There’s an old saying we’ve all heard that relates to being an inventor or an innovator: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.”

Ohanna founders wearing orange vests are standing in a warehouse holding a meeting
Ohanna AI co-founders Paul Dong (left) and Gary Newbury (right) holding a meeting with a warehouse lead. Photo credit: Ohanna AI

It’s nice to think so. But what you’re never told is to make sure beforehand that mousetraps are what are really wanted. If it turns out what people in fact wanted was fly paper, you are going to have problems.

A simple idea. But one that’s easy to forget when we’re involved in all the work of getting a business off the ground. For Narges Rezaei and Paul Dong, that simple revelation, gleaned thanks to their engagement with Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI), specifically enrollment in QPI’s Startup Runway and participation in QPI’s Wings accelerator program, has made all the difference in the development of their company, Ohanna AI.

Founded in Fall 2020, the company was the product of Rezaei’s own experiences working in a company that created warehouse management system software. “I realized there were problems that the software companies were not addressing, either because they didn’t have enough resources or they simply couldn’t see the market opportunity.” She could. “I quit my job and I started the company.” Returning to university at Queen’s Smith School of Business, she teamed up with fellow student Paul Dong, to work on the idea of “helping warehouse companies get the most out of their workforce.”

She learned about the Wings program for pre-revenue startups via an email from Rick Boswell, QPI’s Assistant Director of Programs and Operations. The program’s mixture of group sessions on key topics that a startup needed to understand combined with one-on-one coaching was “exactly what we were looking for,” she says.

“I thought they’d teach us some theories and then we’d go out by ourselves and try to replicate that in a real-world situation. But it wasn’t like that. It was much more about feedback and one-on-one coaching sessions and more about how to execute the right market research rather than teaching you the theoretical aspects of creating a venture and market validation.”

For Ohanna AI, that meant they should not just rely on what they thought people in the warehouse industry needed, even based on Rezaei’s own extensive experience. They needed to go out and ask them directly. For this insight, they thank the program’s co-directors Andrew Jackson and Elza Seregelyi. “They gave us what I now call million-dollar advice: Talk to people and find the actual pain points” – the real, pressing problems that they faced and needed help with.

“We started talking to workers and warehouse management, and we realized that worker retention was the main problem.” That didn’t mean turning their backs on their original idea about optimizing warehouse workforce operations, but it told them what they needed to do to achieve that: mobile and web applications that would support employee engagement via personalized training, measures to boost performance and engagement and a feedback system.

“We bundled issue tracking, movement density and productivity analysis and other metrics into one single platform that gives managers granular data of what’s going on in the warehouse day in and out,” she says. But all done with the understanding, as their website puts it, “that workers in the logistics industry are the heroes that allow the rest of us to enjoy the benefits of e-commerce.”

Never have its benefits been more obvious than now during COVID-19 and says Dong, Ohanna AI may be able to help with that as well, by helping trace worker interactions, not only during this current pandemic, but in future as well, even against more common illnesses as flu or bad colds that can still affect productivity.

Having completed Wings, “Our next step,” says Dong, “is to get a proof of concept out there, and this is something we have been working on to show investors and customers.” They remain involved with QPI. Rezaei is active in the WE-CAN program for female entrepreneurs, and through QPI, Ohanna AI has received help on Intellectual Property (IP)-related searches and strategies, key steps in their future development. “The intellectual property strategy team gave us unlimited support and we learned so much from them. We could not get far without them,” says Rezaei.

QPI offers the Queen's Startup Runway and Wings programs as part of the Scale-up Platform Project. Led by Invest Ottawa in Eastern Ontario and including Queen’s as a regional partner, the Scale-up Platform Project is supported with funding from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario.