In It To Win It: These four B.C. tech innovators are just getting started

What happens after you give it your all at the Pitch for the Purse competition and don't take home the grand prize? If you're these four women in tech, you keep innovating

Finalists in the Pitch for the Purse competition, four female entrepreneurs lead game-changing tech businesses

A device that promises to reinvent lifeguarding, an app that makes lone workers safer, a community of renters, a smart bra—what do these B.C. innovations have in common? For one, they all harness the power of technology to make people’s lives better. They all have stories connected to the lives of their female inventors, and each of those women has used the Pitch for the Purse competition to propel her business forward.

Launched in 2017, the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs’ annual event has given the female founders of more than 100 companies a chance to win the $25,000 grand prize. The four women you’re about to meet all reached the top 11 in their respective years, making their pitches to a panel of judges and an audience of potential investors. Although none ended up taking home the cash, they’ve enjoyed other rewards. Now considered part of the Pitch for the Purse family, each regularly connects with competition organizers and the mentors assigned to them as finalists.

“We provide the education and mentorship so that these women entrepreneurs can have more confidence and information and knowledge to go out there and pitch their businesses to investors,” says FWE founder and chair Christina Anthony. “They are making that happen for themselves,” adds Anthony, vice-president, director and portfolio manager at Vancouver-based investment firm Odlum Brown Ltd.

Cindy Gu

Founder and CEO, Vitali Wear

Cindy Gu was like a lot of university students: overwhelmed. “I was just kind of being a Type A and taking a lot of courses and also trying to fit in my time beyond classes. I just wanted to do everything,” the UBC mechanical engineering grad recalls at a coffee shop in Vancouver’s Yaletown. “Being young and living that lifestyle, it made me very stressed out.”

Having already worked with some large companies—a stint with a Calgary oil and gas producer, and a summer at a Volkswagen factory in her native China—as part of her program, Gu didn’t want to spend a career feeling strained. Discovering yoga, she set out to incorporate the feeling she got from the exercise into the rest of her life.

“Having awareness of my breathing, I feel like it helped me get more sleep and be in a better mood,” Gu says. “So that really got me thinking, ‘Why is this so effective? How can I quantify this and take the essence out of yoga and help to improve my everyday?'”

After some success at a UBC hackathon, Gu took the idea of a bra with fabric sensors that support wellbeing by tracking breathing, posture and heart rate to Kickstarter last April. The result? She raised some US$50,000 in 35 days.

Gu and her three contract employees operate out of a Vancouver co-working space; the smart bra is made in China, but they hope to do some manufacturing here.

Angela Hamilton

Co-Founder and CEO, Quupe

In 2014, Angela Hamilton left Washington, D.C., so she could be in the same location as her physician partner, who was working in Vancouver. The couple decided to move to his native South Africa for six months. They got robbed on their second day in the country.

“It was a complete nightmare trying to get our paperwork all in order, so we just thought, ‘Let’s go to Vancouver,'” Hamilton recalls on a couch at the co-working premises in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood that Quupe Inc. calls home.

The robbery didn’t shake Hamilton’s faith in humanity. Quupe (pronounced “coop,” as in recoup) is an online community whose members rent items from each other using the company’s algorithm to set a fair price. The system, designed by Virgina native Hamilton with three former classmates from the Centre for Digital Media—Zeeshan Rasool, Vijay Ramaswamy and Amanda Shou—puts a lot of trust in its users.

None of Quupe’s more than 1,000 members has taken advantage of that yet, Hamilton says: “Although the insurance needs to be there to guard against any fraud, the reality is that most people are very careful and concerned with each others’ stuff, so we haven’t had anything like that happen.”

Signing up for the service is free, with Quupe taking a 20-percent fee for each transaction. So far, it’s been enough for the four co-founders to quit their day jobs. The company has also hired two employees.

Quupe is only available in Vancouver and select suburbs right now, but plans to move out to Surrey and Victoria are in motion, with bigger goals on the horizon. “Our ideal user is people aged 18 to 45 who are likely to rent or borrow things from their friends,” Hamilton explains. “In  the Lower Mainland, that number is 1.1 million, but worldwide it’s around 3.1 billion. It’s one of those things where I just think that the market timing is now ideal. People are now totally comfortable with Airbnb and Uber, and looking at what other resources we can share.”

Carlyn Loncaric

Founder and CEO, VodaSafe

Coquitlam native Carlyn Loncaric came up with the idea for her business on a beach. But it wasn’t the aha moment you might think, where a relaxed onlooker sees the sun touch the ocean and everything clicks. Loncaric conceived the AquaEye, VodaSafe’s flagship product, during her years as a Vancouver lifeguard.

As an SFU microelectronics graduate student at the turn of the decade, she was paying for her education by overseeing swimmers at the city’s pools and beaches. “There was a couple of years where you heard of kids drowning off docks and waterfronts, and I was doing electronics, and you have a lot of time as a lifeguard; you’re in a chair for eight hours, going back and forth with your eyes,” Loncaric says. “I just figured that there was something simpler people could be using.”

The AquaEye is a handheld device that employs sonar to scan the underwater search area, allowing the user to locate victims immediately. “Most lifeguards are 16 to 24, and you’re in situations where a mom comes up to you that her kid’s gone missing, and your heart rate jumps and you kind of have to act on autopilot,” Loncaric explains.

VodaSafe has teamed up with the Lifesaving Society, a national volunteer and charitable organization that works to prevent drowning and water-related injury, to manufacture and distribute the AquaEye. Last November the Kelowna-based company sold 50 beta units, and it’s hoping to have its first production run this spring.

Merideth Schutter

Founder and CEO, PROtect

Realtor Merideth Schutter’s entrepreneurial venture also resulted from a personal experience concerning safety. In 2013, Schutter, a Vancouver agent with Re/Max Canada, was showing an open house when two men entered, locked the door and tried to attack her. Bystanders intervened, but the incident stuck with Schutter.

“I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’m either going to leave this job and do something different, or I need to have a solution,'” she says at Re/Max’s Kerrisdale offices. “Obviously I have tons of friends in this business, and they’ve had numerous situations where we’ve all thought to ourselves, ‘Something needs to change.'”

So Schutter hired a group of male software developers in their early 20s to build an app that lets users connect with their closest contacts and alert them in unfamiliar or emergency scenarios. PROtect combines mobile technology and personal networks to act as a virtual security guard, and its uses go well beyond the real estate industry. “I have a 13-year-old daughter, and she uses it almost every day,” Schutter says. “The youth that are striving for independence, they want to take the bus, they want to go with their friends, but as parents we still live with this nervous feeling that they’re still little girls out rolling around.”

The app has only been on the market for about four months, but Schutter is already starting to step away from the real estate business to look after PROtect (and the company’s five other employees). Her connection with Re/Max will probably remain strong, though: the agency has adopted the app for all of its realtors in Western Canada, with plans to take it across the country and to head office in Denver.

“I had a chat today with the VP of Re/Max Western Canada,” Schutter notes. “He said, ‘You know, I don’t want it exclusive; at the end of the day I want all the [other real estate] brands to adopt this.'”