August 23, 2020

Oliver’s Story: Stories of Survival from Canada’s Tech Innovators

Since the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) was created in 1978 we have represented the interests of Small to Medium science and technology-centric Enterprises. Today these Canada headquartered businesses are in the tens of thousands and have grown to be the heart of the Canadian economy.

In April of this year, as the COVID-19 impact on business became clear, CATA wrote to the Prime Minister to urge a strong level of support for our most innovative tech firms. Following multiple conversations with ministers and bureaucrats, we are still waiting for a formal response to our questions and proposal.

We are over 100 days into COVID19 and do not see a comprehensive
technology sector emergency response. Payroll and obligations wait for no one.

We see companies struggling, laying off staff, trying to pivot to improve their chances of survival, hunting for funding to meet the bills. Small and medium firms are crucial to Canada’s economy and job creation.

In this ongoing series, we profile company leaders dealing with the reality of COVID-19 and their experience with emergency government support programs.

We are inspired, we hope you are too.

Oliver’s Story

Our first case comes from Else Labs, an Ottawa business that believes they have the next big thing in home cooking. Can they hang on until the product is launched is the big challenge.

It’s a long story of iterative and careful development that began in 2016. Else Labs built Oliver, a food-cooking robot. From the Oliver app, you can choose a recipe and then load ingredients into individual containers on the robot. Oliver then controls the dispensing, cooking, heating, mixing and full preparation of your meal and can even be remote-started via your phone.

The OLIVER smart Kitchen Robot – Courtesy Else Labs

Oliver has been refined over the years and a full-time staff of 14 engineers and developers is making the final design changes. The plan is to launch by the end of 2020.

Khalid Aboujassoum, Founder & CEO of Else Labs said just before COVID-19 hit they received about a million dollars in private funding, 20% of what they had hoped for and that will have to carry them until product launch.

“We are on the defensive now, watching every dollar, and strategically navigating the uncertainty of COVID-19.”

Khalid Aboujassoum, Founder & CEO of Else Labs

As a pre-revenue firm most assistance programs are not available to Else Labs. The firm is eligible for $132,000 of federal IRAP money that will cover some payroll from April to June. “The assistance is not significant but every bit does help, in this economic climate survival is what it’s all
about,” says Aboujassoum.

Aboujassoum thinks they can survive until beginning of 2021. For now, he says it makes no sense to lay people off, there is too much work to be done. Finalizing design plans, agreements with a manufacturers, setting sales targets and creating a pipeline to get to market.

Media coverage and public response have been favourable, almost 1,000 people have pre-registered to buy a unit. Just a few weeks ago a South Korean appliance maker reached out and wants to discuss a white label product for Asia.

Something similar is possible with a large American player in the wellness/
nutrition space. The giant firm contacted Else Labs because their millions of
calorie-conscious clients are a prime market for a device that lets the user
automatically log their food intake. In the market there’s now a convergence of connectivity, new appliances and people’s interest in eating well.

Aboujassoum points to the huge success of Instant Pot, a similar product, also produced by an Ottawa firm, as evidence of a potential $200 Billion market for this type of product. COVID-19 actually creates a plus for Oliver, there has been a significant rise in cooking at home and people may well want to continue that with some help from technology.

As for the CATA proposal to provide assistance through the Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SRED) program, Aboujassoum says he has used SRED and he likes the proposal, “It would mean life or death. We could get $1.5 million and that would be literally life-changing for our firm. We think we could more than double our staff in 6-12 months after launch. The clock is ticking for us.” Since the company began, CDN $3.2 million has been invested by owners and investors and the firm has spent more than CDN $4 million on research and development.

The first company Aboujassoum started is still operating successfully. It taught him how tough the business world can be and while he thinks the government treatment of pre-revenue firms is unfair it is simply one more thing to deal with.

“It will be very tough to swallow if we run out of money, end up not making it to launch and have to sell our idea and let someone else get all the benefits, but I am still hopeful that we will navigate the financing challenges of COVID-19.”

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