Partnerships and Innovation

Office of Partnerships and Innovation
Office of Partnerships and Innovation

Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation helps PRISM make the connections it needs

PRISM participates in programs offered by Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI), made possible with support from the Government of Canada to Queen’s University through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario and the Scale-up Platform Project.

John Garofalo is keen on connecting. Connecting schoolboards so they can work together more efficiently. Connecting kids learning at home thanks to COVID-19 with their schools remotely. And thanks to his relationship with Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation, connecting with the programs and companies that will help him take PRISM, the ambitious registration and communication tool he has developed, to the next level.

A Queen’s graduate with a master’s degree in computer engineering, Garofalo created a company called JIC Design in 2004. “A digital agency specializing in the development and design of high-performance web applications,” Garofalo ran JIC essentially as a sideline while employed full-time with a number of other firms in the Kingston area, doing work for a number of small local firms.

In “around 2005 or 2006,” Garofalo says, a consortium of about 15 school boards, among them Kingston’s Limestone District, approached him with a problem. These various boards offered their students e-learning courses that took place entirely on-line, and they had decided to allow students from other boards to enroll in these, where spaces were available. To do this, they needed a system that would create cross-board waiting lists and let students register for courses outside their board. Over time, the web application he created for them grew in sophistication, allowing users to monitor student attendance and make sure students’ marks were sent to their schools, and became PRISM as it exists today. As of 2020, he says, “We have 35 school boards from Windsor to Ottawa using it, some Catholic and some public.” Two years ago, he created a modified version of the PRISM system that enabled a Windsor-area community college to share registration information with the local school boards.

PRISM has proven useful during COVID-19. The outbreak left school boards scrambling to make alternative arrangements for educating their students in isolation. “Across the province,” says Garofalo, “boards were setting up virtual high schools, and transferring all their students to them.” But there was a problem with this approach: “All the contacts for the students” – their principals, their guidance counselors – “were being lost.” Further, because of privacy concerns, vital information from their new school – marks, attendance and so forth -- was not shared with their previous “bricks-and-mortar” schools. Approached by the Waterloo Region District School Board, Garofalo was able to create a PRISM-based solution. Waterloo’s students would continue to be enrolled in the original high schools but take courses on-line at the virtual high school. PRISM sends their original school information about their attendance and their marks so their teachers and officials and ultimately their parents can receive regular progress reports. Five Catholic boards also adopted the PRISM system during the pandemic to help their students learn virtually, too.

Garofalo’s connection with Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI) grew out of his realization that while he understood the technical ins and outs of PRISM, “as an engineer, I wasn’t as knowledgeable about the business side of things.” In 2018, through a connection at Launch Lab, he reached out to QPI’s Rick Boswell. QPI provided him with space for some of his team and enrolled PRISM in what was then called the Canadian Accelerator and Incubator Program. Garofalo took part in the GrindSpaceXL and DiscoverXL programs. “We covered who potential clients were and the financial side of things as well. It really forced me out of my comfort zone.” Armed with the knowledge from those programs, Garofalo says he began reaching out to potential customers in other provinces and the United States. PRISM is currently enrolled in QPI’s Startup Runway, a successor to CAIP.

Perhaps not surprising for someone who has dedicated so much of his professional career to connecting people, Garofalo cites the relationships, both formal and informal, that he has developed through QPI as a key part of PRISM’s development. In August 2020, thanks to his involvement with Startup Runway, Garofalo was able to gain access to a program run by the Ontario Centre of Excellence (OCE) and the Centre of Excellence in Next-Generation Networks (CENGN) aimed at helping high-potential startups to grow to the next level. In the case of the PRISM that very much connected with its “scalability” – could PRISM be expanded to serve much larger pools of users? “CENGN gave us access to their engineers and network and server space for a month or so, and they simulated with thousands of users to see what it would take to make PRISM fail and what would we need to do to prevent that,” he says. PRISM also received some funding through the OCE program and was able to hire two interns, one a recent graduate of Queen’s the other, from St. Lawrence.

Informal networks, even in times of COVID-19 isolation, play an important part, too, says Garofalo. Originally co-located with QPI in Kingston’s Innovation Park, PRISM had moved down to the Seaway Building when QPI relocated there in October 2019. They’d been working remotely since March, but in September when they were cleared to do so, PRISM started using the space again.

Garofalo drops by a couple of days each week. Partly this is to train his new interns, something he says is “difficult to do remotely,” but also for the chance encounters with other entrepreneurs that have led to business opportunities and new ideas. “Even allowing for social distancing there’s always four or five people there, and there’s always so much to learn, and a lot of cross pollination,” he says. “For example, Norman Musengimana is an entrepreneur who is also enrolled in QPI’s Startup Runway. He is the head of a company called BizSkills Academy, which is very connected in Africa. We’re trying to figure out how to use his skills with PRISM. It’s good to get the perspectives of a lot of people with different experiences.”

Thanks once again to his informal connections, this time with Launch Lab, PRISM recently hired a business development person who Garofalo hopes will help them expand their business by responding to RFPs from school boards and undertaking the demanding job of negotiating with provincial educational ministries’ procurement departments. They’ve also been asked by a number of consortia to partner with them in searching for new business.

“It’s been good from a business perspective,” he says about connecting with QPI. “You learn fast and there’s always someone here who can give you the answers you need. That’s hard to match anywhere else. QPI’s programs definitely would help any startup to push through.”