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From Thalmic Labs to North Inc: Q&A with Aaron Grant

Oct 25, 2018

North Inc. was Co-founded by Next 36'er Stephen Lake.

Thalmic Labs, maker of the Myo armband, generated a made-in-Waterloo Region splash Tuesday, rebranding the company as North Inc., and launching its much-awaited new product, Focals – a smart eyewear device that will retail for $1,299, one the company hopes will eventually become a worldwide consumer hit. In support of the launch the company also Tuesday opened two storefronts, in Toronto and New York. We caught up with North co-founder and CTO Aaron Grant, who described the new product and what North hopes it will achieve.

Q – It must feel good – the launch, finally – of your new product.

A – It’s certainly an exciting day for us. The product has been in the making for almost five years, now. It’s exciting to be able to finally tell the world what we’ve been working so hard on. The whole team here has done a fantastic job keeping things under wraps, which I know has been hard for everybody here, and we’re super appreciative they were able to do that.

Q – Why this product? From the outside it appears to be such an enormous pivot, from the Myo armband to glasses.

A – It’s interesting. From the outside it seems like there’s potentially some disconnect there. From the way we looked at it, when we built Myo, we didn’t build it to replace your mouse, your keyboard and your touch screens, the technology you use today. We built it thinking about what comes next, and thinking about the technology of the future and particularly thinking about things like smart glasses. We saw some initial signs that market was going to take off, then it kind of petered out. There were no great- or even good-looking products on the road map. Right about the time we brought Myo to the market, in late 2014, we kind of had this decision to make. Do we sit around and wait for somebody else to do this or do we take our destiny into our own hands and do it ourselves? Given we had successfully brought one super challenging product from crazy idea to on- the-store-shelves-at-Best-Buy, we felt we had the experience and initial core team and capability to go and take on something that is orders of magnitude more ambitious and challenging in every dimension. We dove in head first and decided to build the first everyday pair of smart glasses.

Q – Given the failure of Google Glass, the decision was a bit of a gambit, and perhaps even a gamble. Was it an even bigger gamble to do it here in Waterloo Region rather than in a larger tech centre?

A – To answer the second half, I think it’s actually far less of a gamble and there’s far more chance of success with us building it here in Kitchener-Waterloo. This is a fantastic area to build a company. We have access to amazing talent. This product is insanely challenging to build. Because we took this design-first approach, where we built this as eyewear first and then figured out how to fit the technology in, rather than a tech-first approach and try to pretty it up. That made it really, really challenging. Every single component of this is custom designed, it’s not off-the-shelf stuff. Super hard, fundamental problems had to be solved. The talent in this region, to attempt something like that, has been super beneficial to us. I think this is a fantastic place to have done this. I would almost go as far as to say we couldn’t have done it anywhere else.

On the comparison to Glass, it’s a good question. I don’t think it’s different than, necessarily, any other new product or category. There are always going to be people who try and fail before a successful product comes along. In some ways, it’s almost good to see what they got wrong and what the reactions were, and help gauge what we should and shouldn’t do.

One great example is there is no camera in Focals right now. Products like Glass showed us that the world isn’t yet ready for cameras in glasses. The same was once true about cell phones. Over time they learn, the get used to the product. So we’ll get there at some point. That’s one of the things that made it clear for us that the right decision from Day 1 was not to include a camera. There’s a ton of value this product offers without a camera. We think we’ll figure out how to get there in the future.

The other thing with Glass, as I said, it was one of those products that took a tech-first approach. They said, ‘We want to put a screen in front of your face.’ We said, and held strongly to this, that this is eyewear first.

One of the first key hires we made as we grew the team to tackle this was an eyewear designer with no tech background. I think that makes a difference. It almost seems kind of obvious when you take a step back: When you’re designing a product somebody is going to wear on their face all day it’s got to look good. They have to want to wear it. So that’s a big difference.

Q – How much did initiatives like the federal government’s Global Talent Stream visa program – the ability to quickly bring in people from around the world – play in deciding to stay here and build this new product here?

A – We actually participated in the drafting of that legislation. It has been super helpful for us. We brought in people on the team here from literally all over the world. The other half of that is the talent already in the region. There is phenomenal talent here and close by and that’s needed to get a product like this to market.

Q – If this product catches on as planned, what does it mean for the local tech community?

A – I think, overall, if this goes as planned, we’re going to continue to grow. We’re based here. Our headquarters is here. That’s not changing. We’re certainly planning our growth – staying in Kitchener and our factory in Waterloo. We’ve benefited so much from the community here and we want to help out and give back whenever we can. It’s awesome to see other companies having success here. We’re super excited to be part of the growth of this region.

