NS Sandboxes Bootcamp Fosters Creativity, Innovation for Entrepreneurs

Story by: Allison Kincade, Dalhousie University, Faculty of Computer Science

Not your average summer camp

For the second year in a row, ShiftKey Labs—the Dal-hosted innovation sandbox in the Goldberg Computer Science Building—co-designed and delivered a province-wide bootcamp for budding entrepreneurs, the Creativity and Innovation Bootcamp.

Twelve Dalhousie students worked alongside forty-six others hailing from 7 universities and 6 other sandboxes, to tackle one central issue facing Nova Scotian communities today: How might people who live in Nova Scotia reduce the amount of plastic and paper that ends up in the landfill?

Premier Stephen McNeil stopped by to see the innovation in action, giving a few words of support and encouragement for all involved.

Collaboration is key

The aim of the bootcamp was to help students discover more about their own ability to create unique and impactful responses to real-world challenges, with design-thinking – or human-centered design – at its core.

Last year, teams competed for finalist positions over the course of three months. This year, the human-centered approach saw students also divided into smaller groups, but with the intent of splitting up across the multidisciplinary fields of study with the final objective of advancing stronger student connections within the cohort, and showcasing the real value that comes from collaborating within a diverse group of individuals.

“After last year’s Bootcamp, we felt that the best way to harness the collaborative potential of the entire cohort would be to remove the competitive project ‘pitch’ where the ‘best’ team would win the prize money,” says Grant Wells, manager of ShiftKey Labs.

“I feel that the solutions generated were of a much higher quality, as teams maximized their learning without the barriers to collaboration.”

Master of Applied Computer Science Student and ShiftKey Labs student participant, Shilpa Singh, was pleasantly surprised by the diverse culture backgrounds and fields of study that her peers brought to the bootcamp. “It was great exposure for me; I got a chance to really expand my network,” she says.

Design-thinking and problem solving

The issue at hand was an easy one to get students to buy into. The topic of recycling and reducing contamination of items to be recycled is constantly trending across disciplines – and has an impact on every citizen.

To help tackle the problem at hand, students spent their two weeks immersed in interactive workshops and learning the process, alongside time for independent experimentation. Students were equipped with a handful of approaches to problem solving and practiced new tools for testing and solving ideas.

When asked to reflect on their experience, most students highlight the lessons they learned in brainstorming, noting that their perception on how to approach it has been flipped on its head.

“This was a major life lesson for me on a new way of brainstorming,” Singh says. “Just by using simple techniques like writing your ideas on sticky notes, drawing stick figures to explain the solution, and following the whole procedure of human design thinking, I learned a completely new way of looking at a problem and finding the solution from people’s perspective.”

Students were also encouraged to actually get outside to observe people’s behaviours and talk to them about what they were thinking. “The whole program was conducted in a way where we came up with a solution to a problem, without even realizing we were working on it the whole time!” Singh adds. “This was really a once in a lifetime experience for me.”

Students went from having little to no understanding of what design-thinking even meant to having enough confidence to work individually, in small groups, and a mash-up of groups – to develop ideas that led to solution-driven early prototypes that could impact our society.

“Next year, we will continue to evolve the program and improve upon its success,” says Wells. “I would like even more Dal students to experience this amazing opportunity, take advantage of the variety of skills development programs offered at ShiftKey Labs, and the network of provincial sandboxes.”

Asked what he feels the main value in activities like this is, Wells remarks, “Ultimately, it can be life changing for a student to join our open and welcome community. No matter what, it will further enhance their overall academic experience here at Dalhousie.”

Fast-track your WordPress Skills with WordCamp Halifax 2018

What is WordCamp Halifax?

First, it is the only WordPress related conference east of Montreal! WordCamps are an international movement of accessible conferences aimed at covering all things related to the popular CMS. The goal is to create an informative and accessible event for people of all skill levels and backgrounds to learn about WordPress.

