Big ideas made him a big fish, his big heart is making a city of young cyclists.

August 15, 2017
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Mark Chamberlain wears many hats and he wears them all very, very well. He’s equally at home picking up an Academy Award for Technical Excellence, talking safe cycling to school kids or steering Hamilton into a tech revolution via McMaster Innovation Park and Innovation Factory. In keeping with his many hats persona, Mark is also breaking new ground with his newest companies, PV Labs and VitaSound. Whether you are lucky enough to meet Mark at Pitch Karaoke or interact with him on Twitter as he fiercely advocates for cycling and transformative transit, you’ll immediately know one thing about Mark Chamberlain - he’s a connector of ideas and people, an optimist and a world-changer. He’s also one of the most enthusiastic, disciplined and genuine people in the country. I was glad to be able to sit down with Mark and chat about where he has come from, where he is going and what interesting insights and lessons he’s picked up along the way.

When you tell the Mark story, where do you start?

I was born in Toronto and within my first year my parents moved into a duplex in Newmarket. From there, we moved to the country, northwest of Stouffville. In my high school years, my Dad kept moving us further away from the city. He worked in Toronto, but we moved just north of Port Perry. We lived on a farm there, had some cattle, mixed grain and horses. I started working for a farmer when I was about 11 years old.

Working on a farm at 11? that shows an early work ethic!

The farmer I worked for was Dutch and he taught me how to work really hard. He also taught me about the ergonomics of work, how to throw hay for example, or empty a hay wagon. So at 11 years old I was throwing hay and when I was 18 and inviting my friends out, they couldn’t throw hay because it was all about technique. He taught me technique, minimum movements and that kind of stuff. It was really interesting. Then, when I was in grade 11, I was trying to earn $600 for a guitar.

This sounds like the beginning of the entrepreneur Mark story.

I said to the farmer, look, what if I buy some calves, raise them, and then sell the cows? So I ended up making enough money in a year to buy my guitar.

Your incredible story starts with selling calves to buy a guitar?

I just knew what I wanted. A Martin D-28! [Laughs.]

From a budding cattle empire to where?

I enrolled in university in 1975, studying engineering. Going to the University of Waterloo meant drinking very entrepreneurial water; it’s still like that today. It was very interesting what opportunities there were, to not just solve problems, but to actually define which problems we were going to solve.

And your first job?

I came to Hamilton for a quick interview. I wasn’t looking for a job; I was looking for an opportunity. The owner of one of the companies I met, kind of looked at me and said, “This wasn’t the interview I thought it was going to be, but I am really intrigued.”  I joined him in 1985 and over the next two years he was a phenomenal mentor. I sat in his office with him, listening, and learned everything that he could teach me about his business.

He poured his knowledge into you and you took it where?

We built a team and I and a partner bought the company (Wescam) in 1987. We had 17 people on staff. We grew the business and in 1995 we became a public company on the TSE. Soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened in the U.S. and we were in the business of aerospace, security and things of that nature. There were a lot of U.S. companies that were interested in expanding because of that security need so in 2002 we sold the business to L3 Communications.

I helped them transition and left in 2003. At that point I was interested in seeing what else I could do. I guess I can almost call this retirement, because I ended up spending a lot of time doing things I was really interested in within the community. I got involved with the Hamilton Community Foundation, joined the Ontario Centres of Excellence and helped create a number of new infrastructures in the City of Hamilton, such as the Innovation Factory.

So what was your vision and direction for Hamilton?

We created the goal of making Hamilton the best place to raise a child. Essentially, if we can’t do it for kids, who are we doing it for? But it’s not just about kids. It’s about adults too. By saying we can make it best for children it means we must make it best for everyone. And making it best for everyone we have to eliminate poverty.  Poverty and prosperity are two sides of the same coin. Almost everything we do to solve poverty is all of the things you need to be doing to have a really creative, innovative culture. It’s about education and early years.

So it folds back around that innovation is the center of your worldview and a passion that runs deep. Back in the day in Stoufville, were you the kid that stood out?

I guess I kind of stood out. [Laughs]

What did Mark Chamberlain look like in high school from an academic point of view?

I did well and was the valedictorian in Grade 13.

Do you remember the highlight of your speech?

Our learning was not so much the formulas that we memorized but how they were derived. What were the fundamentals. The real value of school was in the things that we learned how to figure out not memorize. I was always the one that was trying to figure out things from first principles. Not just what, but why things existed. I grew up in a big family where we always challenged each other intellectually. There was always a very active conversation.

