Brainpark trying to ‘break of the room’

By Greg Mercer, Waterloo Region Technology Spotlight 2009

GUELPH – Brain Park may be based out of an unassuming brick house along a buzzing Woolwich Street in Guelph, but its operations spread to far flung locales like San Francisco, Atlanta and Buenos Aires.

That might strike you as strange for company that until little over a month ago barely had any paying customers. But that’s part of the enigma that is the software start-up:  internationally-minded and with some notable backers, and yet barely out of the gate.

The coming months will be interesting times for Brain Park as it shifts from a focus on R&D to selling and supporting the software it spent all that time perfecting.

“For about two years, we were locked in a room, focusing on development. Now we’re trying to break out of that room,” says Brydon Gillis, a software developer who came to Brain Park in those early days when they still met in rented dance studios.

Brain Park emerged from that “room” with software that aims to improve companies’ productivity by tapping into the collective knowledge of their employees. Think of it as Facebook for companies, but less about making friends and more about getting things done more quickly and effectively.

The basic premise of Brain Park’s product is that companies, especially larger ones, don’t always do a very good job of mining the expertise and experience already within their sown ranks. This leads to duplication and wasted time, they say.

“A lot of companies feel they’re very strong at inventing and creating things. What they’re not very good at is re-using stuff that has already been done,” Gillis said. “If we can get people to do the basic things only a few times and allow other people to re-use it, then they can move up and focus on harder challenges within the company.”

After developing a few prototypes, Brain Park thinks it has worked out the kinks. Now some customers have started calling, paying for the software on a per user, per month basis.

There’s the major “media conglomerate” based out of Atlanta that uses software to connect its far-spread employees. There’s the large architectural firm that brought in Brain Park after finding out three separate teams within its divisions were bidding on the same project. The there’s Great Harvest, the Montana-based bakery chain that uses the software so franchisees can share ideas with each other more easily.

The software can be applied to an employee’s computer desktop, tracking what they search online and enter into their digital calendar. Virtually any digital document can be absorbed by the software – meaning a co-worker in another department might suddenly discover that you have information or have done research that can help them. The object isn’t to create a system that saddles its users with obscene amounts of extra work organizing their information, though.

“Ultimately, we want to know ‘how do we build something that allows them to do their work better,” Gillis said. “We don’t want them to feel like a glorified filing clerk.”

During its development, Brian Park drew the attention George Boedecker Jr., the CEO of Crocs Inc – that maker of those once ubiquitous plastic clogs whose stock price has plunged of late.  Boedecker became the start-up’s lead investor, and was rewarded with the chair of the board.

Balancing out the board are the company’s founders: Bobby John, who created boutique software firm Personus Inc. while still studying at university, and Mark Dowds, an Irish-born investor who has coached executives American Express, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Royal Bank of Canada, and CIBC.

Brain Park seems to fit the bill of a turn-the-model-upside-down startup where staff bike to work and work in their bare feet. This is not a top-down company. They talk about mutual respect among employees, and subscribe to a model of workplace democracy that means any staff, including CEO Dowds, can be removed by a vote from coworkers. Managers don’t fire here – if a subordinate isn’t doing their job, a team is put together to decide if they should leave or stay with the company.

And, for now, the plan is to stay based in Guelph. All design and development work will continue to be done here, and the company says there’s no shortage of local “talent,” or software specialists they can draw on. What’s less clear, Gillis admits, is how Brain Park will change as it moves from startup to viable tech company.

“It’s something we talk about every day, ” he said. “It’s the phase of life we’re in now.”

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Brain Park Inc.

Founders: Bobby John and Mark Dowds

Board chairman: George Boedecker Jr., CEO of Crocs.

What they make:  software that uses “social intelligence” to capture information and know-how hiding within organizations

Website: www.brainpark.com

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