On Saturday, June 16 2018, 200 attendees will take in 21 sessions ranging from code, marketing, design, accessibility, how-tos, community and more. $25 gets you access to all sessions, free lunch, swag and a killer afterparty. Compared to many other tech events – that price is a steal!

Learn more at https://2018.halifax.wordcamp.org.

What can it offer start-ups?

Coders will enjoy the dedicated developers track. Last year’s topics included REST API, performance troubleshooting, workflows and remote worker mental health. Founders will enjoy the content creators track, which focuses on everything from design to marketing strategies. And finally, the site creators track is fantastic for picking up tricks and tips to make the most of WordPress. Content-wise, there is something for everyone at WordCamp.

How can you participate?

Have something interesting to say about WordPress? A call for 40 minute speaker sessions is open until May 1. You can talk about how WordPress enhances your web experience. Whether you’re an end-user with something interesting to say about the platform or a seasoned vet looking to regale the crowds with your experiences and expertise, we’re listening. Not sure if your desired topic suits the venue? Just ask. We’re happy to help would-be presenters hone their skills.

Additionally, there will be a Happiness Bar signup closer to the event that will be looking for attendee volunteers. What exactly is a Happiness Bar? Well, it doesn’t serve drinks, but it does serve up plenty of smiles! The Happiness Bar is staffed with incredible WordPress talents available to help you troubleshoot your sites, plugins, themes and all things WordPress.

Of course, you can also buy a ticket and take in all this exciting programing.

So what are you waiting for? Get in on the action of Halifax’s second WordCamp!


Sponsored by ShiftKey Labs

 

Three Winning Teams in Hackathon for 1st/2nd Year Students

On Saturday, November 25th, seven teams students participated in the first hackathon aimed specifically at 1st and 2nd year students at Dalhousie University and the Nova Scotia Community College.

Throughout the day, each team developed innovative ideas for products using any technologies they were comfortable with in three prize categories worth $250 each: the “most social”, the “most humorous”, and the “most complete”.

To help students with any questions they might have about product development and coding, eleven students at the senior undergraduate and masters level at Dal volunteered their time to support the event.

“There was a lot of energy, enthusiasm, and excitement in the room – right from the start” reports Grant Wells, Manager of ShiftKey Labs. “Everyone was competing hard for the prizes but there were a lot of laughs so I know they were enjoying this opportunity to apply their coding skills in fun, creative ways.”

Each team presented their ideas and rough demos of their solutions to the room but instead of evaluating winning teams with a traditional panel of judges, each person in the room voted on the ideas they felt were best in the three prize categories.

The winner for “most social” application was team “1UP” – a place for Dalhousie Societies to share their talents, improve their clubs, and interact with other students with different interests and different backgrounds.

Team “Chipotle” earned “most humorous” prize to help students ease their depression by tickling their funny bone with videos based on their comedic interests.

The “most complete” application prize went to team “Snack Track” – an app that helps people track their food and get more information on what they’re eating to make more informed dietary decisions.

Congratulations to everyone who participated!

Team “Snack Track” (l to r): Stephen Terrio and Mackenzie Boudreau. Winners of the “most complete” prize category.
Team “1UP” (l to r): Thomas Rizzuto, Oliver Dechant, and Ivy Lin, winners of the “most social” prize category
Team “Chipotle (l to r): James MacPhee and Rylan Conway, winners of the “most humorous” prize category

MyMem Models Startup Success with Competition Wins

A siri-like app, developed by current and former Dalhousie students, to assist older people and those with dementia to recall information easily and independently using artificial intelligence has recently been awarded $50,000 investment after success at national and regional competitions.

Last week, Volta Labs in partnership with Innovacorp and BDC Capital, launched the Volta Cohort – a new $125,000 micro fund for Atlantic Canadian early-stage companies. The Dalhousie-based team, MyMem were one of five Halifax companies to be awarded a $25,000 funding and mentorship package at the November 14th launch event, following a competitive pitching process.