At the dinner table?

Yes, we were eight kids.

So where were you in the scheme of eight children.

Second oldest.

You knew that you would go places?

Yes. I just like doing things. I like sports. I love music. I like art. I like doing math problems. I was the kid on the bus in the morning that would get all the math contest questions from my teachers, and I’d be working on them all the way to school. They were puzzles and I was a curious kid.

Throughout many of the features in this Best of the Bay Innovators Issue, the theme of someone who is curious and engaged in “figuring things out” keeps coming up.

That’s always been a theme.

You figured out how to get that guitar by going beyond throwing hay to selling calves. Fast forward to today. What are you figuring out from a business perspective?

Well, there are two businesses that I am involved with, more full-time in PV Labs. We have some really interesting technology.

What does that look like on the ground?

It may be looking at disaster response or things of that nature and taking very large amounts of data, and gathering it very quickly. In big data you are talking about velocity, variety, and the volume of data coming through. Variety is that visual as metadata and a bunch of other things. Velocity is how fast this information gets to somebody.

Sounds like the early days when you were breaking ground with Westcam.

Yes, we were involved with Hollywood. Four years ago, we received our second technical Academy Award for Science and Engineering, for our aerial imaging system.

Take me to where we are right now. The meeting room at PV Labs. What happens here?

PV Labs is still an early stage company with all the usual characteristics, which means is not for the faint of heart. Managing an early stage company is a contact sport, and you need to have really phenomenal people. In this organization, I work with phenomenal people, people that are smarter than me... [Laughs.] They really make it happen.

So where do you find people who are smarter than Mark Chamberlain?

Oh, they are everywhere. [Laughs.]

One of your talents is recognizing talent?

Everybody does something very well and I think one of my talents is asking the right questions. For me it’s not necessarily walking around with a pocket full of answers but finding the people who are experts at answering the questions.

Do you have a success mantra? Something that helps you keep moving forward?

The saying is that you either succeed or you fail. Actually, it’s either you succeed or you learn. It’s not what things happen, it’s how you are set to respond to what’s happened, and turn it into the right direction.

Things don’t go well, and things may not go well for a week, for a month, for two months, and then what do you do about that? There is a constant effort to stay aligned, stay believing that you are in the right direction or knowing enough to say it is the wrong direction and then pivot. [Laughs.] And learn fast.

Has there been a time when you’ve thought you were heading in a certain direction and you ended up somewhere completely different?

I don’t get surprised anymore. Sometimes you are disappointed. If you’re always in discovery mode, you kind of go where the discovery takes you.

I know you have another amazing company up your sleeve.

The other company we are working on is VitaSound. It’s a wonderful technology that was invented at McMaster. We ultimately turned it into a set of products.

Where did you start with VitaSound?

Our first thinking was that we would sell hearing aids and that we would partner up with, and distribute, through Walmart and Walgreens in the States.

But there was learning along the way?

What we found was that maybe we can be successful on that, but it was really going to be expensive to roll it out. We were competing with a set of really well established companies with billions of dollars of revenue per year and they were buying up the entire distribution network anyway.

I’ve heard you say that sometimes the best technology doesn’t always win.

We knew that the best technology doesn’t always win. It wasn’t a surprise to us. It helps you win but it doesn’t win on its own.

Enter the business pivot.

We did a full pivot. Instead of selling fully programmed hearing aids through audiology channels, we decided to sell a pre-programmed hearing device as a lower cost electronics product through more traditional channels like Amazon. These products are called alternative listening devices and personal sound amplifiers.

Your goal?

Our goal is to provide a hearing device that is low cost and provides high quality hearing to everybody.

The hearing market is new to you. What are some of the first things you learned?

The major reasons people are not buying hearing aids is because, one, they are really expensive and two, for the price, they have a lot of flaws. They don’t work as well as people expect them to. The third reason is stigma.

Your first task?

Our first task, and we got this from McMaster, is to have the absolute best sounding device out there. And we think that we actually have that. Then put it into a context of an electronic device that you can pick up off the shelf or order on Amazon, with nothing more to do. Put it in your ear and say, “Wow. That sounds really good, and I can actually hear music better than I ever heard before.” We think we have those devices and our challenge is actually how to market them.  It’s a wonderful device. It makes a difference.

