A100 member Victoria Brilz on building companies and communities

Posted by The A100 | October 31, 2019

Following her recent hike along Spain’s famed Camino de Santiago, we sat down with sports wearables pioneer, Victoria Brilz, for her insight on product development, the origins of tech in Alberta, and building a company with purpose. 

I’d love to hear more about your entrepreneurial journey.

It started back in university, when my now husband Kip (Fyfe) and I were in engineering school together. We had work terms up in Ottawa and at that time, in the ‘80s, we were really intrigued with the new PCs, the new Apple II clones. Clones back in that day were actually legal, and you could buy the chipsets and boards and put these small computers together. So we built our first Apple IIe computers, and then friends were asking us to build for them as well. 

We actually set up our own little shop in our basement, and then in a building downtown. So evenings and weekends, that’s what we did. One weekend we drove down to Queen Street in Toronto and we had this roll of cash — $12,000 in our pockets to buy parts for computers. This was in the early ‘80s, so that was a lot of money [laughs]. And we thought, you know, we should try to do this on the side and just see what can happen. We always wondered if we could work together and start our own business, and this turned out to be a great way to explore that. 

So with that, we set up shop. The schools in Ottawa at the time wanted to get their kids on to computers, and this was a way that these enterprising teachers could get computers into their schools. We had so much business building these clones, but then we had to go back to school because our work term had ended. We ended up hiring co-op students to keep our business going, fulfill our orders, and to manage our outstanding warranties until they had all expired to support our business. We did very well, that term. It certainly confirmed to us that, yeah, this is something we would like to explore in the future. 

Enterprising indeed! What happened once you graduated? 

From there I ended up at IBM, and Kip was at Novatel. We learned a lot of basics about building businesses and about being part of a bigger system. Even though I was a systems engineer, I’d gone through IBM’s training and learned about marketing and sales. Then I went and did Product Management at Novatel, where I learned about the processes for product sizing. Kip was managing engineering teams and he had patents under his belt that he had developed. So we had a lot of the base knowledge for what it takes to build. We didn’t know we had the ingredients yet — but we had that desire, that maybe someday there’ll be something that will land on our lap that we would allow us to start our own company.

When Kip’s brother, Ken — who was a professor at the University of Alberta — had a product idea, he came to us and asked if we could build a distance monitor using GPS. Back then we kind of chuckled and said, GPS would work and it’s a really great idea, but the problem with GPS back then was that you’d have to carry basically a motorcycle battery to run it because it’s just too energy consuming and the surf chips hadn’t come out yet. So we told him to go back to the drawing board and see if he could find a better idea. 

“We didn’t know we had the ingredients yet — but we had that desire, that maybe someday there’ll be something that will land on our lap that we would allow us to start our own company.”

He came back to us with a concept that he wasn’t able to develop out with any other companies and asked us to work with him to build a product. That’s when we first came up with our speed and distance monitor that measured how far and how fast a human can move. It was a really cool idea because, at that time, there were no GPS watches, no way to measure how far and how fast a human moves. You could track an airplane, a car, a bike — you could measure how far and how fast they’re going. But you couldn’t measure how far and how fast a human is going. And so that was very disruptive in the industry. We realized that, if we’re ever going to do it, this might be the time to actually take this on and try it out. So that was the beginning of our real serious entrepreneurial journey where we started Dinastream.

And what year was that?

That would have been in 1995, the first iteration. But we were so engineering-centric that we hadn’t found a customer and a way to take it out to the market. Then Kip and I had a really serious car accident in addition to having a situation with the university where we couldn’t get rights to the IP. So we had to shut that company down. 

“It was then that we then had our first customer — Nike — and established the standard for speed and distance monitoring in the industry.”

Then a couple of years later, there was a change in management at the university and a different approach to empowering and enabling development. We were able to strike a win-win deal, which I think ended up being very good for the university in the long run. That’s when we went from Dynastream Inc. to Dynastream Innovation Inc., our second company. It was then that we then had our first customer — Nike — and established the standard for speed and distance monitoring in the industry. Adidas, Polar, Garmin, Suunto, Timex — they all adopted our speed and distance tech. 

At that time it was all pulse communication, and this is where the first RF solutions were being put into watches. We were leaders in that as well — we developed the first watch for Nike where the bezel was an antenna. We patented that idea, and that’s where ANT (Adaptive Network Topology) was created. There’s ANT+ now — which is a bit of a standard in sports and wellness communications — as well as getting into IoT where there’s a very sophisticated mesh network. But really, to this day, it’s still a quantum leap lower in power and very sophisticated in its in connectivity. It’s been a good thing for Cochrane to have that development happening right here.

I would say! 

Yeah. We’re really glad about that, and to call Cochrane home.

Did you know early on that you wanted to do your own thing? Or was it through then working for other larger companies that you realized that you are more drawn to creating in your own space?

There was never a solid vision of wanting to start my own company. But there was always this idea of, wouldn’t it be fun if we could do it. Being entrepreneurial and the concept of startups — that hadn’t happened yet. It was just what do you do to get a job and where can I thrive? And how can I do things that I’ll feel good about in the future. I really didn’t know what that was going to look like. It was more of having your mind open to opportunities that would take you down the path where you thought you could contribute. 