Age-Well Ideathon 2nd place winners (L to R): Arun Athisamy, Eric Fisher, Harish Gopinath, and Aishwarya Ravichandran

This follows similar success at a national ideathon competition. Back in October, AGE-WELL Network of Centres of Excellence and HACKING HEALTH hosted the culmination of a Canada-wide competition to identify and invest in new technologies and services to support healthy aging. MyMem placed second in the national initiative and took home $25,000 investment.

MyMem is the creation of alumnus Eric Fisher (PhD Biochemistry & Molecular Biology ’13) and current Master of Applied Computer Science program students Harish Gopinath, Arun Athisamy, and Aishwarya Ravichandran.

“We wanted to develop a solution for dementia sufferers and their families to makes things easier for those suffering from memory loss, their caregivers and families,” said Ravichandran.

“Through AI based personalized voice command, MyMem helps people living with dementia recall information quickly and independently, and hold onto memories and experiences. It will enable users to access important information and photos by voice command, requiring very little proficiency with technology. We hope the app will be fun to use as well as helpful and believe this could change the way disorders such as dementia are approached.”

MyMem’s recent accomplishment follows first-place success earlier this year at HACKING HEALTH HALIFAX in March, and Nova Scotia Sandboxes Introduction to Innovation Bootcamp in May.

The team is based out of innovation sandbox ShiftKey Labs in the Goldberg Computer Science Building, where they have benefitted from the expertise of lab manager, Grant Wells.

“MyMem have shown real potential since the idea was first conceptualized earlier this year,” says Wells. “The app could have a huge impact on people’s lives and the way in which health professionals deal with dementia, related disorders and those living with them.”

Following their recent wins, MyMem are looking ahead and moving forward with tailoring the app to better serve customers.

“The investment from both competitions will make a huge difference in how we can continue to innovate and develop the best product possible for users,” Harish Gopinath says. “We are hoping to go public with the app in 2018 and the investment of support and money we have received so far will really help to make this happen.”

Project Incubation Bootcamp a Hit

Summer 2017 was a busy one for students and to the delight of the organizers, the NS Sandboxes Project Incubation bootcamp was a hit.

“We wanted to create a program that allowed students to explore the commercial potential of their idea that was also as flexible and impactful as possible” describes Grant Wells, Manager and co-organizer of the program. “I feel the entire bootcamp team really stepped-up and delivered a program that was a large success for everyone involved.”

58 students applied and 38 students/23 teams were accepted into the 12-week program. Each week, students were required to attend a full day of curriculum in their respective sandbox, attend a minimum 1/2 hour progress review meeting with their Sandbox Manager, and work a minimum of 14 additional hours on their project.

Some teams spent their time developing technology-focused businesses using artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing (NLP) while others chose more traditional businesses such as a woodworking company using reclaimed wood source material and a local apple cider company.

In the end, 10 teams were selected as finalists to pitch at the August 24th Demo Day to a panel of 5 judges and approximately 80 other spectators.

After much deliberation, the panel of judges chose two winning teams and awarded $50,000 in prize money—$20,000 to Creative Urban Timber and $30,000 to the Island Folk Cider House.

Many bootcamp alumni have chosen to continue developing their products by returning to ShiftKey Labs as Lab Residents with a few of those teams also joining other regional incubator and accelerator programs.

Demo Day Teams

Please click the links below for more information on each of the Demo Day presenting teams.

App-solutely memorable: Halifax students making tool for those with dementia to access family photos, messages

By: Kashmala Fida For Metro Published on Mon Aug 07 2017

A new Siri-like application to help seniors with dementia or memory loss is in the works thanks to a group of current and former Dalhousie University students.

MyMem is the brainchild of graduate Eric Fisher, and current Masters of Applied Computer Science program students Harish Gopinath, Arun Athisamy, and Aishwarya Ravichandran, who have been working on the app since March.

“Our app enables us to easily access important information and photos by voice command and it requires very little use of technology,” said Fisher, who graduated with a PhD in biochemistry in 2013.

“We want to provide families and caregivers, residences with a private group account within which they can share information.”