And the price point?

You’re spending less than $200 to get there.

So you are cutting out the Walgreens and the Walmart’s.

Yes.  

Is that part of the passion project, to bring that change, that phenomenal result to people who need it at an affordable price point?

Absolutely. We think the disruption or the opportunity is excellent hearing for everybody. It works really well right off the shelf. For those who need more, what you’ve actually done is brought them into the hearing conversation earlier than they may have.  They say, “Hey, I want even more than this.” Then they can start thinking about a hearing aid. It is to actually bring them into the conversation and to use it as a gateway to an audiologist.

Where do you keep finding these opportunities for new businesses?

In this case, we actually created something called Innovation Night, which was basically, it was a pitch karaoke.

Karaoke?

We would have it in a bar, and we brought people in.  We did it for a couple of years, before we handed it off to the Innovation Factory. What we created was individuals coming in and doing a pitch. We invited people to the bar who were investors, advisors and mentors. I would say it’s 180 degrees from Dragon’s Den.

So friendly instead of cut throat?

It was about continually feeding and encouraging the individual to keep thinking, to keep moving forward, but laying out what we think the challenge might be.  

I love this idea of bringing out the best in people instead of terrifying and humiliating them.

This is not about destroying their idea. It’s actually about saying, “You tried, this sounds fantastic. Go ahead, but have you thought about this different approach?” as opposed to making fun of them.

It’s all about connection. Getting out and talking to people.

Yes. It’s giving people the opportunity to present their ideas, practise narrowing down their pitch, so that it is clear and concise, but it’s also all about networking. The thing about the Innovation Factory is there is a lot of good training, there’s a lot of good mentoring. One of our most important roles is getting people connected to ideas, partners, financing, markets, all those sort of things. If we can help accelerate that, we are all better for it.

If I am thinking about what Mark Chamberlain’s underlying passion is, it’s that Mark is about connecting people and figuring out puzzles. It isn’t that you were passionate about hearing, and you went out looking for technology. You are interested in a technology when it presents itself to you, it speaks to you and you can see where it’s going.

And then it’s about the people; technology has no value if you don’t get good people around it.

What’s the best professional wisdom that you have received?

Probably one of the best pieces of advice I’ve had is just listen. It’s through observation, through listening that I learn. Whether it’s customers, technicians/technologists, ideas, it is to spend as much time as you can just observing.

Is it sometimes hard to listen when people are telling you something that you might not want to hear?

It’s always hard to realign when you thought you were so right.

If someone was to ask you for advice, what would it be?

Follow your passion and put the right skills in your knapsack.

Specific skills you’d advocate someone to cultivate?

How to collaborate, connect and communicate. Connecting is critical as is collaboration because you cannot do it on your own. And communication is essential because unless you can sell your thoughts and ideas to someone, you don’t have a business.

I have to ask you a “classic” question...

A classic? [Laughs.] Sure.

Do you have a go-to business book?

I like reading about pedagogy and leadership. One of the best business books is by my favorite author, Clayton Christensen, and it’s called The Innovator’s Dilemma.

I know you have a passion project and it has two wheels. I’ve seen the photos of the gym filled with bikes and the excitement that it created in kids and parents. Talk to me about Bike for Mike.

Bike for Mike is an initiative of my wife Debbie and my daughter Kristen. Our goal is to increase the number of kid cyclists in Hamilton. We’d like to see every kid in Hamilton ultimately have a bike. We do that because we know that cycling is good for you, both mentally and physically. It has a huge impact. If we can get 60 per cent of the kids, who live close enough to cycle to school, we’d like to see that happen. We have some phenomenal partners including New Hope Community Bikes, JumpStart, Hamilton Community Foundation and both school boards.

How are you going about this?

We provide bikes for every child, their siblings and their parents at a school and develop programs to encourage them to ride to and from school.

How are you coming with your goal?

We have 5 schools in our program and we’ve provided over 1900 bikes so far. We’re trying to provide about 1000 bikes per year. The goal is to get 60 per cent of the students actually riding to and from school.

How do you fund such a great program?

We run an annual ride. It’s always the first Sunday in May. That’s what helps us to raise money and also awareness for cycling.  We are trying to develop children leaders, student leaders, because we think they’d be the best advocates for all of us to actually be able to say to City Hall, “We need bike lanes, we need slower cars.” Why? Because we will be healthier if we do that. I think council is sick and tired of hearing old guys like me ranting about how we need to have safer streets so that seniors can walk, so kids can walk, so families can walk or bike. We want kids to advocate and Bike for Mike is part of that.