But later, when Ken came to us with this idea and couldn’t find anyone that would work with him and help take it to the next step, that’s when we said maybe we can help — maybe we this is an opportunity for us to explore starting a company. It kind of fell in our lap and we embraced it. 

So this would have been mid ‘90s, and there weren’t very many tech firms in Alberta at that time.

No, that’s right. 

Were there others, though, that were making headway and you thought, okay, this is something that we could try?

I think clearly the best example for us that inspired us was Novatel itself, and we both worked there. It hurts me to hear the negative comments about that company. Novatel took a lot of rap for a lot of things that went wrong. But credit to the government in the late ‘70s for having the vision to diversify in Alberta, and in Nova Corp. and AGT (Alberta Government Telephones) to create Novatel when they did — to create a tech that was really the beginning of the tech community in Calgary and in Alberta, in my mind.

“Credit to the government in the late ‘70s for having the vision to diversify in Alberta — to create a tech that was really the beginning of the tech community.”

If you look at the spin-offs, there are hundreds and hundreds of spin-off companies that spawned from people who were at Novatel — people that started other companies and stayed in the Calgary area. That was a huge influence for us, and Novatel has been such a huge influence in Alberta.

Speaking of Alberta and influence, how do you see the A100 impacting Alberta’s entrepreneurs?

When we exited from Garmin (Garmin’s now set up its Canadian headquarters in Cochrane) there were still people coming to us to ask us to help them fill their vision. So that’s why we have another startup with 4iiii

I think this one has a very different view from the first one. This one has been because we wanted to give back. We believe that what’s happening in Cochrane and Alberta and Calgary and Canada is, we are very unique for innovating. There are good ideas and good people here. We’re really about building our future — our personal futures for our families and the ecosystems where there are jobs and places for our families to settle in and continue to grow and be challenged. We’re really committed to that. 

This is where we are investing back into our economy. We’ve always innovated and we’ve always wanted to contribute. But now we have a bigger view on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. We’re responsibly innovating for our collective future. In my mind, that’s why 4iiii exists today is because we love to innovate, we love to build. We want to build for the collective future of the world, but also for the collective future of our families and our community and people who are here. So that’s what’s driving us now. 

“We’ve always innovated and we’ve always wanted to contribute. But now we have a bigger view on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

So where does the A100 come into this? Certainly the A100 gives us credibility as we set up our future companies. The A100 has been so good for Kip and I to be part of this ecosystem of like-minded people. I get a lot of strength from the people that I meet it at the A100 functions. They support me in my vision and endorse me and, you know, it’s that mental support. You have a safe place you can go and talk to others about what their experiences are, their successes and their failures. And you can’t really underestimate how important that is to keep us on the rails when you’ve got other people who’ve been through it before. 

That unwritten support has really helped us. It keeps us connected to our bigger network, because we can tend to stay in the weeds and not get out into the bigger ecosystem. The A100 has helped give us those nudges and kept us connected into places, and it’s helped us to participate and be in the community. So I really do appreciate that.

And we can share our connections with others. Every time you mentor someone in their business, you learn yourself. One of the things I’ve really been excited about starting this company is, I can learn to develop my skills to be a leader and to help others to be leaders. I’m always learning and this has been a good venue for me to learn about leadership skills and mentoring others, and the tools and the programs that the A100 puts out has been really important for me.

I’m happy to hear that. In that vein, I’d like to know what you have learned from your successes.

I learned that you really always have more to learn. You’re just scratching the surface. I think success is actually more of a responsibility. It’s an enabler to consider what can we do with this? What should we do with our success, to keep building on it? When we have success with the product, how do we leverage the team to build on that? When we have successes, they’re always a stepping stone to find out where it will take you next.

And what have you learned from your failures? 

We’ve really learned about resiliency, and about relationships and the importance of perseverance. Most failures usually are the beginning of another term, they’re usually a pivot. I think your biggest learning happens in the failure, not in the success. You know, it’s funny, but we often don’t see our failures as failures, we just see them as a pivot point. Maybe that’s the eternal optimist. 

I mean, that’s not a bad thing. As to advice, is there a book that you would recommend to others that’s had an influence on you so far? 

Because it aligns so much with our startups, “Crossing the Chasm” by Geoffrey Moore. I know it’s very old now. But to me, it describes this physics of startups. As much as you think this one’s going to be different, there’s a natural evolution that businesses have to go through because you can’t put all the tools in place when you’re a very early startup or you’ll suffocate it, and you’ve got to bring the whole team along a certain path. 

“In those learning and growing experiences, there’s a natural evolution where you can’t skip any steps. You have to go through the pain of learning them all.”

So there’s a natural progression of business have to go through, and you have to crawl before you can walk, and you have to walk before you can run. In those learning and growing experiences, there’s a natural evolution where you can’t skip any steps, and you can’t skip any stages — you have to go through them all. You have to go through the pain of learning them all. Every company is like a new life that has to go through that. 

I think Geoffrey Moore really captures the physics of building a company. The fundamentals of it is pure science in my mind. Today it still drives me to look at, where are we? And, am I the right person in our company? Am I able to grow and change to enable this company to thrive and grow? It really helps us to check ourselves, and to know what’s best for this company that we started. It’s some wonderful insight. 

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