Fisher said they wanted to create something that was both helpful and fun to use.

The idea for the app was conceived at an event called Hackathon, put together by Hacking Health, a social organization that works to improve technology development in the health sector.

During his speech, co-founder Luc Sirois mentioned that he wished for his mother to be able to access memories on her phone via Siri.

Fisher said they went with the idea from there.

“Right now we have the prototype. We are developing a version that can be tested by people which will release this fall,” he said.

Fisher said they are reaching out to the public through Kijiji and social media to look for families that could benefit from this app.

They are looking for people, not only to use the app but also to interview and talk about what their problems are on a daily basis, and to get a deeper understanding of the challenges they face.

From the information gathered, they will tailor the app to better help people.

“Their input will help us really make MyMem into something like a real, meaningful, positive impact on people’s lives.”

The application project is part of an Introduction to Innovation Bootcamp out of ShiftKey Labs at the Dalhousie University.

The group recently completed phase one of the bootcamp and are progressing to phase two.

They hope to release a broader version of the app for public use by 2018.

Supporting the Next Generation of Halifax Start-ups

By: Rebecca Rawcliffe

It may be summer but Dal-hosted innovation sandbox ShiftKey Labs is buzzing with activity from emerging entrepreneurs.

Based in the Goldberg Computer Science Building, ShiftKey is hosting seven teams from the Faculty of Computer Science all taking part in the NS Sandboxes Project Incubation Bootcamp.

From a Canadian Visa Superhero to an automatic meeting scheduler, teams are two thirds of the way through a three-month long provincial bootcamp to develop their innovation ideas.

Cutting-edge artificial intelligence

RovBOT uses cutting-edge artificial intelligence algorithms to understand the needs of individuals manoeuvring through the Canadian visa process. The idea is being developed by Computer Science graduate students Ruhi Madiwale, Dhivya Jayaraman and JeyaBalaji Samuthiravelu.

“Through Facebook Messenger, RovBOT makes the visa process easy by guiding users every step of the way, providing customised guidance”, says Ruhi Madiwale, Master of Applied Computer Science student and RovBOT Tech Evangelist. “We have trained RovBOT using publicly-available information from Citizenship and Immigration Canada(CIC) to understand individual needs and keep track of application deadlines and documentation.”

“As international students at Dalhousie who have all gone through making visa applications, we saw a need to make the visa process easier and more streamlined for those wanting to come to Canada. We hope that RovBOT can fill that gap and also offer tailored support for newcomers.”

Nurturing business potential

The aim of the bootcamp is to support teams of up to 3 founding members in the early stages of developing a product which has some business potential.

“Through mentorship, innovation-focused workshops and collaborative workspace, we are supporting the next generation of Halifax start-ups get off the ground”, says Grant Wells manager of ShiftKey Labs. “Sandboxes across the province are hosting teams with a diverse range of ideas; it’s amazing to witness the innovation and help in developing ideas which could have a real impact on day-to-day life.”

Connor Walsh, Computer Science alum, had an everyday workplace struggle in mind when developing automated meeting scheduler, Let’s Schedule.

“Identifying group availability for meetings is a common problem for most people in the workplace,” says Walsh. “This inspired me to think about developing a solution that goes beyond the traditional systems currently used.

“Let’s Schedule finds suitable group meeting slots by automatically looking at individual calendars and highlighting ideal times and dates for everyone, without requiring any manual input from users. The solution can be incorporated into existing calendar systems used in the workplace.”

Teams will go head-to-head in final presentations on August 24, with the most promising teams receiving prize money from a pool of $50,000.

CS Students Develop Winning Solution to Support Dementia Sufferers

by Rebecca Rawcliffe

A team of students from Dalhousie’s Faculty of Computer Science took home $7,500 from the Nova Scotia Sandboxes “Introduction to Innovation” Bootcamp to develop their ideas for a tech-based solution to support individuals suffering from dementia.