Is Hamilton behind the times or leading the way?

Middle of the road. At this point we’re asking, what can we do? Well, let’s do it through children because they’re the ones that don’t have any other options other than walking. Some of these visual things that most of us remember from our own lives is the first time that you ride your own two-wheeler and the first time you see your kids ride their first two-wheeler. When you see that, you say, “Why shouldn’t every child?” So it fits within this “how to make Hamilton the best place to raise a child.” This idea actually came from my son, Mike. He wanted to do something for the kids in Hamilton. He put the thoughts together and he initiated the thinking with my wife Debbie. When he passed away, Debbie said, “We need to continue this” and so we decided to hold the bike ride on an annual basis.

You give bikes but they aren’t free right?

A part of our program is called “Mike’s Bikes” where we buy the bikes for distribution through schools. We don’t give them away. They have to earn them by riding them, maintaining them, and advocating for safe streets and a healthy lifestyle. So they actually have a critical role to play.

Is there a way that you are helping them to learn how to advocate? Do you have a way that you are helping to educate them?

Our first major partner is the school board, but externally it’s New Hope Community Bikes. They have spectacular programs. One of them is actually teaching safety and maintenance. We’re now just starting a program, this year, which will introduce a few new ways to help kids get safely to and from school. We’ll be rolling that out this year with New Hope and with the schools.

You’re creating an army of future biking advocates. Where do you start?

It’s about eliminating barriers. The first barrier is “You don’t even have a bike? Let’s make sure you get bikes and bells and helmets.” The next barrier is safety training. Ok fine, let’s get the safety training. The next one is how do you get to school safely. This is now the area where we are saying, “Well, there is some stuff we can do, but the other stuff is up to the City. So City, we want to be healthy; what are you doing?" That’s where the advocation will start to come in. This is where we work very closely with the teachers and the schools themselves, where they use it as an opportunity to learn civics.

If you think about the opportunity to actually advocate for your own health, for your own safety, for your own bike riding, we think it’s a wonderful opportunity where they will be a louder student voice. This whole idea is that they are future leaders [Laughs], actually they are current leaders. We need their leadership role, leading the way in how their community should look. On behalf of all of us.

How many kids actually ride to school?

This is information we will be gathering because we don’t know. Historically, it was 70 - 80 percent of students got to school on their own power, by either walking or bike riding. Today I believe it’s less than ten per cent.

What about the “Is my kid safe riding to school” question?

Safety is a combination of actual physical safety and perceived safety. We are trying to address both of those, but the more kids you actually have riding and the more kids you have walking, safety actually goes up because there is safety in numbers.

So Bike for Mike was your family initiative and now you’ve got a lot of help?

Now we have so many wonderful partners supporting us and leading us in new directions, it’s quite spectacular.

Thoughts on how to plan for safe walking/cycling cities?

There’s some pretty good evidence in the world today that says, “If you design your community for women and children, you’ll design your community well for everyone, including seniors.” It really comes down to the kinds of roads, the kinds of safety; separated bike lanes, speed limit, all of the context that you do to create a community that is designed to live in, and not just drive through. That’s the challenge. It’s growing slowly. There are lots of groups out there in Hamilton that are all aligning. Hopefully, our program is a big part of actually aligning but also giving a voice to kids and students.

You’ve seen changes?

Yes. The North End took over a decade of advocating to get 30Km/hr speed limits throughout the entire community. If you actually drive to the community, you’ll see what they’ve done around corners with these build outs, just to make it safer. This will be our first community to test our ride safe to school program.

Are you hoping that the advocacy skills the students gain goes beyond biking?

Yes, learning how to identify an issue in the community and doing a presentation is a life skill. It will teach them what civic engagement is all about. All they need to know is the technique and they’ll find other reasons to put it into action their whole life. It is showing that there is connectivity between doing something and actually seeing a result.

Connectivity between doing something and actually seeing a result. I can’t think of a better summary of your story Mark. Thank you so much for talking with me today. It was an education and an inspiration. I think I’ll get my bike out this weekend and ride to the coffee shop instead of walk.

Enjoy.

For more information visit:

PV Labs

VitaSound

 

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