Armed with an Education degree, a thirst for technology and an entrepreneurial spirit, alumnus Ken Bautista has become one of Edmonton’s most influential movers and shakers.
It’s a rainy afternoon when I meet Ken Bautista, ’99 BEd, at Credo café in the heart of downtown Edmonton. Well-dressed and self-confident, he appears to know half of the regulars in the café, and that’s no coincidence
“I’m a big proponent of meeting everybody,” he says. “I believe that entrepreneurial success is about developing and expanding relationships.”
At 33 years of age, Bautista, a self-proclaimed educator turned entrepreneur and game designer, is the CEO and co-founder of Rocketfuel Games, a successful company that produces interactive educational entertainment for children ages 8 - 12.
How Bautista moved from studying Education at the U of A to producing new media is a fascinating one. Actually, aside from his time in the classroom during his practicum training, Bautista has never worked as a teacher.
“I did send out some applications,” he laughs, “but I decided not to take a teaching position right away.” In reality, he already had a job by the time he graduated. “My minor was in technology,” he explains, “and using technology in the classroom.”
“I believe that entrepreneurial success is about developing and expanding relationships.”
Even though the Internet was still in its infancy in 1998, Bautista’s interest in combining technology with education was a gift to the many schools in which he was based during his practicum teaching. When a school district in St. Albert approached him to redesign their website, he got a loan from the Canadian Youth Business Foundation, purchased some computers and effectively became self-employed—all during his third year of Education.
Success quickly followed. Bautista’s first venture, Hotrocket—an interactive production company founded in 2001—employed thirteen people in its heyday. In 2008, the company’s portfolio was acquired by an advertising agency, and Bautista hit the road to start a new game company, Rocketfuel, with his business partners Jason Suriano, ’03 BA, and Norman Mendoza, ’92 BSc. He spent time in San Francisco, New York, Vancouver and Toronto, all the while attending industry conferences, giving talks, and making many exciting business connections. Clearly, his people skills have paid off. Last year, Rocketfuel’s first game release, Seek Your Own Proof, was launched on DiscoveryKids.com in partnership with Discovery Communications, the world’s number one non-fiction media company. In the popular adventure game, children operate as secret agents and are challenged to investigate science and history both online and offline through missions at real museums and historical locations. The offshoot, “Field Missions,” was recently launched as a free app for Apple’s iPod Touch/iPhone. The beauty of “Field Missions” is that it overlays a game structure onto existing exhibits in museums around the world to generate more interaction. “I think of museums and science centres as second classrooms,” Bautista explains, “so why not help kids discover real world learning institutions using mobile games?”
Rocketfuel's game Seek Your Own Proof allows kids to be secret agents, completing missions that emphasize problem-solving through interactive puzzles, and incorporates visits to real world museums to solve cases.
Bautista’s ability to believe in a product and to pitch it effectively has proven a winning combination. His company has received a number of prestigious awards, including the TEC VenturePrize grand prize, Best in Show at the Fusion Digital Media Venture Forum in Vancouver, and Most Promising Company at the Canadian New Media Awards, to name a few. Bautista himself was recently recognized as one of Alberta Venture’s 50 Most Influential People, and he will also receive an Alumni Horizon Award at this year’s Alumni Weekend recognizing his early career achievements
But Bautista’s vision expands far beyond his own success. His dream is to help Edmonton become a place for the next generation of connected, creative, innovative and entrepreneurial people by sharing what he’s learned from his own experiences and inspiring others in the community.
"We need to create more meaningful relationships to link creative, technical and entrepreneurial people together.”
“I believe innovation comes from the collision of ideas and people,” he explains. “But too often these circles don’t overlap. We need to create more meaningful relationships to link creative, technical and entrepreneurial people together.”
Bautista is actively helping to make Edmonton a hotbed for creativity and entrepreneurship by encouraging collaboration between leaders in arts and business, and the next generation through non-profit group artsScene Edmonton. He’s also the organizing chair of TEDx Edmonton—an annual event fostering shared ideas amongst artists, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs—and co-founding chair of Startup Edmonton, focused on connecting next-gen creators, innovators and entrepreneurs.
“Too often I have people tell me they’re working on a big long term plan,” Bautista confides. “Or they wish they had more time to work on their product instead of their job, and I’ve always thought, don’t wait, just start something.”
Ken speaks on stage at TEDxEdmonton.
Bautista’s newest project called The Edmonton Champions Project is an initiative to invest in 500 creative Edmonton-based entrepreneurs over the next five years. This new accelerator program helps entrepreneurs test-drive their visions. It provides expertise from local and international mentors, collaborative space in which to work, constrained development timelines of 6 - 12 months, and seed money to provide for the creative stage of development—in effect, empowering and nurturing new entrepreneurs in a “safe” environment, much as Bautista would have as a teacher in a classroom full of students
“I learned how to build solid relationships by being in the classroom,” he says. “My education degree taught me that it’s all about people and building good relationships. I take that lesson with me everywhere I go.”
Not only does he have a vision of how Edmonton can become a hub of entrepreneurial activity, but with his incredible energy, he also has the ability to mobilize and inspire people. Edmonton might never be a big city, but with people like Bautista encouraging the ongoing pursuit of knowledge, sharing of ideas, and stirring up the creative spirit in our citizens, it’s certainly poised to become a great city.
Theresa Shea is an Edmonton-based freelance writer who also wrote The Google Guys and Skipping School, previously featured in E-Trail and New Trail.