Pivoting in a Pandemic

Entrepreneurs from the Alberta School of Business are showcasing their adaptability in the face of COVID-19.

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world in mid-March, one of the most immediate consequences was massive disruption to the global economy.

Authorities around the world declared the spread of the deadly virus a public health emergency; citizens were asked to participate in varying degrees of isolation, meaning they could no longer go to work. Larger companies and the public service sector began laying off staff, while small and medium-sized businesses (SMB) either went bankrupt or were temporarily shut down.

By the end of March, a million Canadians were unemployed.

For students and alumni of the Alberta School of Business who own and operate their own SMBs, COVID-19 and its economic fallout have been extremely challenging. Forced to rethink and redesign their strategies, these entrepreneurs have adapted and are now creating new business opportunities for themselves.

In the process, they are also helping others navigate their way out of an economic and social crisis not seen in our lifetime.

Socially distanced ninjas

After five years of building Fitset, an Edmonton-based fitness co-operative providing variety to customers by allowing them to purchase a multi-facility workout pass, Tim Gourlay, '09 BCom, '18 MBA, decided to try something new. In December 2019, the former Golden Bears and Canadian Men’s National Volleyball team member shifted focus to a new business called Fitset Ninja, a 20,000-square-foot indoor training facility dedicated to the relatively new sport of Ninja (made popular on the television show American Ninja Warrior).

Before COVID-19, Fitset Ninja was operating at full capacity.

“When the virus struck North America,” said Gourlay, “we went into a complete shutdown in a matter of days. We had to adapt very quickly, reconfiguring our business and creating a training environment that was fun and safe for customers.”

In September, he launched the Fitset Ninja Academy, a modified school experience that allows parents who are unable to stay home with their children to safely leave them with Fitset Ninja staff and tutors.

Open to students in grades one to nine whose parents have opted for online learning rather than sending their children back to Edmonton schools, the Ninja Academy isn’t intended to replace the traditional teaching experience. Nor are staff and tutors teaching the curriculum. Rather, they are there to support students’ independent learning and provide a structured, distraction-free and physically distanced learning environment.

With a 7,000-square-foot ninja obstacle course for a classroom, children have an opportunity to exercise, play and burn off some energy, while parents can feel comfortable knowing their kids are properly spaced apart.

The Ninja Academy currently has 20 students enrolled, along with two tutors who have more than 20 years’ experience in educational training and child care.

“We’re very happy with the response so far,” said Gourlay, “and if we take in any more students we will have to hire another teaching assistant, which is a really good problem to have.”

Body Temperature Scanner

Screening for the unknown

Arch Innovations is the brainchild of three Edmonton entrepreneurs: Hank Van Weelden, '88 BCom, Cody Lakevold and Alex Thomson, a board member of the U of A School of Retailing.

Knowing it may take years for a COVID-19 vaccine, the three men gained the Canada-wide rights to a temperature screening device intended to help businesses safely grow back their workforce capacity.

Able to process up to 600 people per hour, the Smart Bio Solutions Arch (SBSA) looks much like a regular metal detector. Its thermal technology can accurately measure individual temperatures from 1.5 metres away and provide safe, 360-degree sanitization using “food grade disinfectant” (meaning it can be consumed). It’s all done with zero-point contact so companies don’t need to have other staff members in close proximity during testing.

The Arch Innovations team recently added Jared Smith, '98 BCom—co-founder and former principal at Incite Strategy and member of the School of Business Advisory Council—as a consultant, and are working on getting the SBSA into varying locations across Canada, from cafes to airports.

Putting innovation on the menu

Karan Nagpal, a current BCom student, is the founder and owner of ServerTab, an Edmonton company whose goal is to replace traditional paper menus with AI-powered virtual ones that can direct orders and hail servers.

Founded in 2018, the company helps connect small to medium-sized restaurants, bars and cafes with technology that reduces operating costs, prevents the spread of germs, increases average ticket sizes and prevents waste from paper menus.

When COVID-19 began affecting the economic viability of the service industry, Nagpal pivoted his company from creating efficiencies in restaurant costs to helping these same restaurants fight for survival.

The pivot, however, came at a cost.

“Our software was originally designed for tablet kiosks that were placed on tables and shared by visiting guests,” said Nagpal. “With new safety protocols in place because of the virus, sharable tablets were no longer feasible.”

ServerTab was forced to abandon a year’s worth of software development, marketing efforts and beta testing, but Nagpal and his team persevered.

They have been able to completely rebuild ServerTab and remodel its services, integrating new AI features into its software. Instead of using shared tablets, customers can now bring up menus on their personal mobile devices.

Using a QR code, customers can view the menu, order directly from their phones or even call the server, depending on the options restaurant management choose. Thanks to machine learning, the menu itself can gather data such as weather, time of day and upcoming events, and then make product recommendations and suggest price promotions to management. It can even reorganize itself, placing items it knows sell better at certain times in the most visible spot.

Nagpal said ServerTab is now working on installing its product in a handful of restaurants and cafes around Edmonton.

“Imagine a bar showing Hockey Night in Canada on a busy Saturday night,” he said. “And when the Oilers score, there’s a pop-up telling people that beer is 25% off for the next 30 minutes. That’s a pretty cool feature to have.”

Great ideas change the world, but ideas need a push forward. At the University of Alberta, we know that push has never been more important as we do our part to rebuild Alberta and keep doors of opportunity open to all. We're making research discoveries. We’re cultivating entrepreneurs. And we’re giving our students the knowledge and skills they need to turn today's ideas into tomorrow's innovations. Read more stories about U of A innovators.