This past fall, the Waterloo-based tech company formerly known as Thalmic Labs underwent a transformation, giving itself a new name and announcing a hard pivot into the world of smart glasses. Rebranded as North, the company unveiled its long-anticipated new product, a fashion-first pair of holographic lenses called Focals.
Focals come equipped with Amazon’s Alexa technology and are designed to take over many of the small tasks that we habitually perform on our smartphones, like checking messages or looking up directions. The glasses have a holographic film embedded in the lens and a tiny projector that reflects into the eye, so the display is only visible to the wearer. The Focals display is controlled using voice prompts, as well as a tiny joystick on a ring—called a Loop—that the wearer manipulates with their thumb.
From the beginning, founders Stephen Lake, Matt Bailey and Aaron Grant have been focused on the question of interaction: not what digital tools we use, but how we use them. Namely, how will we evolve beyond touchscreens? Their first product, the Myo armband, allowed wearers to use software and manipulate devices with simple hand gestures. While the Myo found applications in the medical sector, it never gained traction as a consumer product.
With Focals, the three founders concentrated squarely on creating an experience of seamlessness: no looking at your phone (or less, anyway), and no feeling like a cyborg, a la Google Glass. The sleek-looking Focals are available for CAD $1,299 at two showrooms, one in Toronto and the other in Brooklyn. In December, North received $24M from the Strategic Innovation Fund to expand production and invest more in R&D.
In an email interview with RE$EARCH MONEY, co-founder Stephen Lake shared his plans for the SIF funding and other thoughts on scaling an innovative tech company in Canada.
RE$EARCH MONEY: How do you describe the innovation of Focals by North?
Stephen Lake: The idea for Focals began with the belief that the role technology plays in our lives is changing. We’re spending more and more time on our devices and less in the real world — always worried about missing something somewhere. We envision a different future, one where we get the benefits that technology provides while also connecting with what’s in front of us.
For us, the way to build that future is through a heads-up display… but in a different way than everyone else. No monsters jumping out of walls, no miscellaneous time wasters. Just great-looking glasses that connect you to what you care about. This is technology that doesn’t force the user to compromise between what’s in front of you and what you might be missing elsewhere.
R$: Given the failure of Google Glass as a consumer product, how do you convince investors that Focals won’t meet the same fate?
SL: Others have tried and failed to make smart glasses people love because they built a computer to wear on your face, then made them glasses as an afterthought. We did it the other way around. We designed Focals to be glasses first and invented new technology that we could concealed inside the design.
R$: How do you create a relationship with investors that allows you to sustain your R&D for so long—first as Thalmic Labs—before launching a consumer product?
SL: This is a long-term play for both us and our investors. We aren’t looking for a quick exit and neither are they. We’re focused on building awesome products that our customers will love. We’re fortunate to have investors that support this long-term vision.
R$: What did you gain from Myo that you are applying to Focals, in terms of experience and/or actual R&D?
SL: It’s less about specific technology and more about how we approach solving problems. When we were first developing Myo, everyone told us it wasn’t possible to achieve what we wanted in the size/design we were aiming for. We had a similar experience with Focals.
When we were first talking to suppliers, almost everyone told us the same thing: “There’s no way you can do this.” A pair of smart glasses that looked good and also had the functionality we wanted simply couldn’t be built with the current off-the-shelf technology. The precision we needed, along with the specifications and tolerances we asked for, were all too rigid for what was out there. We’ve built a culture around solving “impossible” problems by starting with a vision for what we want to create, breaking it down to first principles and building from there.
R$: Many Canadian startups are purchased by big American tech companies. You must have had the option to exit. Why not?
SL: We’re committed to building a great company and products people love right here in the Waterloo Region. Our investors, employees and partners support that vision.
R$: You’ll receive $24 million through the Strategic Innovation Fund. What will you do with the money?
SL: The $24 million from the Strategic Innovation Fund will help us expand our existing advanced manufacturing facility and implement additional advanced testing, assembly, and production systems. We’ll also use it to support the development of future product generations.
R$: Any other funding or incentive programs that have helped your company get to where it is today?
SL: We’ve used IRAP, NSERC Engage, Ontario Jobs and the Prosperity Fund.
R$: Which regulations affected your company the most, and if you could change any policy or regulation, what would it be?
SL: The Global Skills Visa program has been a game changer for us. As we’ve grown, we’ve filled hundreds of roles with Canadian citizens, but a handful of roles we are trying to fill are for specialized roles where there might only be a handful of people in the world with the necessary skills or knowledge-sets. The Global Skills Visa has unlocked a treasure trove of talent that we can now bring to Canada and fill those kinds of positions.
We have been hampered by the government’s inability to deliver high speed transit between Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto. We need to draw on the talent and expertise in Toronto and that just doesn’t work when it takes two and half hours in traffic on the 401.
R$: What kind of challenges have you faced acquiring and retaining talent, and how have you met those challenges?
SL: Scaling rapidly brings with it many risks and challenges: continuing to hire the right people, keeping the culture we desire, scaling communication, executing well as a large organization, and so on. There are three major things we do to achieve that:
- We actively welcome different points of view and approaches to problem-solving, because we know that diverse teams build universal products. At North, we encourage everyone to bring their full selves to work, because our teams should reflect the multifaceted world around us.
- We foster a collaborative and supportive work environment where people love what they do. By bringing together experts in their fields, we learn something new each day and share our knowledge openly to create an atmosphere of constant growth.
- We create consumer technology that encourages humans to thoughtfully interact with others and the world around them. This unearths some challenging problems, but employees love to dive into them head-on.
We’re on a pretty incredible journey where breakthroughs happen on a daily basis, and there are moments daily where our employees have the opportunity to learn from the best.