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Incubating a new software company at U of T

University of Toronto Early Stage Technology program

Professor Matt Ratto (left) and recent grad Mike Borg are the founders of Shotlst (photo by Jon Horvatin)

What if you could turn on Microsoft Word’s “track changes” tool and apply it at will to the world around you?

Sound like science fiction? Meet Matt Ratto, a professor in U of T’s Faculty of Information, and Mike Borg, a recent graduate of the faculty. They’ve formed Shotlst, a new software company being incubated by the University of Toronto Early Stage Technology  (UTEST) Program.

The central metaphor of Shotlst is the “shot list,” a list of scenes a film director plans to get each day on a movie set. It serves to organize the cast and crew’s time and activity for the day.

With Shotlst, a user decides at the outset on “shots” that will be consistent throughout the life of a project. For example, an architect might take pictures of a cardboard model of a building, 3-D renderings and, later, the actual construction site. These shots would serve as raw material that colleagues could use to annotate and collaborate using the software.

“We’re starting with the construction industry,” said Ratto, “because it already uses photography as a way to collaborate, but there isn’t currently an easy way to share and annotate images.”

The Shotlst team is also targeting the home health industry. Their software could help patients and their health care providers to track incremental changes in a condition at home—the progression of diabetes-related foot sores, for example.

“Being able to look at visual information in a granular way, and to move back and forth in time, is potentially very powerful,” said Borg. “A tool like this has the potential to introduce unforeseen levels of compliance, accountability and collaboration throughout a physical project’s lifecycle.”

Shotlst is getting off the ground thanks to help from UTEST. A joint project of U of T’s Innovations and Partnerships Office (IPO) and MaRS Innovation, UTEST provides nascent companies with work space, mentoring, business strategy support and $30,000 in start-up capital.

“UTEST is about extending U of T’s commitment to entrepreneurial education for its students,” said Professor Paul Young, U of T’s vice-president (research and innovation).

“I like to tell students, maybe you don’t need to think about going out and ‘getting’ a job. Maybe you should think about creating your own job. UTEST is helping students do that.”

The company arose out of a problem Ratto kept encountering in his teaching and research. 

“I’ve always struggled with documenting and collaborating with others on projects that involve both digital work—circuit designs, graphic designs, layout of screens, layout of web pages, images—and physical products such as enclosures and hardware," Ratto said. "I started thinking about building a system that would allow somebody using it to collaborate and record and document the work they were doing within a hybrid physical-digital space.”

Enter Borg, who had the technical skills and the deeper understanding of information management to help make Ratto’s idea come to life. The two had collaborated within the confines of Borg’s master’s studies, but UTEST allowed them to make what had been a side project into a going concern.

“UTEST is unique in that we accept very early stage companies,” said Kurtis Scissons, a commercialization manager at IPO and one of UTEST’s program directors. “Often these are ideas that wouldn’t be ready for traditional incubators.”

Though Shotlst had already done a fair amount of business intelligence work before joining UTEST, Ratto agrees.

“Other incubators start with the idea of a business plan and they accept a project or not. Here, it starts from a research focus. Part of the development process that UTEST funds is the movement from the lab or the pure research environment into the business environment.”

UTEST has helped Shotlst with incorporation, access to other resources and patent protection. The team especially appreciates the start-up capital it received.

“If I was working another job,” said Borg, “I wouldn’t have the time to do both the technical work as well as cognitive and planning work required to get the company off the ground.”

Ratto agrees: “To be successful in this area today it’s not one person sitting in Starbucks writing something. It’s not ‘build it and they will come’ anymore. If you make the thing and then you try to contextualize it, it’s too late. You actually need to understand the business environment as you’re making the thing. That’s something that UTEST allows us to do.”

Visit http://www.shotlst.com/ to sign up to be a beta tester for Shotlst.