Nfld. & Labrador

From class project to St. John's tech startup: meet Creatros

St. John's may be a long way from Silicon Valley, but there's no better place to build a tech company, say the three founders of Creatros.

Trio working out of Genesis Centre say city has all the supports they need

Arif Shaikh, Ashley Sullivan and Monjur Ul-Hasan are former classmates and now founding partners in Creatros, a tech company based in St. John's. (Sherry Vivian, CBC)

The story of Creatros begins as so many 21st-century tech success stories do: brilliant minds meet at a university and come up with a big idea that could make them rich.

But instead of taking that big idea to Silicon Valley to live venture-capitally ever after, the three minds behind this startup took things in a different direction.

Arif Shaikh, Monjur Ul-Hasan and Ashley Sullivan decided to build their information technology business right where it began, in St. John's.

"Geographical location is not at all a limitation for us," said Hasan.

"It's IT, and IT doesn't need to be anywhere. All it needs is access to the internet."

Besides, in the borderless world of tech, the city is gaining a reputation of its own, as St. John's companies have landed record business deals, and launched innovative products.

Sullivan agreed. "We're proving that you can headquarter a successful big company — not just a small company, and then you move on. You can actually continue your growth here." she said.

The Creatros founders discuss their company's next moves. (Sherry Vivian, CBC)

Paths cross on campus

The three founders met at Memorial University, arriving there by very different paths. Those paths crossed on campus in 2016, when they were randomly teamed up for a group project in an entrepreneurship class.

"There was no way we would have ever met, any other way," said Sullivan.

"We come from totally different worlds. There's no other way we would have found each other."  

Shortly after, the trio discovered that they each brought a unique set of skills, and heavyweight resumés, to the table.

Newfoundland is showing a great potential.- Monjur Ul-Hasan

Shaikh, originally from India, had a background in business, along with a PhD in management science from Kent Business School in London, England. Hasan, a tech expert from Bangladesh, had previously worked in the IT department of a global company, and is working toward a PhD in artificial intelligence and machine learning at MUN.

Sullivan, from Grand Falls-Windsor, holds degrees in physics and engineering. But she also had a unique life experience that gave her an edge in solving daily challenges: she grew up using a wheelchair, and creating her own tools and hacks out of necessity to help her navigate the world.

"I've always made things, devices for myself, 'cause there's a lot of lacking in the market for disability things," Sullivan said.

in the classroom, they realized that their complementary skills included everything a real company needed. Afterward, the group decided to keep working together, and turn their class project into a business.

Shaikh became the company's chief executive officer, Hasan the chief technology officer and Sullivan the chief operating officer. 

You can think of the Creatros plugin as a 'Google inside your project management system,' says Ul-Hasan. Using AI, the plugin creates a searchable database of developer skills. (Submitted by: Arif Shaikh)

What does Creatros do?

From their prior experience, Shaikh and Hasan knew that many tech companies struggle with a seemingly-simple task: assigning the right person to the right job.

Shaikh said that's in part because in IT, workers are constantly learning new skills at a rapid pace. 

"These skills they acquire, without exaggeration, they can learn every skill in two of three days." he said.

"It's very difficult to actually keep track of this learning … and how they can be best utilized."

It's a particular challenge for large companies that have hundreds of developers scattered over multiple locations.

Problem, meet solution.

The Creatros founders attended a business and technology conference in Toronto in May. (Submitted by Arif Shaikh)

Creatros makes a software tool that integrates into a business's project management system. Using artificial intelligence, the tool creates a searchable inventory of developer skills.

You can think of Creatros as "more of a Google inside your project management system," said Hasan, pointing out that via a simple search bar, he can find people who know specific coding language and see their experience with it.

With the giant scale of modern multinational companies, even small efficiencies can lead to big savings of time and resources, said Sullivan.

"For managers, they can assign the proper teams with the proper suited skills, so there's no skills gaps in those teams, so there's no project delays." she said.

Genesis Centre 'makes a big difference'

As they look to help others find the right person, the founders know they've already the right place to build their business.

Creatros is headquartered at MUN's Genesis Centre, where many local tech companies have taken their first steps. 

"The Genesis Centre provides a lot," said Sullivan.

"Instead of sitting at home in your basement, trying to plug away, having somewhere to go where you feel like you have a job, and it's real, and people are supporting you and getting excited about it, that makes a big difference."

The Creatros founders meet in their office at Memorial's Genesis Centre. The Centre provides work space, facilities and support staff for emerging tech companies, and has become a cornerstone in the local tech industry. (Sherry Vivian, CBC)

It's not just the gleaming office space at Memorial's new Signal Hill Campus, or the access to support staff and professional facilities.

The best part, said Sullivan, is the support and camaraderie that comes from being surrounded by fellow entrepreneurs, and access to the fast-growing network of Genesis Centre alumni, like Verafin, which is now Canada's largest fraud detection company.

"You can go out and have coffee with somebody who is hugely successful, and basically they don't know who you are. But you're one of them, because you're coming up in their footsteps and they're very supportive that way." Sullivan said.

"Newfoundland is showing a great potential, and this is because the ecosystem is really good and we've figured it out," said Hasan.

With that support in St. John's, it feels like the world is already at Creatros' doorstep — without ever having to book a plane ticket to California.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Zach Goudie is a journalist and video producer with CBC in St. John's, NL.

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