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U of T startup wants to take pain out of parking

Grid Parking co-founder on finding the right spot
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“The dynamic nature of parking does not allow you to be sure that you’re going to find the right spot at the right time.” Substitute ‘parking’ for ‘entrepreneurship’ and Grid Parking co-founder Ahsan Malik’s statement would still ring true; both require a significant degree of patience, sufficient time, and a bit of luck.

Fortunately, Malik and his startup’s team have the extra ingredients needed to start taking the pain out of parking: market research, pilot testing, and $20,000 in seed funding.

Co-founded by current U of T student Birinder Lobana and recent alumni Muhammad Sheikh and Malik, Grid aims to provide users with real-time data of available parking spaces through an app. The ultimate goal is to make parking — especially in major downtown hubs like Toronto — faster and more convenient.

On September 5, Grid won the $20,000 Hatchery Prize at the sixth annual Demo Day. Demo Day 2018 was the culmination of the four-month Hatchery Nest accelerator program. Out of a cohort of over 30 groups, 13 finalists were given the chance to pitch their startups to a panel of judges. For Malik and his team, the prize represented both the end of a journey that they had started from the 2017 Hatchery Nest cohort, and the transition of the project from a concept to reality.

Looking for a spot

The inspiration to begin work on the startup stemmed from Lobana and Malik’s personal frustrations with finding parking in downtown Toronto. The two met while playing soccer and frequently had to find parking at different venues to continue playing sports. This frustration led them to pursue a solution. Malik’s experience as a mechanical engineering student and Lobana’s computer science background made the collaboration straightforward. The system they wanted to design, however, required hardware, which is where electrical and computer engineering student Sheikh would come in.

“I’d say that we all came from cities that are not as mesmerizing as we found Toronto,” said Malik. “[The] interest in diversified fields… combined together into one space… Fueled our imagination to what we can do and putting in the efficiency that we see is still needed in the system.”

Together, the three applied to the Hatchery Nest program at U of T in 2017. According to Joseph Orozco, the Entrepreneurship Hatchery’s executive director and co-founder, close to $40 million has been raised collectively by startups that have participated in the program in the last five to six years. The Nest opens applications in September, and holds interviews for admission in February. The program runs from May to August, providing groups with advisory boards consisting of mentors from numerous different fields that provide groups with detailed feedback and resources to develop their businesses.

“[This] expanded collaborative network… [allows] us to keep on creating startups and generating a dealflow that is certainly transforming Canada and allowing our students to think big,” said Orozco.

Grid was not among the four teams to secure funding during Demo Day 2017, and Malik attributes this to his team’s failure to identify all the stakeholders that would be affected by their business.

“It took us time to realize that establishing a proper business has to find a very sweet spot within the existing chain of stakeholders involved in the market which you are going into,” said Malik. “The first time when we were presenting to investors, we were presenting the very, very positive feedback that we had received from the users, the driver’s side. So that market was not the right fit for the business model.”

Circling around

Still, failure to secure funding did not mean that involvement in the Hatchery Nest program was a failure for Grid. With the feedback they received, the team returned to the clients they had interviewed and sought new clients in different markets in order to refine their pitch.

Equipped with a richer diversity of feedback and responses, Grid reapplied to the Hatchery Nest in 2018. The team continued to fine-tune their ideas, and Malik notes that a meeting with Airbus Chief Technology Officer Grazia Vittadini and mentorship from John Phyper were particularly valuable.

Malik also added that Orozco connects groups with industry leaders and U of T students in the business stream in order to provide groups with more business-oriented input.

“[Orozco’s] feedback during your presentations is something that really combines everything that he has seen from the previous successful startups to help you know that what you’re trying to do is even viable or not in the long run,” said Malik.

The involvement of other student-led startup groups also helped Malik and his team develop their idea. “Those people are also going into their ventures, into the world of unknowns, trying to build something right from the beginning, lay the foundations. So they’re going through the same phases as [we] are.”

Finding a fit

In October, Grid began pilot testing using portions of their seed funding. This currently consists of additional market research and networking to adapt the team’s design.

“So the challenge is to incorporate the feedback of our actual customers, the clients, into the design we are building, and [determining the] trade-off between cost, performance, quality, scalability, and those kinds of things,” said Malik.

In the long term, the team hopes to expand their market to other major city hubs, including Calgary, Montréal, and Vancouver. For now, their go-to market is companies that sell tickets and already collect user information that can incorporate Grid’s interface of reservation links into their own. This would include stadiums for concerts or sports events and hotels. From there, the team will look to expand to more public spaces.

“It’s hard to put a timeline to it because so many factors are involved, but by the end of next year, we hope to be at [places like] Pearson airport, Yorkdale Mall, Rogers Centre,” said Malik.

The team is also looking into receiving further support from accelerators such as NEXT Canada and the Creative Destruction Lab.

Grid has received investment offers from friends and investors who attended Demo Day. Malik noted, “The point right now is that we, being engineers, lead with technology and its performance. So our focus right now is pilot testing and we know that we can raise much higher funds once we have proven that our concept is driving the future of mobility.”