A Q&A with... REAP
The Accelerator Gazette would not exist if not for the support of REAP. The incubator, based in Waterloo, Canada, is one of the sponsors of The Accelerator Gazette as part of its mandate to identify ways in which other technology incubators operate around the world.
REAP itself, is unlike most incubators/accelerators. Students use existing technologies to create new uses, and potentially, new businesses.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Dr. Jill Tomasson-Goodwin, REAP’s co-founder, about the ways in which REAP is helping entrepreneurs accelerate towards prosperity.
The Accelerator Gazette: Tell me about REAP.
Dr. Jill Tomasson-Goodwin: REAP is an extracurricular research initiative involving undergraduate students, housed in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Waterloo, Canada. Sitting under the Canadian Centre of Arts and Technology, REAP stands for “Research Entrepreneurs Accelerating Prosperity”.
REAP brings academic and private sector partners together to explore new technologies as a way to spark "research entrepreneurship.” Where research focuses on generating ideas, research entrepreneurship takes this process one step further: it makes sure good ideas get to market. At the moment, our researcher-entrepreneurs are primarily University of Waterloo undergraduate students, although we do work closely with Conestoga College and other educational institutions.
Specifically, REAP helps students design interactive digital display environments. But it does so in a way that allows students to spin off their own businesses, all while drawing upon the marketing, sales, and technology channels of REAP’s corporate partners. We’ve chosen “interactive display environments and applications” (IDEA) as our main research focus for a number of reasons.
We want to take digital displays – whether in public spaces, hospitals, classrooms, or retail venues – and transform them from being passive, one-way televisions into two-way, interactive environments that anticipate and then meet people’s needs. Imagine, for example, if a screen knew what I was looking at and then provided more of that kind of information; or if it detected my basic demographic information and then tailored content accordingly; or was voice controlled, or could be interacted with using gesture or my own smartphone.
We also know that “interactive display environments and applications” is a multi-billion dollar industry, expected to double between now and 2017. This gives our early-stage innovators an immense opportunity to spin off viable, thriving businesses.
REAP also has a strong network of private sector partners – in digital display, interactivity, marketing communication -- who can help REAP teams create viable student-led businesses.
In short, we believe the future belongs to two-way, responsive, and communicative environments, environments that actively respond to people’s cues and anticipate people’s needs by providing customized information, communication, and entertainment.
AG: How do students benefit from the REAP program?
JTG: Students in REAP benefit in three main ways. First, REAP uses a "mash-up" model of innovation and commercialization. That is, researchers learn how to assemble already existing technologies into new combinations, to solve known needs efficiently and effectively. REAP's model is agile, inexpensive, reduces IP issues, is quick to market and is inclusive: a wide variety of design-oriented students – from the Arts, Sciences, Engineering, Architecture, etc. -- can participate fully in the innovation and entrepreneurship cycle. In short more students can participate, getting their innovations to market faster using our partners’ channels, and for this reason, can spin off businesses faster.
Second, students develop core skills that make them attractive to future employers. Students learn to combine design thinking, technological know-how, and business strategy – key competencies that will make them attractive to future employers. They learn team building and communication, lean startup methods, user experience design, marketing, and general business skills.
Third, REAP brings students directly into a network of private sector partners, including Christie Digital Systems, with its world-leading projection technologies; Harris Media, Intel, GestureTek, Float4, Baanto, and others, with their innovative interactivity products; blueRover, Apptui, and PairMobile, with their machine-to-machine, mobile, and Bluetooth platform innovations for integrating display and interactivity technologies; and Quarry Integrated Communications, with its extensive list of marquee clients and expert mentors. These companies are potential business partners for student commercialization and potential employers of students who elect to be hired rather than form their own businesses.
AG: Tell me about the FELT Lab.
JTG: REAP is housed in part at a new lab, FELT, hosted by Quarry Integrated Communications (in St. Jacobs), who generously provides infrastructure support and mentorship. Put simply, the FELT Lab is a digital sandbox for serious play where students, faculty, and industry experts work on funded projects. Projects developed in the lab will open up new markets -- and with them, new sales opportunities -- for visual display and signage technologies. It invites many different groups to come together – students, designers, end-users, professionals, business people, artists, and the general community – to gain intensive, hands-on experience that involves taking an idea from conception to creation to adoption.
AG: What technologies are available at the FELT Lab?
JTG: There are three kinds of technologies available at the Felt Lab, almost all of them Canadian. There are a variety of digital display units, including Christie Digital’s MicroTiles technology, narrow bezel flat screen technology, and blended projection as well as a variety of RIM playbooks and phones in the mobile display space.
To create interactivity and responsiveness, the FELT Lab also hosts a variety of technologies that are triggered by gesture, proximity, facial demographics, touch, and sound. For example, the GestureTek MultitouchTable, and Cube, Float4 Realserver, Kommerz’s Multiple Reality Interface, Baanto’s Shadowsense technology. These allow our students to add gesture, proximity, anonymous demographic, and touch triggers to FELT’s display technologies.
The visual display and interactivity requires innovative content. Derivative, Side Effects, and Harris Media have provided FELT with state-of-the-art content creation and distribution software, allowing our students to make exciting assets for use in civic, retail, and cultural spaces.
AG: What's in REAP's future? What do you hope to accomplish in the next 5-10 years?
JTG: After fourteen months, we’re already working on REAP 2.0. To build on our successes, we’re broadening our mandate to encourage artists, academics, design professionals, and interested members of the community to join us in accelerating prosperity. Our goal is to create a “living lab” – a place where academics, private sector companies, and creative minds all converge to the benefit of all.
We’re also exploring Lean Innovation models: ways to use design sprints, flexible team structures, and quick testing of core assumptions to accelerate REAP innovation and bring more products to market. Also, we’re looking at the idea of a “minimum viable prototype” so that our teams can establish quickly if the idea is feasible (can it be done?), is it desirable (can it be built?), and is it viable (can a business be built around it?).
Because we’re privately funded, we can respond quickly to opportunities and learn immediately from our experiences. Our guess is that at the speed we’ve been innovating, REAP 3.0 is only 6 months away.