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.

Students Create Immersive Multimedia Solutions in Technology Innovation Course


Thirty-four Computer Science and Integrated Design students from Dalhousie/NSCAD University worked together in the fall 2016 offering of the “Technology Innovation” course to create a variety of immersive multimedia solutions for the NSCAD Prototype Dome.

Throughout the course, students were exposed to elements of design thinking, project management, and software development to “get their hands dirty” and solve a central design challenge.

The challenge? Create engaging multimedia content for the dome that used public data sets to tell a story that resonated with Nova Scotians.

One such example was the creation of a “Global Cooking Challenge” that used Playstation™ controllers to teach people how to cook a sample dish from a particular country. Students learned through design thinking observations and various insights that:

  • International students feel isolated from the greater community
  • Typical events for international students are geared toward connecting them with other international students instead of locals
  • People of different cultures look to commonalities to form connections

Ultimately, the game served a much more important role: To create stronger connections between international and Canadian students.

NSCAD/Dalhousie University students playing the “Global Cooking Challenge” game in the prototype dome

The course exemplified the collaborative effectiveness between design and technology students supported by an enthusiastic industry partner. Each solution also modelled the creative potential for dome technologies.

To learn more, please visit the Technology Innovation course page on this website.

Jac Gautreau, Dome Project Creative Producer, explaining dome-powered technologies to students.

Orientation Week Welcome for New Students

The first week of September is an important one for post-secondary institutions as we welcome a new batch of students to campus through Orientation Week (O-Week). ShiftKey Labs partnered up with the Dal Faculty of Computer Science Society (CSS) and Computer Science Graduate Society (CSGS) to deliver some fun activities to our new friends.

On September 6th, incoming undergraduate Computer Science students participated in a Rapid Innovation session held in ShiftKey Labs. Students were already placed in teams by CSS organizers and each team was asked to draw two words out of a box. The goal was to take 3 minutes and use these two words to come up with a unique software-based innovation. Each team was invited up to the front of the room to present their solution in a 2-minute “pitch”. The Sandbox Manager and other students in the room could then ask questions to clarify and provide some feedback to the team. The activity concluded with an award of 1–3 points based on the originality, viability, and potential impact of each idea.

Some fun word combinations and potential solutions were

 Words Idea
Youth, Senior An interactive game that brought youth and seniors together over shared activities
Transportation, Efficiency Attachable body modifications to cars to increase their aerodynamics. Sensors that provided car owners with easy-to-understand diagnostic and performance information through a mobile application.
Tourism, Safety A mobile app that lets tourists (or anyone else new to the region) know about safety alerts. Could also incorporate safety notices to friends and family members.

On September 7th, graduate CS students attended an orientation session that showcased different research areas and labs within the Faculty of Computer Science. ShiftKey Labs hosted an information booth and invited one of the Lab Resident Project Teams, UnivFax, to demo their start-up business. Students circulated around the room, enjoyed pizza and drinks, and chatted with us about the lab and how they might get involved.

As O-Week comes to a close, we hope you’ve enjoyed the activities and know a little bit more about the resources, supports and opportunities available to you on campus.

Code Immersion for High School Students

IMG_0777Over three consecutive days, high school students within the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) and the Shad Valley Dalhousie program attended coding workshops within ShiftKey Labs.

On Tuesday, HRM students, current post-secondary students, and coding professionals learned how to fix programming errors in the popular Minesweeper strategy game. Students were handed a master list of errors that included a description of the error and in which file to find it. For each programming problem they solved, students earned JavaScript “badges” and a prize was given to the student who earned the most badges.

IMG_0784After an intense round of debugging, participants were challenged to a minesweeper tournament. Prizes were awarded to the person who could solve the puzzle in the shortest amount of time.

One student got lucky and was able to solve the puzzle on “easy” mode in 0.9 seconds (although he claimed it was pure skill)!

On Wednesday, 10 Shad Dal students participated in a 2.5 hour Introduction to WordPress workshop. After learning a little bit about the platform, students spent time creating their own blogs focused on one of their personal interests or a project they were working on through their month-long residency in the Shad program.


One of the students developed a site to showcase their Shad project called “Planta” that focuses on creating a “fun, educational gardening kit for kids”.

Thursday’s workshop was a rerun of the minesweeper tutorial for all 55 students participating in the Shad Dal program. The room was packed with students and energy! One of the exceptional students solved all 5 programming errors and the bonus challenge in a record-breaking 20 minutes! Looks like he has a promising coding career in front of him 🙂

It was an absolute treat to host these workshops for these enthusiastic, vibrant groups of students. The feedback at each session was that everyone learned something new about coding and had fun doing it. Hopefully, I get to see some of these students again as incoming Computer Science students at Dalhousie.


