No toaster is safe with the man who reinvented the way we measure color.

August 15, 2017
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Matthew Sheridan was a boy who saw a toaster and needed to know how it worked. While other kids were making Pop Tarts, he was making connections and becoming a self-taught engineer in his homemade lab. 

Matthew has won the coveted title of Entrepreneur of the Year, yet he never made a single “Top Student” list in high school or as a McMaster engineering student. The Influence Magazine team caught up with Matthew in his Nix Sensor lab at McMaster Innovation Park in Hamilton and got the story behind his portable color measurement tool, and why the big boys with the $10,000 scanners are suddenly looking over their shoulder.

You’re the inventor of the Nix Pro Color Sensor, the winner of both the Ontario Young Entrepreneur of the Year award and the Ernest C. Manning Innovation Award. What kind of kid were you?

I was always a weird kid. I still am a weird person, I’ve always been building things, for sure. Every bedroom I had, I would put together an electronics lab in it. I did that since elementary school. It was a big deal for me being able to take stuff apart and put it back together, do science experiments, hobbies and things like that.

A stellar science and math student?

I never was really academically strong. I remember a high school teacher saying, “Why are you even in this calculus class?” so I was more of a problem solver than a homework solver. That went all the way through university. I didn’t really ever go to class but there were things like McMaster Solar Car Program that attracted me and I spent as much time on that as possible. Because if you were going to learn the same thing in the end, but you did it in a practical way, that appealed to me more.

What kinds things did you take apart and put back together that made your parents crazy?

Everything, every computer we ever owned, all the way to regular parts of the car.  A big thing I had as a kid was that I built my own remote control car and then I would take it apart, put it back together and annoy the neighbours running it up and down the street.

So you were interested in the technology?

It was more about the problem solving. It didn’t necessarily have to be a computer, it could have been any sort of mechanical object. That reverse engineering always fascinated me, to figure out how things worked. But that sort of applies to everything. I remember reading books about things I couldn’t take apart just to see sort of how they worked.

Something you couldn’t get your hands on for your bedroom electronic lab?

Yeah, I’d read a book about the space shuttle to see how it worked.

Is there a way to speed up the innovation curve for the young kids coming behind you?

Yes. I think the goal is to be passionate about the hands-on aspect, passionate about the subject in general. But it’s hard to make a kid passionate about math when the only thing he has to do with it is the math homework.  If they have a reason to do it, I think it makes it a lot easier for kids and a lot more fun. You have to tie it back to building something or have some model or hobby. It gives them some context to what they are learning.

Any real life examples of this kind of learning?

A really great example is Solar Car at McMaster University. We run courses on how to solder, how to put together a circuit, how to program, things like that, and those camps are really successful.

My husband’s a high school math teacher, he’s listening to your answer very carefully now!

I think math is a really good example, where it can be the driest thing you have ever done in your entire life, so incredibly boring. But if you just tie the math back to one thing that is interesting –  which could almost be anything because math is everywhere  –   then it totally changes it. If you are doing calculus to speed up some model rocket and you actually go and launch it in the parking lot, it is a totally different story, it’s so much easier to understand.

Did you ever think about teaching?

I am pretty passionate about teaching. I used to coach sailing as a community coach and I teach the courses at Solar Car, one a week.

Tell me a little bit about Solar Car.

Solar Car is funded by some of the engineering societies, but it’s not exclusively engineering.

They let the artsies in too?

There’s humanities students, business students, marketing people, there’s people running a website, there’s people going out to find money, there’s outreach events.  I would say 20 per cent of what we do is build this car and attempt to go to some race and 80 per cent of what we do is public outreach.

Outreach?

The car will be brought to Blue Mountain for a show about global warming and you will see a thousand kids over a weekend, talk to them about how the solar car works and how they can get involved.  And then on campus we will do events where you learn how to solder, learn how to put together an electronics kit, or on the mechanical side you can see how the whole frame works, how to weld, all these different things and then they run it as a course. Originally this kind of outreach was a necessity because everyone graduated school and left the team, so you had to keep feeding people into it. Now teaching and outreach is an integral part of the team.

Here in Hamilton and Burlington, where would people access Solar Car?

You can go to the McMaster Solar Car Project website for a list of events.

And is Solar Car in this area only or all over the world?

It’s all over the world. There’s a Solar Car world championship in Australia every couple of years and another one in Texas; that’s the one that we went to recently. At this level it’s sort of like running an Iron Man. If you finished it you are good, you have nothing to complain about. It’s a similar thing to be able to even get the car to roll. It’s hard, the winning teams have like four or five million dollar cars. There’s stiff competition.

