In episode 80 of Amplify Your Business, we are very excited to sit down with Ashif Mawji, Chair of the TELUS Community Safety and Wellness Accelerator, to chat about how the program is fostering the development of social impact-based startups in Alberta and across the world. We also have the pleasure to be joined by two participants of the program: Lana Cuthbertson, Founder and CEO of Areto Labs, a software-as-a service (SaaS) company with a mission to make online communities more inclusive, and Darby Walton, Co-Founder and Director of Business Development for PALCares, an non-profit artificial intelligence program that aims to connect people with social supports in their communities.
(1:06) So Ashif, what is the Community Safety and Wellness Accelerator and what are its goals?
The TELUS Community Safety and Wellness Accelerator is a social impact-based accelerator that brings together industry, domain experts, and community agencies in order to deliver safety and wellness programs in our communities. We work with entrepreneurs and a leading accelerator program out of Silicon Valley, Alchemist, to connect entrepreneurs with data, funding, and everything they need to build a successful business.
We did our initial call for applicants back in November, and our goal was to work with entrepreneurs from around the world who work in the community, safety, and wellness space with technology and machine learning. We also wanted to work with people who had an established product, not just an idea. After the initial call to action, we invited about 200 applicants to apply before picking the top 20 through a lengthy judging process. They come from all around the world, including 4 in Alberta.
Our goals for the accelerator are to add entrepreneurship and creativity to the process of solving social problems. Over the decades, millions of dollars have been spent trying to solve social problems. We believe that creative and out of the box thinking is missing from this approach. The companies we work with get the chance to learn from the best of the best through the Alchemist network to scale their business, market themselves, set their pricing - all the things you need to run a successful business. We've also connected with community agencies like Boyle Street and the Bissell Center to provide expertise on the problems they face and to, hopefully, partner with these companies.
(5:33) What is it that makes this program so unique?
There have been other social impact accelerators, but they don't have the same community agency support. They provide programming for their companies, but not the end customer. We are also providing data and expertise in the AI and machine learning space that other accelerators are not. Our approach is to identify the different pieces of the puzzle and help these companies put them together to develop community and wellness solutions.
(6:44) Lana, what is Areto Labs?
Areto Labs is a B2B, software-as-a-service company with a social impact mission to make digital communities more positive and inclusive. We wanted to be part of this program because if you put digital at the front of it, you get exactly what we do! Our product (currently in the market with revenue and paying customers) uses artificial intelligence to do social listening inside communities for companies who want to protect their employees within digital workplaces. For us, this means things like Zoom meetings or Slack channels, but also places like Twitter and Instagram. For many, these platforms are places of huge toxicity and abuse, and the scale of this has created enormous problems for businesses of all types. We use machine learning to do social listening and automated cultural interventions with the goal of building long term solutions to online abuse. We chose to focus on this problem because we found that women in particular face a lot of online abuse when stepping into the public space. Once we saw the problem, we developed our solution and found that there is a huge market opportunity for a product like this. I am also very excited by the research we get to do as we grow our business - we're examining a growing problem in the machine learning space and I'm very excited by the insights we're getting.
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(11:23) Darby, what is PALcares?
PALcares is an artificial intelligence recommendation system that aims to personalize the search for social services. We want to use open source data and personas developed by the community members who use the platform to create a personalized set of recommendations for their needs. More than ever, people are struggling to access the support in their community, and there is a big difference between the availability of services and their accessibility. We want to leverage some of those economic, geographic, and demographic factors that go into people deciding what supports meet their needs, as well as presenting services they never might have considered. Oftentimes people lack an understanding of how the system of community support operates, and so we're trying to build a bridge and help them figure out what to access.
We're actually a full non-profit so revenue isn't our main goal. But we're at the preliminary phase where we've done community consultations and talked to partners, and we're now in the process of establishing a fiscal agent relationship with another community organization in Edmonton so that we can fundraise using their charitable status. Being in this accelerator puts us in a really great place because it gives us access to mentorship and guidance that we wouldn't otherwise receive.
PALcares is actually the only non-profit we have in our program right now. Typically we do not accept non-profits, but their mission and story are very compelling and fit very well into our own mission to help community agencies. We think our community partners can get a lot of benefit from this platform.
(20:31) We hear all the time that Alberta is becoming a center of AI and machine learning - how true is that?
You're 100% right! I don't think it's happened all the sudden, but it's been brewing for some time and things are really taking off now. We're fortunate that there is a great ecosystem here, with the right government support for accelerators like ourselves. I think we're at a tipping point now where it is ours to lose. That means we have to do the right things on a timely basis. This means doing things like retaining the grads that come out of our schools - lots of them are highly passionate and I don't want to lose them to another jurisdiction. We need to give them to do great things right here in Alberta. Another thing we're doing right now is setting up an investment fund for this accelerator. In April, we'll be ready for these companies that are looking for funding.
(23:51) Lana, from your perspective as a startup in this space, what more could be done to support entrepreneurs like yourself?
The results we're seeing now are because of the great investment we've seen so far in Alberta. I think this is evidence that we can double this on a number of fronts! Let's take a leap of progress to continue this investment, because it can shape the future of not just our province, but the whole world.
I couldn't agree more. If this was a game of poker, I would be going all in right now. As I mentioned, we're already setting up an investment fund for the accelerator. This is our time to show the world that Alberta is great at solving social problems, and that we can do it in a way that is scalable, sustainable, and repeatable.
(31:27) I know that you're planning to have a "demo day" some time in April. What is this going to look like?
It's going to be like an episode of Dragon's Den - these companies will have a window to pitch their ideas to investors. There will be 20 pitches to some of the top venture capitalists from all around the world, but I also want the local community to participate! We're also going to have a "youth" section that focuses on the next generation of young entrepreneurs, and I'm very much looking forward to it.
If you want to connect with Lana at Aerto Labs, you can get in touch via email at email@example.com, or visit their website at aretolabs.com.
If you want to connect with Ashif at the Community Safety and Wellness Accelerator, you can visit their website at cswaccelerator.com.
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