Ottawa’s Contextere takes on the urban jungle


Don’t count Gabe Batstone among those who believe automation is the enemy of the blue-collar worker.

The co-founder of Contextere, a new startup based at Invest Ottawa, says the oft-repeated claim that technologies such as robotics and the myriad of devices connected to the Internet are going to make human labour obsolete is a misconception. Instead, he argues, such devices actually offer a great chance to improve human productivity and make workers’ lives safer – an opportunity that so far has gone unrealized.

His company is out to change that. Founded eighteen months ago, Contextere makes artificial intelligence software that compiles data about employees themselves, the tools they are using and the machines they are working on and analyzes that information to help labourers be safer and more efficient.

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“Thirteen workers die every day on the job in the U.S.,” Mr. Batstone says. “That’s astounding when you think of the capability of technology we have.”

High-level investors south of the border think the folks at Contextere might be on to something as well. The five-person firm is one of eight startups taking part in the second cohort of the New York-based Urban-X accelerator that launched earlier this month.

Funded by BMW’s Mini brand and venture capital outfit SOSV, Urban-X provides $60,000 US in seed capital as well as mentorship, HR, legal, accounting and marketing support – including trips to Germany and China to meet with mentors – to fledgling enterprises that are developing technology to make cities run smarter.

“They loved the way that we were looking to blend automation with the human element,” Mr. Batstone says in an interview from the 23,000-square-foot Urban-X facility in Brooklyn.

“Instead of the use of AI and automation to replace the human element, we’re very much about the augmentation of the human (element). I always say, we’re about creating Iron Man, not Skynet.”

Studies show that workers charged with maintaining, repairing and inspecting everything from planes and trains to bridges and pipelines spend up to 70 per cent of their workdays on tasks that aren’t part of their core responsibilities, Mr. Batstone says. The duties they do perform are done incorrectly about a quarter of the time.

“How are you going to get the people who put warm hands on cold steel to be able to do that in the most effective and efficient way?” he says.

Mr. Batstone offers an example of an aircraft maintenance worker who has been dispatched to repair an engine in the field.

Contextere’s software can call up any relevant background information on that worker, including what specific tasks he is and is not certified to perform, and crunch data from sensors in the engine itself to offer the employee step-by-step guidance – instructing him to make sure electrical outputs stay within a certain voltage range, for example – and warn him of any potential hazards involved in the operation. The information can be delivered through means as simple as a text message to a worker’s smartphone.

It’s all about arming people with as much data as possible to help them do their jobs well, Mr. Batstone says.

“How someone maintains something effectively depends on that person, not on the equipment,” he explains.

Urban proving ground

For the next three months, he and his colleagues will have a chance to test their products in one of the greatest proving grounds on the planet: New York City. The most populous urban area in the United States is home to the largest municipal sanitation department on earth as well as a massive transportation network that includes nearly 10,000 kilometres of roads – the equivalent of one-quarter of the total distance around the globe – and one of the world’s longest subway systems with more than 1,300 kilometres of track.

Any way you slice it, the Big Apple has a mammoth amount of infrastructure that must be kept in good running order, and thousands of employees responsible for doing that every day.

“The scale of New York City seemed like a great place to come and apply these concepts that we’re confident will work in aerospace and defence and oil and gas and apply them here in a city environment,” Mr. Batstone says. “They say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere, right?”

But Contextere began making a name for itself even before its arrival at Urban-X. The company was cash-flow positive from the get-go and is on pace to surpass $1 million in revenues in its first full year in business, Mr. Batstone says.

“We were able to generate revenue from the start,” he says. “That’s given us the luxury to spend time on market problems and customers and not on convincing people we have a good idea.”

The startup is targeting Fortune 1000 companies that are looking for enterprise solutions to boost productivity. It’s a lucrative global market with huge potential, but Mr. Batstone concedes that actually getting deals done with firms of that size requires a hefty amount of patience and persistence.

“The good news is they’ve got reasonable budgets and they care about these kind of productivity challenges,” he says. “But the reality is the procurement cycles are long and there’s certain hoops and hurdles that you have to go through. We knew those in advance, so to us that was just a part of the process.”

With federal leaders in Canada and the United States vowing to invest huge money in new infrastructure projects over the next several years, Mr. Batstone says the sky is the limit for his young firm.

“There are literally going to be trillions of dollars in the U.S. and certainly many billions of dollars in Canada spent on infrastructure,” he says. “If we’re going to make that infrastructure smart and we are going to factor in the digital component to the infrastructure, there’s kind of two elements. One, that’s a large business opportunity, and two, I think it behooves us part of the technology and business community to try to make sure that money is spent in the best possible way.”

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