Master of Applied Computer Science students Aishwarya Ravichandran and Harish Gopinath’s team MyMem, beat 19 other teams from Dalhousie, Acadia, NSCC, St. Mary’s and Mount Saint Vincent to claim first place in the intensive four-week long bootcamp.

“We recognized that dementia and associated memory loss can cause major problems for those living with the condition, including loss of independence and peace of mind,” says Aishwarya. “We wanted to develop a solution for dementia sufferers and their families to makes things easier for them.”

Through AI based personalized voice command, the team identified a way to use technology to help people living with dementia recall information quickly and independently.

“We are also exploring the use of cognitive brain games, featuring a potential sufferer’s memories, to identify the different stages of dementia for family and caregivers,” adds Aishwarya. “We believe this could have a huge impact on the way disorders such as dementia are approached.”

MyMem were also first place winners at Hacking Health Halifax in March 2017.

Hands-on introduction to innovation

The Introduction to Innovation Bootcamp, aimed at post-secondary students and new graduates, was developed by sandboxes from across the province, including ShiftKey Labs based out of the Faculty of Computer Science, to introduce new entrepreneurs to start-up methodologies and design thinking, providing them with the support and advice to develop their innovative ideas.

Four weeks of hard work, including a 2-week residency at Acadia, culminated in final pitches in front of a panel of expert judges and potential investors at Dalhousie’s Faculty of Computer Science on May 25, with $15,000 dollars up for grabs for the top three placing teams.

“From supporting the local beer and wine industry to youth retention in Nova Scotia, we saw an impressive range of ideas come out of the bootcamp from the next generation of entrepreneurs,” says Grant Wells, manager of ShiftKey Labs. “Initiatives such as this prove how much emerging start-up talent there is in the Province, and through Nova Scotia Sandboxes we are dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground.

“MyMem’s pitch stood out for the judges as it has real potential to be developed as a product which could change the way in which health professionals approach dementia and related disorders.”

The top three placing teams included third-place Kinematic World — also from the Faculty of Computer Science — which took home $3,750 to develop their mobile fitness game to encourage increased physical activity amongst gamers.

All three now go forward to a second Project Incubation Bootcamp. This advanced 12-week session will support teams with existing projects to take their ideas to the next level, with a total of $50,000 in prize money available to winning teams.

Startup Connects Students with Work Opportunities

By: Matt Reeder

Benjamin Bright was fresh into his first year at Dal when he hatched an idea for a smartphone app. He had a problem, though: it was tough to find a developer to help him build it.

It’s not that there weren’t any skilled computer programmers in Halifax who might be interested in helping him out on the project. Rather, there simply wasn’t a clear path to connecting with them.

Ben finally tracked someone down after a few months of networking, but eventually ended up shelving the app project. It was taking too long to get results on the technical work.

Around this time, Ben, a Management student, also began working as a volunteer at ShiftKey Labs — a technology focused innovation sandbox hosted by Dal’s Faculty of Computer Science. There, he met other people facing the same problem he had had. There simply weren’t enough developers to meet growing demand from aspiring student entrepreneurs.

“I thought to myself, ‘I went through this pain of trying to find a developer. These people are asking for developers. There must be a problem here,’” he says.

Meeting a need

On the flip side, Ben — who is from Montreal — had begun hearing more and more about Nova Scotia’s struggle to retain highly skilled youth in the province because of a shortage of career opportunities.

That’s when he decided create StuGig, a web-based platform connecting students to short-term technology “gigs” with small- and medium-sized businesses, Dal-led student startups, and other local post-secondary student ventures.

“There’s been a major uptick in the number of student-led startups at Dal over the past few years thanks to a variety of new initiatives, and StuGig stands to play a valuable supportive role on some of those ventures and others in the community at large,” says Stephen Hartlen, Dal’s assistant vice-president of industry relations and executive director of the university’s Industry Liaison and Innovation office.

By highlighting the talent on offer at Dal and in Nova Scotia, and enabling those individuals to gain some job experience here, Ben says there’s a greater likelihood they’ll stay.

