“There’s always progress happening. You have to celebrate all of the wins, even if they’re not for certain.”

“It took a long time to get here like, many years, and that story is never really told to anyone who wants to become an entrepreneur. We went through many years of hitting wall after wall without success,” she says. “You just have to keep on going and figuring it out. Our first idea didn’t involve footwear; what we’re doing now was many iterations down the line.”

Sophie also hammers home the notion that success doesn’t look the same for everyone, and that as an entrepreneur, you have to get used to the idea of imperfection. “Not everything needs to be perfect. Work with a prioritization matrix. What needs to be done first? Things will slip through the cracks. And as much as you hate it, that’s OK. You’ll figure it out. Just make sure that the ball that gets dropped is not one of those things that’s important to the business.”

She adds “founder’s guilt,” if not monitored, could lead to burnout. “What will make you effective is to build a work schedule around boundaries that will keep you healthy.” 

Sophie’s next big goal for Xesto is to grow it into a sustainable and profitable business (hopefully with the right venture capitalist who wants to form a marriage with the company), and to acquire more users.

For now, she’s celebrating all she’s accomplished and the big wins she and her team have had over the past year despite the pandemic. “There’s always progress happening. You have to celebrate all of the wins, even if they’re not for certain,” she says. “I love that we brought something into the world that has never been done before. In spite of all of the challenges, it’s really rewarding to know you’re making an impact on someone’s life.” 

Why this entrepreneur decided to contribute to the mental and cognitive health landscape.

Andrea Palmer Awake Labs

By Sarah Kelsey  

 

When Andrea Palmer and her Awake Labs co-founder Paul Fijal conceived of a platform to measure anxiety in people with autism, she didn’t think it would be relevant to her personally. But that’s exactly what happened a few years later when she sustained a brain injury during wrestling practice. 

The trauma of the takedown was so severe it impacted her cognitive function, which led to a decline in her mental health and well-being and a rise in her anxiety. Their platform wasn’t yet ready to help with her own recovery, but she certainly wishes it was.  

“The platform wouldn’t have been able to heal my brain faster — it can’t physically do that — but it could have let me know when I was going to react to something negatively, helping me to manage my responses to situations” Andrea says. “It could have helped give me my quality of life back — and that’s what we want to do for other people.”

Awake Labs is a revolutionary app that’s connected to a smartphone and smartwatch that detects a person’s heart rate. Using a clinically validated algorithm licensed from Holland Bloorview, the app detects when stress and strong emotions are escalating and alerts a person or caregiver to the impending big emotion (fear, joy, anger, etc.) so they can intervene and support the person affected. 

“Any big emotion, if left unchecked, can have a negative outcome. Sometimes, that big emotion will cause someone to completely withdraw and turn inward; sometimes it looks like an external outburst of aggression; other times, antipsychotic medication is administered,” she says. “Incidents like these can be disorienting and draining for everyone involved. They’re not good for those experiencing them or for those caring for them.” 

“It could have helped give me my quality of life back — and that’s what we want to do for other people.”

Today, there are 300 individual users of the app, including almost 100 self-advocates and 30 agencies who use it with people they support. The agencies really value the platform. There are strict checks and balances when it comes to consent, and anyone who wants to stop using the tool can do so.

“Staff and caregivers report feeling more confidence in being able to support people because of our platform,” Andrea says. “It helps them know how to respond to an individual’s needs and helps them feel safe. Everyone can build a trust relationship quicker.” 

It’s also begun to change the lives of adults with intellectual developmental disabilities. 

One young woman who wants to live independently is using the tool to learn how to self-regulate her emotions so she can manage certain situations without a caregiver. In another case, a mother of a young autistic man — whose anxiety presents as self-harm and who gets overwhelmed by loud, busy environments — was able to host her first family event in years. The Awake Labs technology helped them recognize the early signs of big emotions and take steps to make everyone feel comfortable.

“When we get messages like these from our users, it’s very motivating,” Andrea says, noting she and her team are currently working on some pretty incredible new use cases for the platform. She acknowledges that many communities are often underdiagnosed and therefore overlooked, including women, people of colour, and people who can’t afford to get diagnosed. “It’s important to be aware of these inequities when providing our platform to our users.”

“I don’t know everything, and I will ask anyone who will listen to me to help me figure something out.”

The success stories are all pretty surreal for Andrea, especially because she says she went to university unsure of where her life would lead. “I wanted to be a math teacher, and my mom convinced me to try engineering… she said it was a good base for a career.” She ended up studying mechatronics, which eventually led to her acceptance into the prestigious New Venture Design course at UBC, designed for individuals who want to develop their creativity while learning about the business cycle of a startup. During the course, students are tasked with creating a product with a real-world use case. That’s how Awake Labs was born.

“The New Venture Design course really taught us to get up out of our chair and talk to people and to validate every assumption we had,” Andrea says. It taught her to seek out people who know more than her on a daily basis. 

That’s partially how she stumbled upon ventureLAB’s Tech Undivided program, a six-month initiative that helps women-led companies scale their business through mentorship. She wanted to learn from those who’ve had success in the industry. 

“I don’t know everything,” she says, “and I will ask anyone who will listen to me to help me figure something out.”

Andrea has also learned something that’s key for any owner of a company: perseverance. “Never be afraid to ask for what you need — the worst thing people will say is no, or they won’t respond,” she notes. “There will be sacrifices, and we probably survived because we continued to proceed and push through things when other companies with similar ideas to ours stopped.”

Andrea adds the key to continuing when the going gets tough is to stay laser focused on the benefits of what you’re trying to do. “We have the ability to change lives. That’s what really matters.”