Creative Minds: Meet the Creative Working Group, based out of ShiftKey Labs

Ben Bright has the mindset of a startup entrepreneur. And when he’s not developing his own ideas, the Business Management student is helping to develop a culture of innovation at Dal.

Ben is the lead and founding member of the Creative Working Group, a multidisciplinary collection of students that operates out of the Dalhousie-based ShiftKey Labs. Described by ShiftKey program manager Grant Wells as a “pre-incubator” space, the lab supports technology-based innovation at its earliest stages by connecting would-be entrepreneurs with the resources they need.

Last year, Ben brought an idea to Grant for feedback and support. Although that idea never came to fruition, Ben began volunteering for ShiftKey and Grant eventually challenged him to create an entity of his own within the lab’s structure.

“Grant said, if you can bring four or five people together to volunteer, you can run this Creative Working Group team,” Ben explains.

Bringing the team together

Ben was able to recruit students from the faculties of Management, Science, Engineering and Computer Science to join his team. The Creative Working Group was tasked not only with supporting ShiftKey initiatives, but also for creating events that would increase student engagement with the lab.

“The idea was to create a group that would be a core part of the lab, where the students generate ideas that will be appealing to other students and get the opportunity to plan and promote them,” Grant says.

Among the ideas the Creative Working Group brought to life during the final months of the 2015-16 academic year was a weekly “open mic” event, where students, alumni and community members came to ShiftKey and get constructive feedback on their innovative ideas in a supportive setting. Plans are in place to relaunch the event this fall.

“It doesn’t matter if you have an idea for a platform that already has hundreds and thousands of users or one that’s in its first line of code. You share with us and we’re just a group of people who will evaluate your idea,” says Ben. “Are there resources we can guide you to? Are there places or people who might be interested in helping you out?”

Ben believes collaboration is essential to innovation in the technology sphere and that the most important function of the Creative Working Group is bringing together people from a variety of disciplines.

“For a business to come to life you have to have the business tools, the technical tools, the idea and the designers and the informatics,” he says. “What happens to those Marine Biology students who have great ideas and want to turn them into something, but have nobody to reach out to because everyone around them is the same?

“We’re a collaborative group with different skill sets.”

Making those connections

Fellow Creative Working Group members Nick Lor and Faye Teeuwen exemplify this diversity of skills. Nick is an Industrial Engineering student who says getting involved with the group has opened his mind to new ideas and new applications of his own talents.

“Being around people who don’t think the same way as you is an eye-opening experience,” Nick says. “And there’s something about collaborating with other students to bring someone’s idea to fruition that’s interesting to me.”

Faye, an Applied Computer Science student, says the Creative Working Group experience mirrors and enhances the multidisciplinary learning in her academic program.

“It’s a bit of business, a bit of computer science, a combination of those two,” Faye says. “So it connects very well to my degree.”

Perhaps the most important lesson that Creative Working Group members have learned from their association with ShiftKey is the importance of hard work and determination in the entrepreneurial world.

“If I didn’t fail on that first startup idea and I’d left ShiftKey, I wouldn’t be where I am with the group today,” Ben says.

“It’s about making that first connection. In the real world, you’ve got to put your foot in the door.”

— Story by Matt Semansky

Hack Attack: Dal‑Hosted ShiftKey Labs and IBM Partner on Open Data Competition

Earlier this month, the Dal-hosted ShiftKey Labs and IBM teamed up to offer post-secondary students from across Nova Scotia the opportunity to find compelling, innovative uses for government data.

The “hackathon” event, held International Open Data Day (March 5), saw students using an IBM cloud-computing platform and data sets available through the Nova Scotia Government’s Open Data Portal (ODP) as they competed for $2,250 in prize money.

The idea was simple: students would build analytical applications that leveraged the rich data sets available through the ODP — public government data covering areas such as business and economy, communities and social services, government administration, and nature and environment. It was up to the teams to decide whether to use one data set, or a combination of many, to define a challenge and develop an innovative solution.

The event was held at ShiftKey (the Dal-hosted information communications technology sandbox space) in the Goldberg Computer Science Building, and kicked off with an introduction from the Honourable Labi Kousoulis, Nova Scotia’s Minister of Internal Services (left, with ShiftKey Labs program director Grant Wells). He welcomed the 20 student participants, mostly undergraduates, who showed up despite a snowstorm.

