Lion's Lair: Hamilton company finding innovative ways to use NFC technology

Ethan Do wants to make Hamilton the hub of using near field communication in innovative ways.
OverAir founder and CEO Ethan Do started taking clients in February. In July, he has nearly 200. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

In a matter of three days, Ethan Do had a company.

The McMaster student put "his little geek hat" on one day and started messing around with his Samsung smartphone.

One of the phone's features is near field communication (NFC), something Do hadn't heard about. He did some research and discovered that NFC is a technology that can transfer information from a microchip to a nearby compatible device. He sourced out a microchip, loaded it up and tapped it to his phone. His LinkedIn profile instantly popped up.

He pulled off his geek hat and jumped into his business suit.

"I saw the possibilities," Do thought. "The applications are endless."

Do acted quickly to create OverAir, Canada's only NFC tag provider and programmer. He started taking clients in February and said his revenue has doubled each month since. He's reached nearly 200 clients to date.

With OverAir, Do is on a quest to prove this country can do new and great things with an established technology.

"Despite being a late comer in NFC, Canada can still be innovative," Do said.

CBC Hamilton's Julia Chapman will have full coverage of Lion's Lair 2013, including profiles of each of the 10 finalists, an inside look at their training and interviews with the Lions, right up to the gala on Oct. 10.

The company

Near field communication might sound fancy, but it's something Canadians are familiar with. If you have a credit card with a tap-pay option, you own something that uses this technology. But that's one of its only current uses. OverAir is quickly expanding that.

Do's company both manufactures and programs NFC chips. Upon doing research, he realized there was no company in Canada selling NFC tags and first built his business around that wide open market.

But OverAir's "secret sauce," as Do calls it, is a portal for clients that tracks analytics on who is using their tags and where (the "creepy stuff," Do said with a laugh).

For example, a client has OverAir NFC tags in their TTC ads. Tap the tag and a coupon appears on the smartphone. Do's portal tells the company which tags are being used most and who wants their coupons.

The portal also allows clients to change the use of their tags, Do said. So when that coupon expires, the client logs into the portal and makes it so when tapped, a map to their nearest store will pop up.

Locally, Do said a packaging company uses his NFC tags to store information for employees. Tap a tag on a machine and an instructional video on how to use that machine pops up.

In the future, Do sees opportunity in using NFC tags in medic alert bracelets and at restaurants where a customer can tap and the menu will pop up on their smartphone.

Do employs two full-time and one part-time staff with money he's gotten from investors at pitch competitions. He won't take a salary until OverAir is profitable. But what is really remarkable about OverAir is a group of 18 volunteer employees who have dedicated anywhere from two to 40 hours a week, just because they believe in Do's company.

"It didn't take long before people were willing to help," he said.

The majority of his volunteer employees are fellow McMaster students looking to build their real-world experience, but social media call-outs have found willing folks around the world.

In Germany, he has a volunteer on the ground where OverAir sources their microchips. In Vancouver, there are volunteers facilitating the assembly of the tags.

Along with his Spidey-sense for a good business opportunity is good management practice. Do takes on volunteer employees who he can "give back to" — they offer him hard work and he offers experience and training. As a result, OverAir has a solid team with lots of potential.

"[The volunteers] go above and beyond, coming up with new ideas and innovative ways to do things that I hadn't thought about," he said.

The man

There is a Japanese saying that Do said reflects his journey to founding OverAir: fall down seven, rise up eight. 

After high school, Do moved from Montreal to Vancouver to support his father who had suffered a stroke. He started working for FedEx Kinkos as an overnight copy boy. He climbed the ranks to being the manager of the company's most profitable store in Canada.

Do then spent four years working in eBay's business intelligence department, but lost his job when the market crashed in 2009 when the company closed its Vancouver office and outsourced the work. That's when the former part of the Japanese saying kicked in.

"Looking at the prospect of not having a job, my father encouraged me to go to school," Do said. "Soon after he made that request, he passed away."

To clear his head, Do took to the road and drove across the country. On that trip he thought, "this IT outsourcing thing is going to continue" and chose to enroll in McMaster's kinesiology program, a sector he thought was more promising.

Do finished his first year with high grades, but realized he'd rather be sticking his hands inside a computer than a human body. He switched to business informatics, a combination commerce-technology program.

It turned out that program fostered Do's entrepreneurial and technical skills just enough, and from that came OverAir.

The Lion's Lair pitch: Why OverAir should win?

Do knows he's on to something. In the six months OverAir has been active, the company has cleaned up at pitch competitions and attracted investors. It's validating for Do to know he has the support, and that's giving him the confidence to say stuff like this:

"Our goal is to expose this on a national level. We're looking to make Hamilton the hub of NFC."

OverAir plans to build and innovate in Hamilton. Do said with talented people coming from institutions like McMaster (and he said he hasn't even tapped into Mohawk College yet), the company can thrive here. He also wants to give local businesses an advantage, by reaching out to Tourism Hamilton and the HSR to give them the opportunity to implement the technology before others.

To truly make Hamilton an NFC hub, Do thinks this competition is key.

"We're on the verge, the cusp of an explosion," he said. "The fire to light that explosion is Lion's Lair."