Some marriages are made in heaven. Some, like the one between Canadian Tire and Alert Labs, are made at the Tannery.
When Canadian Tire opened a lab at Communitech in 2013 – the first in a growing list of enterprise companies to take up residence – it did so knowing it needed to embrace technology, both as a hedge against disruption and as an agent for change.
It knew that part of the Communitech value prop was that it would be surrounded by nimble startups and ultimately collide with new ideas and fresh thinking.
Enter Alert Labs.
Alert Labs is just such a nimble startup, one that was part of Communitech’s Rev Accelerator program in 2016. Alert Labs makes products that measure water use and detect flooding in a home or business, instantly pushing the data to a user’s smartphone.
Last February, Canadian Tire invited Alert Labs to speak at a lunch for some of its buyers, the idea being to help introduce the buyers to Waterloo Region’s culture of innovation and the larger tech ecosystem.
As the Canadian Tire reps heard what Alert Labs' products do, it occurred to them that those very products might be a good fit for Canadian Tire store shelves. Sure enough, a few weeks ago, two Canadian Tire stores, one in Burlington and one in Guelph, began stocking Alert Labs’ hardware as a trial project.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for us,” said Ruth Casselman, Alert Labs co-founder and Vice-President of Operations.
Casselman said that when she and her co-founders, CEO George Tsintzouras and Vice-President of Engineering Kevin Wright, received the lunch invitation from Canadian Tire, the company wasn’t thinking about it much beyond the opportunity to be a good community partner — and the opportunity for a nice meal.
“Realistically, as a small company, trying to get into a [big] company like Canadian Tire is next-to-impossible,” said Casselman, speaking during a recent interview with Communitech News, along with Canadian Tire Innovations Lab Director Jeff Schnurr.
“So we thought we would focus on the positive, and that was the lunch,” she said, with laughter.
“But the conversation went very well. As we left, we thought, well, that’s very cool, and we were happy to have had the chance to meet them, [but] our expectation was that that really was the end of the conversation.”
Far from it. The crew from Canadian Tire liked what they had heard. A lot.
“[Alert Labs’ technology] hits the key notes,” said Schnurr, who has headed up the Canadian Tire lab at Communitech for the past 16 months. “It’s smart home, which is a category we’re interested in; it’s based on monitoring and home protection, which is certainly another important category for us.”
So. Emails followed. Meetings followed. Lo and behold, a traditional big-box retailer is now joined up with nimble startup, each benefiting from the inherent strengths of the other.
"This is exactly how it's supposed to work,” said Steve Currie, Communitech’s Vice-President of Strategy.
“Our early stage growth companies are looking for easier access to bigger customers and markets to help them scale and expand. Our corporate innovation partners, on the other hand, see connecting with our tech ecosystem as a critical piece of their innovation puzzle that allows them to tap into new and exciting technology and products.
“Bringing together both large and small companies highlights how we can leverage the Waterloo Region ecosystem as a key differentiator for our members."
“One of the important outcomes we get from being [at Communitech] is being connected to this wonderful innovation ecosystem and access to the best and brightest companies and people and ideas,” said Schnurr.
“I think the fact that we brought together the buying executives from across the business in one place at one time to talk about how startups and innovation can fuel our business is in itself an exciting thing to have had happen.
“To do it in Waterloo, where we’ve got such a rich ecosystem that we can bring to bear to really make it real [and say] here are companies that we can be working with now, that are ready to go. There’s something special there.”
On its part, Alert Labs, which now has 17 employees and is aiming to grow to 25 by the end of the year, has gained access to a buyer it likely would not otherwise have been able to reach.
“Selling to retail is different than selling online or selling through b-to-b,” said Casselman. “[Canadian Tire has] been very open to working with us about how things can be better and lessons learned. It’s been very valuable for us.
“And being associated with such a great Canadian brand is massively important to us as well.”
Canadian Tire’s Burlington store was particularly receptive to Alert Labs, Casselman said, because the Burlington area was hard hit three years ago by what Casselman calls “once-in-a-generation flooding.
“Within eight hours they had 3,000 homes flooded,” Casselman said.
“Canadian Tire played a significant role in the recovery after the flooding. [Canadian Tire is] where people go when you have an issue with your home and you need to fix something.”
The Guelph store became interested in part through a partnership Alert Labs has with the City of Guelph that aims to help residents reduce their water usage.
“[Canadian Tire’s staff] have been extremely accommodating,” said Casselman. “They’ve allowed us to come in and do some training sessions with their teams. It’s been a very easy relationship.
“If our product can help Canadian Tire move into a new market, that’s great. It’s certainly helping us in a number of ways. From directly understanding the retail process, which is a huge learning, and, as Jeff mentioned, it’s not something that a lot of smaller, growing companies get access to early on.”
There’s a possibility the partnership will expand further. In September, Alert Labs will take part in a trade show that will be attended by representatives from the nearly 500 stores in the Canadian Tire stable. Each store will have the opportunity to hear the Alert Labs’ story and decide if they, too, will stock its products.
Casselman: “That 500 Canadian Tires stores can walk past our product and potentially make a buying decision is simply not an opportunity we would had without this relationship with Communitech.”