Just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Matt Schaubroeck quit his day job to devote all his time to ioAirFlow, the startup he founded a couple of years ago with Amanda San Filippo.
The company has developed software to provide digital analysis on indoor environmental quality issues in commercial buildings using easy-to-install sensors that can be done at a fraction of the cost of existing energy audits.
While the pandemic meant they have been unable to work together with their team of 11 people — including four based in Vancouver — it has also created opportunities.
The pandemic has increased the need for air quality audits regarding things like particulate matter and volatile organic compounds.
It has also opened up opportunities for Schaubroeck and San Filippo to apply to participate remotely in startup accelerators that might have been difficult to attend in person.
The company has recently been accepted into a couple — Microsoft’s Women in Cloud, which helps women tech founders partner with Microsoft in co-selling situations; and Plug and Play, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., which connects startups with Fortune 500 companies that have expressed the willingness to partner with young innovative companies.
Both situations effectively pre-qualify ioAirFlow’s technology offering.
"Getting into the Women in Cloud program is pretty significant for us," said San Filippo. "Only 10 companies from around the world were selected. It’s a really great opportunity."
It is only the sixth cohort of the program, which sets goals of landing an enterprise contract of at least $10,000 after the first six months and $1-million contracts after three years.
"One of the really interesting things about this one is that on the first day they emphasized that as a scalable company it is not worth it to go after smaller contracts," she said.
While that is good encouragement for the company, which currently has about eight separate engagements with buildings in Winnipeg and Vancouver, ioAirFlow’s founders believe they have a system that will work with enterprise clients that have responsibilities for large numbers of buildings.
It just hired three people this week who will be working on automating some of the data reporting that will allow ioAirFlow to speed up the reporting function that now takes about two weeks.
There are plenty of energy audit companies but there is increasing pressure on building owners and managers to have more intelligence about the health of their buildings.
"The problem with buildings is most people don’t know what problems they have or they may not know they have problems at all," Schaubroeck said. "Building are like big black boxes where you need lots of expertise to figure out."
While new buildings are now typically equipped with sensors built in, more than half of commercial buildings in North America were built before 1990 and do not have sensors.
"You can either install permanent equipment which can cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars or hire energy auditors," Schaubroeck said
The latter includes high labour cost to collect data by hand and can take weeks for a report.
Schaubroeck and San Filippo believe the differentiator for ioAirFlow is that it can produce results for a fraction of the cost.
Its wireless sensors do not need to be installed by professionals, effectively eliminating any capital expense for the undertaking.
"We can find about 80 per cent of the problems that a permanent monitoring solution would find," Schaubroeck said.
Getting connected to partners like Microsoft in the Women in Cloud program and global enterprises willing to partner with startups in Plug and Play are the kind of opportunities that can give a young company a real leg up.
"We think there are really good opportunities for us to get some pretty massive validation from companies like Microsoft," said Schaubroeck.
And for a company like ioAirFlow that’s starting in Manitoba, where Hydro rates are so low there is less incentive to implement energy retrofit savings, participation in these kinds of accelerators will help the company build a larger network of potential clients.
With many companies needing to ensure the air quality in their buildings is safe for folks to come back and as well as to monitor energy consumption, in order for them to do that effectively they will need to implement technology like ioAirFlow’s in every building across their network.
San Filippo said rather than go after clients building by building, they are now getting tooled up to go after clients with many buildings.
"That is what these accelerators are driving us toward," she said.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.