Go big or go home


It was a problem that touched Tim Burke as a father and family man, but one that he solved as an engineer and entrepreneur. In 2007 the mechanical engineer and co-founder of Halifax-based Quark Engineering Development Inc. knew that his 10-year-old son needed to learn how to stickhandle in hockey with his head up to make sure he didn’t get flattened by an opponent. “My son was moving up from a non-hitting to a hitting division and was shown how to practice stickhandling at home, which involved putting tape on our basement floor,” recalls Burke. “All it taught him was how to stickhandle with his head down.”

Burke took the problem to work with him the next day. He asked his business partner, programming whiz Stephen Hankinson, if they could come up with a game that would help young stickhandlers keep their heads up. They soon keyed into the idea of an online game in which the puck would act as the mouse.

Thus in 2007 Skillz Systems, a video game that helps teach kids how to stickhandle, was born, and Burke began an impressive career as an advocate for the entrepreneurial community in the region. Working with Hankinson and a core team at Quark Engineering and Development Inc., he has launched such companies as Skillz and Tether (a wireless app for BlackBerry) and is working on a pair of mobile products that should launch soon. He has also teamed with engineer Bill Power and Dr. Michael Gross to establish Impetus Innovations, which develops medical devices that they ultimately plan to sell to large manufacturers. On a contract basis, he and Hankinson helped Dalhousie University associate professor Mohamed Abdolell develop the technology needed for Densitas, a medical device that generates real-time breast-density measurements for women having a mammogram.

In developing so many companies simultaneously, Burke breaks one of the principal rules of entrepreneurship. Conventional wisdom says it’s acceptable to start a company, take it to market, and sell it, then start again. But a textbook entrepreneur isn’t supposed to distract himself and dilute his resources with too many projects happening at once. “There are people who question that approach, including myself,” says Burke. “But as a group, it’s what we enjoy doing.” The team at Quark is continually evaluating its capacity and making sure it’s taking on as much work as it can handle. So far, it hasn’t caused any problems.

The concept of parallel enterprises sprang from Creare Inc., a skunkworks in Hannover, N.H., where Burke landed his first job in 2000 while working on a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Carleton University after graduating from the Technical University of Nova Scotia (now the Dalhousie Faculty of Engineering). It was, recalls Burke, “a wicked R&D shop” with 30 engineers, a library and staff, and a full machine shop. He got to work on huge projects, including a cryocooler that was installed on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Burke left Creare in 2001 and took a position in Portsmouth, N.H., but he and his wife, Suzanne, found the annual visits back to Halifax expensive and they triggered homesickness. With two children and a third on the way, Burke decided to return to his alma mater in 2002, taking a position at the Innovation in Design Lab (iDLab) at TUNS, fulfilling R&D contracts for private companies.

It was there that he met Hankinson, a recent graduate; the two clicked immediately, in large part because they shared a vision of developing their own products, both on contract for clients and within their own group. After five years at the iDLab, Burke left to form a partnership with Hankinson, which they called Quark Engineering. The development of Skillz was a watershed moment for the young company, in part because it taught them about how to develop and finance a product. “It validated the fact that we could come up with our own concept and commercialize it,” says Burke.

The product involved a ball with a reflective surface, which the player stickhandles. The ball is tracked by a camera that sends signals on its position to a laptop or PC. So the player has to stickhandle while he or she is watching the screen, manoeuvering the ball to various positions and always keeping his or her head up. Burke and Hankinson successfully landed funding for the project from First Angel Network and won the Halifax region category for Innovacorp’s I-3 Technology Start-Up competition in 2008. Soon after, they handed the company to a management team to develop it further. By that time, Burke and Hankinson were nearing their next landmark project.

In the week before Christmas of 2008, the business partners came up with a solution for the inconvenience and cost of gaining Internet access on laptops. They proposed tethering a laptop to a user’s BlackBerry with a USB cord to provide Internet to the laptop, billing the Internet time to the user’s existing BlackBerry plan. After four months of development they came up with a program, and they launched TetherBerry in March of 2009. In the first three days, they received more than $100,000 in revenue. “During the project, Tim was the project manager and overseeing the business side of it,” says Patrick Hankinson, Stephen’s brother and an award-winning entrepreneur in his own right (he’s currently the CEO of Compilr, which won SeedCamp New York in 2011).

Tether, as the company is now known, won the Innovacorp I-3 Technology Start-Up competition for all of Nova Scotia in 2010 and today has over 250,000 users worldwide. It also provides a nice cash flow for its founders, which they have channelled into other intellectual property development. What’s more, they’ve learned how to develop a global business. “With Tether, the lessons we learned were a lot about scaling and service-support requirements for viral products,” said Burke. “We learned a lot about reacting to a market response that was bigger than we expected.”

Perhaps the most important lesson learned by the Quark team was about the dynamics of the mobile telephony market, which is invaluable since, as I was writing this column, the team was focusing on two products that are both mobile and cloud-based. Burke declines to describe them but will say that he and Hankinson have assembled a strong team that is testing both products. As soon as they discover that one has a flaw, they’ll focus on the other one and take it to market.

The core team is Chad Murphy, an electronics specialist who has worked with Burke and Hankinson for several years; Ardavan “Ardi” Iranmanesh, the “ideation ninja,” which means he’s a magnificent researcher who can tell the team within minutes whether an idea will work; and Brian Jeffcock, a Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University graduate who just joined the team.

The way Jeffcock came to Quark illustrates another facet of Burke’s personality that’s worth noting. He’s a passionate evangelist for the development of a start-up community in Atlantic Canada and for teaching the principles of entrepreneurship to students. He insists the region needs more innovation to drive economic growth. “I’m a firm believer that innovation is sustainable,” he says. “When people learn to commercialize great ideas, it drives exports and economic growth.”

Over the years, Burke got to know business academics and often spoke about his belief in entrepreneurship and his knowledge of leading thinkers such as California academic Steve Blank and his Lean LaunchPad program. “Tim has been a passionate advocate of start-ups for a long time,” says Ed Leach, the director of Dalhousie University’s Norman Newman Centre for Entrepreneurship. Leach and Mary Kilfoil, who holds a PhD in economics and teaches regularly at the Centre for Advanced Management Education at Dalhousie, developed plans for their Starting Lean course based on Blank’s writings. They told Burke that he should help mentor the course; he ended up mentoring a Starting Lean team that included Jeffcock, and he was impressed enough to offer the young designer a job, rounding out the team at Quark.

That team is preparing to roll out the next big product, something that could be as big as Tether. Burke won’t discuss it in detail but can’t resist tweeting about how excited he is about the projects Quark is working on. Yet despite all of his successes, entrepreneurship isn’t the centre of Burke’s life. His fondest wish is that his four young children (they range in age from eight to 15) will one day become entrepreneurs. In fact, Burke’s goal is to have his kids make products that could be funded in their early 20s. “I’ve put a lot of time and energy into coaching my own children in entrepreneurship,” he muses. “I’ll judge part of my legacy as to whether I can teach them to be entrepreneurs.”

Peter Moreira is the principal of Entrevestor.com, a website with news and analysis on investment and entrepreneurship in Atlantic Canada.



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