Blue-collar approach paying dividends for Ottawa AI firm Contextere

An Ottawa startup that bills itself as “Siri for the blue-collar worker” is rolling up its sleeves and putting in overtime in a bid to capitalize on surging demand for its AI platform in the wake of the pandemic.

Contextere’s software helps ensure labourers such as maintenance workers and mechanics have access to all the tools and relevant data they need to work on complex machinery. The five-year-old company started big with a $1.1-million contract from defence giant Lockheed Martin and landed some early funding from BMW and a spot in its U.S. accelerator

This week, the seven-person venture landed another marquee customer in Serco, a multibillion-dollar U.K.-based firm that’s helping design and engineer new joint support ships for the Royal Canadian Navy. 

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The 13-month, $850,000 deal will see Contextere’s analytics platforms pull together reams of data from sources as diverse as repair manuals and hand-written notes into a format that front-line workers can access at their fingertips on the job site.

“Imagine if you could just Google, ‘How do I repair F-35 landing gear?’” Contextere co-founder and CEO Gabe Batstone explains. “Of course you can’t do that. (Contextere’s) insight engines really bridge that gap.”

“Imagine if you could just Google, ‘How do I repair F-35 landing gear?’”

The way Batstone sees it, Contextere’s software is particularly valuable in the COVID-19 era because it relieves a couple of key pain points facing many firms during the health crisis. 

First, he says the platform gives workers all the information they need to do the job right the first time ​– reducing the need for costly do-overs at a time when shuttling back and forth between distant work sites isn’t as safe or easy as it used to be. 

In addition, as companies look to limit the number of maintenance staff on any given job to maintain physical distancing, the ability to multitask is more important than ever, he adds. Contextere’s AI can help workers wrap their heads around complex tasks without wasting time flipping through inch-thick manuals. 

Batstone says the pandemic has opened the market’s eyes to the platform’s potential.  

Resistance to change ‘a big barrier’

“Things that you couldn’t have even thought of months ago are now just taken for granted,” he says. “When you’re an innovator, one of the biggest barriers, particularly in the industrial space, is change. People now accept that things have to be different in a way that they never (did before). That gets you through a big barrier.”

Unlike many fledgling startups, Contextere has shied away from VCs as a fundraising avenue in favour of old-fashioned bootstrapping. Batstone is hoping the deal with Serco ​– a highly diversified company with more than a billion dollars in annual revenues ​– is just the beginning of a lucrative, long-term business partnership.

“We aren’t on the spinning wheel of venture capital,” he says. “We’ve always focused on corporate relationships.” 

While Batstone says 2020 won’t be a banner year in terms of revenue growth, he says Contextere is “closing in on a bunch of deals” and expects big things over the next 12 months. It’s an optimistic outlook he shares for the rest of the local tech community.

“There’s so many good news stories coming out of Ottawa, you could almost forget we’re in a pandemic,” Batstone says. “I think that’s a testament to the quality of people and innovation that we have here in the nation’s capital.”

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