“People come to develop their skills, but they don’t stay to use their skills,” he says. “We want to find that right medium to help facilitate a solution to that problem.”

A collaborative approach

Existing platforms such as Fiverr and Elance were already helping talented freelancers tap into the so-called “gig economy,” but the StuGig team saw value in creating an option exclusively for students without a lot of real-world experience.

“We want to give students experiential learning opportunities,” says Ben, who is heading into his fourth year in Business Management with a major in Entrepreneurship and Innovation. “That way they can build their resume and they can build more credibility to ultimately land the jobs of their dreams.”

Meanwhile, startups and other businesses get a completed task at a prorated rate. And they have a readymade database of talent that they can turn to if they need help with web development, mobile apps and other smaller tasks.

Work on StuGig began in earnest just over a year ago shortly after Ben met Dal Engineering master’s grad Vijay Kumar, who took on the role of chief technology officer and began building out the platform.

Originally from India, Kumar himself had arrived in Nova Scotia eager to work but found it tough at first to find gigs. He took on an instructor role in the Department of Engineering Mathematics and Internetworking after graduation, and helped launch StuGig to assist others like himself in finding career opportunities.

Divya Dola, another Dal alum with a master’s degree in Computer Science, joined later as lead programmer.

Support through Dal

The team applied to the Faculty of Management’s annual Dal $100K competition last spring, winning one of 10 coveted spots in the Norman Newman Centre for Entrepreneurship’s eight-week LaunchPad Accelerator program that comes with $10,000 in funding.

Following that, a five-week innovation internship worth $7,500 brought them back to ShiftKey Labs, which Ben says provided “crucial” support further building out the feasibility of its platform.

A Beta version of the StuGig website launched earlier this spring for students with digital talent looking to showcase their skills to a growing marketplace. More than 100 students have created profiles on the site so far, and the StuGig team is working with local businesses and hiring managers to build out a bigger list of available gigs.

As the team gathers more data in the coming months, it will work to refine certain features to better suit the needs and wants of users. Currently, students bid on projects to win work, but eventually the platform will also include a feature where tasks can be scooped up on demand. The team also plans to add a new feature later this year to improve the process of how companies and regular users pay students for projects.

Building talent in Nova Scotia

Ben says he’d like to eventually expand StuGig beyond the tech field into other areas, too. At the broader level, he sees the platform as a driving force in modernizing the way education is delivered through experiential learning in Nova Scotia. He says the raw skills are here in the province, and StuGig’s mission is to help entrepreneurs, companies and even the public sector tap into those.

“There are some very talented people in the province,” he says. “Why are we not boasting about that?”

Students Tackle Real Business Problems at Python Hackathon

4 teams of Dal Computer Science students proved their innovation at the latest ShiftKey Labs Hackathon.

The ShiftKey-Py Hackathon took place February 22 – 24 and challenged teams to creatively solve valuable business problems using web frameworks including Python and Django.

Sponsored by social media analytics company Leadsift, the Hackathon saw students tackle issues including corporate Twitter account mapping, B2B/B2C classification of online profiles and personal vs. professional social media post classifiers.

Following two days of problem solving, students presented their solutions to a panel of expert judges with team StarDotStar’s B2B/B2C webpage classifier coming out on top.

The winning team used a range of technologies including Python, Django, NLTK and scikit-learn to build their own classifier to determine if companies from a shared dataset were B2B or B2C.

Sponsor Leadsift were so impressed by the StarDotStar’s winning solution, team member Kundan Kumar was offered full-time employment with the organisation.

Grant Wells, Manager at ShiftKey Labs said: “Hackathons like this one are part of a wide range of events organised by ShiftKey Labs for students and the community throughout the year. The sessions act as a fantastic opportunity for teams and individuals to develop their skills, access industry expertise through mentorship and gain recognition for their work. Kundan’s employment offer following the event is testament to how Hackathons such as this one are mutually beneficial to students, universities and the wider community.”

A very special thanks goes out to Colin Conrad and Vlado Keselj for their work coordinating and delivering this event.