Partnership and connection

Their tool for the day was IBM’s Bluemix, a cloud platform-as-service that combines IBM software, third party and open technologies. A key piece of the Bluemix platform revolves around analytics: in order to build apps and services that can intuitively respond to behaviours — and the world around them — people need to be able to establish context and create a personalization of data.

“Bluemix provides DevOps in the cloud – an open, integrated development experience that scales,” says Stephen Perelgut, IBM Canada’s cloud-business development manager. “DevOps services help developers, independent firms, and enterprise teams get started to build enterprise applications more quickly and effectively.”

With the help of IBM experts, students used the Bluemix platform to tackle their challenges and data sets. By Sunday, teams had to create a good idea and a basic prototype of an app or service. IBM and other industry partners completed the judging.

“I was very impressed by the participants,” adds Perelgut. “[They] took in a three-hour demonstration and applied it in many different ways to develop solutions that merged multiple data bases, ran on desktops, tablets, and smartphones, and addressed the challenge successfully at many levels.”

And the winner is…

A team of three third- and fourth-year Computer Science and Informatics students (Dylan Pomeroy, Eric Desjardins, and Wilson Chiang) was behind the winning app, Food Piper, designed to connect customers to local restaurants.

Food Piper uses publicly-available data to locate food establishments, while also highlighting specials and package deals. The team used Bluemix’s capabilities to scrape data, quickly build a database and model it into a map suitable for a number of different devices. The team behind Food Piper intends on trying to develop their idea into a commercial product supported by ShiftKey Labs.

Other products included an extreme-event app that used a published open data set describing abandoned mines; an app that blended open-data listings of all hospitals and clinics with a plan of acquiring real-time data about emergency care wait times; an app to identify when rising sea levels would cause an area to be underwater; and one designed to share areas of items of interest (schools, jobs, etc.) with people moving to a new neighbourhood.

“First- and second-year students generated very interesting ideas and created very impressive prototypes, showing how competitive they were with senior undergraduate and graduate students,” says Grant Wells, program manager of ShiftKey. “In particular, it was fascinating to see the first- and second-year team, Settlr, read through dozens of data sets to pull together five for their product, whereas most other teams only implemented one or two data sets.”

Helping students expand their skills

Speaking about the event, Minister Kousoulis described the Government of Nova Scotia’s goal of allowing individuals, businesses, students and researchers alike to use the Open Data Portal to apply fresh eyes to public problems or to create jobs and business opportunities.

“It’s my hope the students who took part in the hackathon used data to look at a problem through a different lens – or used two seemingly unrelated datasets to spur a business idea they can grow in Nova Scotia,” he said.

Opportunities like the hackathon also allow for more collaboration within industry and give students the opportunity to explore really rich publicly available data. With no context set in place, students have the freedom to be innovative.

“The ultimate goal of events like these are to drive innovation,” says Andrew Rau-Chaplin, dean of the Faculty of Computer Science. “They not only bring together students from diverse backgrounds and institutions to tackle a challenge in a very short period of time, they inspire creative thinking around problem solving — something we want to instill in our students.”

Written by: Allison Kincade

Hacking Healthcare Solutions Using Allscripts Development Tools

Over the weekend of January 23rd and 24th, students at Dalhousie University participated in the Allscripts Developer Training Workshop and Code-a-Thon. The goal: to create an innovative solution to a healthcare-related “challenge” as presented by the Allscripts on-site support team or another challenge identified by the student team using the Allscripts Unity API – a suite of tools open to the third-party developer community.

To kick things off, students spent three hours learning all about the Allscripts developer portal, Unity API, and how they can integrate these tools into the developer’s preferred workflows and environment. After the training, students were treated to lunch and the Allscripts support staff presented a design challenge to the students. Over the next hour or so, students formed small project teams and began working on the presented challenge or a challenge of their own choosing. Students continued to work feverishly on possible solutions up to the idea presentation showcase at 2pm on Sunday afternoon. Unlike most hack-a-thons, idea pitches were not judged but instead, event attendees, including Dr. Raza Abidi of NICHE Research Group, participated in a lively Q&A period following each presentation.

All parties felt that there were many positive outcomes from this event including the strengthening of connections between students, the faculty, and Allscripts. Students also benefitted from free access to the Allscripts Developer Portal, including hands-on training and support at the event on how to code using the Allscripts Unity API. Several great ideas were generated as potential healthcare-related solutions and all partners have committed to providing the necessary supports for student developers wishing to continue development.

Team 42—WAP
Team 42—WAP