Local Economy

Hamilton innovators have solution to age-old education problem

Groupnotes, developed by McMaster students, allows teaches to track their students' online research and figure out who is really doing all the work.

'We want the spotlight to be on Hamilton'

McMaster students Jason Moore and Matt Gardner co-founded Groupnotes at a 54-hour start-up competition. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

Matt Gardner stood in front of groups of innovators and made a guarantee that entrepreneurs can't always keep.

At the recent StartUp Weekend in Toronto, a competition where entrepreneurs collaborate to develop a company from the ground up in 54 hours, the 23-year-old McMaster University student said his product would generate revenue by the end of the weekend.

Gardner and his business partner Jason Moore, also a McMaster student, told no lie.

'We delivered," Moore said.

The team had people shelling out cash from their pockets to buy Groupnotes, an education software tool that allows school groups to leave notes for each other on webpages.

Now, Gardner and Moore, along with the three partners they gained just two weeks ago, find themselves in the Global Startup Battle, an online competition with up to 180 companies from 60 countries. With enough votes, Gardner and Moore could win the chance to pitch their idea to a Silicon Valley investor.

"People really responded," said Gardner, of their product. "Everyone who tried it had a different idea about how to use it."

Groupnotes is software that is embedded into a web browser. Hit a button and a Post-It-like note appears on the webpage. Students can leave each other time-stamped notes, so if they're collaborating on a project they can communicate effectively while at their own computers. If working independently, they can leave an online research trail.

"[Teachers] say 'here's the assignment paper,' and then there is a black box and out of the other end comes an essay," Gardner said, describing how school assignments typically come together. "And teachers, especially middle and elementary, say: 'I don't know what happened in between.'"

With Groupnotes, teachers can figure out their students' research patterns.

"It turns a whole empty area into a teachable area," Gardner said.

When it comes to group work, teachers can find out who is pulling the most weight, added Moore.

The software was immediately popular with Halton teachers for this reason, because as of next term, students must be awarded a process grade for projects and group work, Gardner said.

Innovative entrepreneurs

Gardner and Moore make ideal innovators. Both students in the Master of Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Innovation program have the skills to both create and market new products, a constant battle for new innovators.

Working for big corporations during a 16-month work placement is what made Gardner and Moore realize this is the career path they want to take.

"You're at the bottom," Gardner said. "That's what got us going on the entrepreneur route."

Entrepreneurship was in Gardner's blood. He developed his own companies as a teenager, first as a designer and then selling band clothing.

Now, the two boys from Burlington are happy to be representing Hamilton, a city with a bustling innovation community, on the international stage. Groupnotes is the only company from this end of Canada in the competition.

"We want the spotlight to be on Hamilton," Moore said.

Online voting continues until next Wednesday. Moore said their biggest challenge gaining enough votes to beat out companies from heavily populated Hong Kong, where 2011's winner is from.

"In Hong Kong, you look to your left on a train and there are 1,000 people," Moore said. "We're trying to pool our Hamilton resources ... to get more exposure."

Even while tending to online voting, Gardner and Moore haven't let anyone down on their guarantee about generating revenue. Groupnotes software is still being sold online, even though it won't be ready for distribution until January.

"It's the best form of validation," said Gardner. "There is definitely a market for the platform."