Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Innovative startup gets leg up

3D eyewear business granted crucial loan

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SEAN Sylvestre has been around his family's optical businesses for most of his life and knows how hard it is for retailers to connect with customers because of the myriad choices out there.

He just may have come up with a tool that will help more of them satisfy their customers' demands.

Wednesday he was named one of only five recipients -- and the only one from Western Canada -- of a $50,000 loan from the Spin Master Innovation Fund in partnership with the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) and the Canadian Youth Business Foundation.

Sylvestre runs his parents' business, Joss Vision Care, but won the award for his technology startup, called Eyewear Evolution Inc.

He's developed a 3D order procurement software that will allow optical retailers to reduce inventory costs through a virtual-inventory feature.

"This is so fantastic because everyone knows how hard it is to access capital for technology startups," he said.

His technology has been designed for mobile devices and acts like a virtual mirror so people can see what the glasses look like on them without having to have a hard copy on hand.

"Many people don't realize that optical retailers have to prepay for all the frames they're showcasing," Sylvestre said. "We all have lots of money tied up in inventory. When frames sit, it costs us money."

Sylvestre came up with the concept -- that retailers would pay a monthly fee to subscribe to -- when he started to set up a web presence for his own store and realized the costs involved.

With only so many styles on display, retailers also may have to keep many more on hand in different colours, finishes and sizes. So for every frame on the wall, the retailer may have to have six more in stock.

"We think this can expand their inventory," said Sylvestre, 31, who's been in the business for 15 years. "Also, retailers struggle to connect with their customers. About 10 per cent of sales have gone online. This technology can reduce costs to compete with online pricing but still have in-store service."

Sylvestre is working with the local small-business incubator, Biomedical Commercialization Canada. Its director, Marshal Ring, is bullish on Sylvestre's Eyewear Evolution.

"In my words, this is a market pull, not a technology push," Ring said. "This technology will satisfy market demand. It's not a smart guy making something up in his basement and wondering if anyone cares."

Sylvestre is already in negotiations with some large U.S. retailers and Ring said some unique features of the technology could put it 12 to 18 months ahead of competitors who may also jump into the market.

Joelle Foster, the Manitoba director of the Canadian Youth Business Foundation, said Sylvestre's award bodes well for young entrepreneurs in Manitoba.

"There's a lot of great young entrepreneurs doing amazing things in Manitoba these days," she said. "I think you're going to see a lot of exciting startups emerging in this province."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2012 B3

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