Founded by two former Queen’s students, Mero Technologies has flourished thanks to its support from the university’s innovation ecosystem.
How can you tell when Mero Technologies’ innovation is working? Easy. You don’t notice it. Walk into the washroom in any large commercial building where their technology is in use, and you’ll see full soap and paper towel dispensers, and plenty of toilet paper in the stalls. All thanks to the sensors and platform they have developed that monitor these products, which send a message via the cloud to the cleaners when they are running low. It’s not glamorous. In fact, it’s downright mundane – but in a good way. If they weren’t there, we would definitely miss them. But what is amazing is how far Mero’s founders, first as Queen’s University students and now as graduates, have taken their product from its earliest stages in just five years. Listening to their potential customers, and seeking and heeding advice they gained in the Queen’s innovation ecosystem, has helped them grow, gain a US patent on their technology (as of this April) and now has them poised on the brink of major success.
Co-founder Nathan Mah still remembers the day he didn’t meet his future business partner, Cole MacDonald. In 2017, Mah was enrolled in the Master of Management Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Queen’s Smith School of Business.
“As part of class we were given the opportunity to meet engineering students and get exposed to different research projects,” he says. The day that MacDonald, an electrical engineering student at Queen’s came in to show off the sensor he’d developed, Mah wasn’t there. A friend told him about it, however, “and I knew immediately that this was the idea that I wanted to pursue.”
From the beginning, there was one point the two agreed on. While a lot of prospective entrepreneurs lock in on the money they can make, they had a different focus. “For us, it was about how much of a problem does this actually solve for real-life customers?” In fact, as it turns out, it solved quite a problem, and one that went beyond user convenience. To make sure that washrooms are always properly supplied, many cleaners and property managers have a pre-emptive approach to stocking them – if there is only a quarter-roll of toilet paper or a half-roll of paper towels in place, they throw it away and replace it with a new one to make sure they don’t run out. Mero’s innovation would cut down on waste, saving money and the environment in the process.
Ensconced in Queens Innovation Park by 2017, as part of the Canada Accelerator and Incubator Program (CAIP), the two embarked on what Mah calls a two-year process of customer validation and research and development. “We spent whole days in some of those Innovation Park meeting rooms picking up the phone and dialling potential customers,” says Mah (Innovation Park also gave them room to tinker with their product and let them use its washrooms as an informal test bed for their sensors).
They quickly discovered that who they had thought would be their key customers, property management firms, were a hard sell. But that the cleaning companies that worked for them weren’t.
“We kind of joked that the biggest innovation in commercial cleaning had been the micro-fibre cloth back in the 1980s. There’d never really been a technology directed at them, so we had a willing audience,” he says. The insights they gained from connecting with them, they used to further improve their technology.
Throughout this period they continued to work closely with Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI). They enrolled in QPI’s DiscoverXL program followed by the GrindSpaceXL accelerator program, both offered by QPI as part of the Eastern Ontario CAIP initiative, as well as “almost anything that was available to us as a resource,” says Nathan.
Although the company and founders moved to Toronto in 2019, they have kept their connections with QPI and the Eastern Ontario entrepreneurial network. In fact, thanks to his participation on a panel held at Innovation Park, Mah was able to connect with Stephen Scribner, patent agent and QPI’s Director, Intellectual Property. Working with Scribner over the past four years to create and execute on a patent strategy, Mero has since secured one US patent to cover the software and its attendant server that communicates with the sensor and are working on a second, intended to cover the sensor itself. In the end, says Scribner, “Mero will have a nice patent portfolio, where at least two patents are going to largely cover their technology.“
QPI has provided patent services to Mero as part of the Southern Ontario ScaleUp Platform project, with funding support from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, through Invest Ottawa in Eastern Ontario (with which Queen’s is a regional partner).
Today Mero Technologies employs 21 people (many of them Queen’s graduates). They were able to raise $3.5 million in capital in August 2021, and have also received funding from the Ontario branch of the Federal Development Bank, which Mah calls “a great boon.” And while funding is always important for a new company, these days Mero Technologies is focusing on future growth. “For our next steps, it’s really about growing this and scaling it and taking our technology into every commercial building across North America. Definitely these are big ambitions, but we really think that what we have fits a market need,” says Mah.
Why so far so fast? “I think the synergy between them is really part of their ‘secret sauce,’” says Rick Boswell, Assistant Director, Programs and Operations, at Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation. “They work so well together and respect each other’s skill sets and what each of them brings to the table.”
For his part, Mah credits a lot of their success to Queen’s. “We had a really unique trajectory in that we weren’t thrown directly into Toronto. We had a lot of early-stage support from Queen’s. I don’t think a lot of Toronto companies get that kind of support, because it’s much more competitive here, there’s a lot more companies, and there’s just fewer resources to go around.”