Q – When you did your Series B raise two years ago, Focals was clearly already in the works and your investors would have known it was coming. But at the time, everyone outside of your company was focused on the Myo. It must have been hard to stickhandle that apparent discrepancy …

A – It’s always a bit weird when you’ve got something under wraps. We are still supporting Myo. We’re not selling it any more. But at that time, obviously we were selling Myo and focused externally on that. But internally the entire team was focused on this next-gen product. It was a hard decision for us, whether to continue with Myo, do a Myo Version 2, and also continue with Focals. At the end of the day, if you split your focus too much, you’re not going to win at anything. It really came down to that. We had to focus, no pun intended, solely on one product.

Q – You’ve got storefronts now in Toronto and New York. How broadly will you roll out stores around the world?

A – We’re intentionally taking it slow to start. This is a brand new product and a brand new category and not something anyone in the world is familiar with or knows how to integrate into their life yet. We really want to introduce it thoughtfully and give people a white-glove experience when we’re walking through the process of purchasing. But it’s also because we want to learn. We recognize this product is awesome right now but in order to make it even better we want to learn from users as we start selling the product. Doing that slowly is the right way to do that so we don’t make mistakes.

Q – The name change and rebranding to North from Thalmic: What’s the thinking behind that decision?

A – It wasn’t like we woke up one day and decided, ‘Oh, we hate the name Thalmic.’ With this new product launch we had the opportunity to put more thought into the name and come up with something the company can get behind and means something to everybody here and also something we can build a long-term consumer brand around. With Myo, it was early adopters, people in the tech field. That’s not what we’re aiming for with Focals. We spent a ton of time going through names. When we came up with North, we knew it was right.

Q – What was the toughest part of designing Focals, from a tech point of view? The biggest challenge?

A – I love this question. The answer is pretty much everything. I’m not kidding when I say that. The way this display in Focals works is that in the right temple arm there is a tiny little projector. It shoots out tiny rays of light and bounces them off a holographic film that’s embedded in the lens. It also works with prescription lenses, which is something no one else had been able to do before. It bounces it off the holographic film and into your eye. So there’s no screen in front of you. You don’t see a glowing rectangle. You just see, kind of like a subtitle on a movie, what we want to show there. Achieving all that is insanely challenging. Doing that, squeezing it all down into this form factor, is crazy hard. Making it work all day on the battery embedded on the left side of the glasses arm is super hard. The next big challenge is how do you make these in thin volume. We went to top contract manufacturers all around the world and said, ‘Can you build it for us?’ In all cases, the answer was, ‘You guys are crazy. There’s no way this can happen. It’s impossible.’ That led to us opening our 60,000-square-foot facility in Waterloo and solving all those problems ourselves.

Equally challenging is: What is the right way to introduce this to the world in order to build this category. There are lots of wrong ways to introduce something new to people. Finding out what the right way is another huge challenge. Which is why we opened up retail stores in Toronto and Brooklyn. We want to remove as many barriers as possible.

Q – Tell us about the joystick controller, the one you wear on your hand. It’s a novel feature.

A – It’s called the Loop. This is how you interact with the content on the display on Focals. You can click, up-down, left-right. Super simple. Super discreet. No big motions with your hands. This was important to us. We didn’t want to do anything that made a wearer draw attention to themselves. It doesn’t look like a piece of tech. It’s discreet and super easy to use.

Q – What can the eyewear device do?

A – There are four key areas. First, communication – it’s a quick way to stay in touch. We built a smart reply engine and it lets you fire off a reply quickly. Or you can use voice to text. The next feature we call ‘Go,’ finding places around you that you want to go to. We have a partnership with Uber, so it lets you order an Uber, or it can give you turn-by-turn walking directions. Then we have a bunch of features we call Day-to-Day, which is calendar notifications, weather and utility things. And then the last one is Amazon Alexa. We’ve worked closely with the team at Amazon to build an Alexa experience for smart glasses – great visuals that the Alexa team has built for us for this product.

Q – What prescriptions can your lenses handle?

A – It’s single-vision right now, minus-4 to plus-2 [diopters], covering the most common prescription range at the moment. You can certainly see that expanding in the future.

Q – What’s next? Where are you a year from now?

A – This is really just the beginning. This is Version 1 and we have a very robust roadmap of things coming up. I can’t go into specifics, but we have a sizeable portion of the team, even before the launch of Focals, working on the next couple generations of the product, making sure we’re two steps ahead.

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