What’s your favourite aspect of what you do now? Is it the technology, the financing or connecting with partnerships?

I think my favourite aspect is not necessarily technical or business, but just the problem solving, and that goes across all those sort of verticals. Trying to figure out how to make something more efficient is just as interesting to me as how we make the budget more efficient. Frankly, I get kind of bored if there’s not enough problems, I start freaking out.

You start making problems?

No, it’s weird, though, I start getting a bit jittery if we go for a week without any major problem that needs to be solved. It seems like it’s the calm before the storm.

I want to circle back now and talk more about the Nix Pro. From what I know this is a handheld device that measures color.

That sums it up.

Nix Sensor didn’t happen overnight. How did you get here?

I was actually working here at Innovation Factory after I graduated, just taking classes. I have an engineering degree and a business degree. At one of the afternoon discussions, a challenge was to go around the table and talk about different business ideas. I had a whole bunch of ideas in my head, I always have a bunch of ideas in my head, all the time.  And at that time, one of my core ideas was for a low cost portable color sensor.

Where did that idea come from?

I came up with that when I saw my mom using a whole bunch of fan decks, color swatches, in a big tote bag, which cost $200. You have to zip it up and put it over your shoulder, carry it to the trunk of your car and then bring it somewhere. And you take them out, and you have to figure out which color is which.  And to me that didn’t make any sense. Color wasn’t my thing, but I could see it as being a problem, so I had that in the back of my head on this course.

So you pitch the idea of a colour measurement tool around a table, almost off hand, to a small group of fellow students at Innovation Factory?

Yes.  We are going around the table and a woman next to me says she is making custom airbrush makeup for burn victims. Her problem was that she couldn’t expand her business to a second location because no one would have the same expertise in colours that she had.  So she literally, word for word, said, “I need a low cost portable colour sensor.”  And I said, “I have this idea of a low cost portable colour sensor.”  So that sort of kicked me into gear thinking, There are two people who could use this now, my mom and this makeup woman, so you know it’s not just a one-off thing. Then this woman got a quote from our now competitor and it was around $15,000 for one unit. I thought that was insane, how could that possibly be true, it costs $15,000 to measure the color of something?

And that prompted you to take the next step?

I said to her, “I can build the whole business for $15,000.” Then I tried it and found out I had been completely arrogant; it didn’t even remotely work.

As Mark Chamberlain says, you either succeed or learn.

Yes. And I had Innovation Factory downstairs and they helped me roll that $15,000 into our first government grant, which allowed us to hire a summer student and build a prototype.

What did you learn about color at that point?

Color is subjective and our eyes  are not very accurate at all. We were originally aiming for a level of measurement to beat the fan deck. I thought when we started that wasn’t going to be that difficult.

But it was?

In the end, it was hard! Anything that’s slightly off with colour, people pick up on it right away, so it has to be perfect.  If you are running off of numbers, the data says this is the colour threshold but it’s not the same as human perception. The numbers tell us one thing, but the human eye picks up on other things.

It must be why no two people can agree on what color things are!

Color is very emotional, so it’s not just numbers. People actually get a feeling when something is wrong. If you look at this red couch we’re sitting on and one of the cushions was a slightly different red than the others, it would kind of freak you out while we were talking. You would keep looking at it.

That’s true. So your goal with the Nix Pro was to end color arguments?

The big, huge goal was to bump up the accuracy to the highest level we could possibly achieve. And then just continue to increase the usability of the product, make it as easy to use as possible, streamlined, and very durable as well. I had to figure out, is this a good idea and simultaneously figure out if it was even physically possible to build.

Funding came in handy at that point.

The government grant allowed us to pursue both those questions at the same time.

When funding is so tight what do you do first?

We built a few prototypes as cheaply as possible, and this is where the solar car expertise came in. For one of the prototypes we actually used an upside down shot glass from the dollar store. And we built the electronics inside of that little cup to block out the light in the room.  We only spent maybe $20 on that. And then we went from a really hacked together prototype to a little bit more polished with the 3D printed enclosure.

3D printing?

At the time 3D printing was very expensive, so we would hide 3D prints inside other 3D prints on campus. That way it wouldn’t take any extra time or money.  We could take them out and, you know, pay the guy with a six pack of beer or whatever.  So we moved to that stage and then we figured out, you know what, it’s not perfect, but it’s possible.

At what point do you go to market?

Exactly. Now we had to answer the question, does anyone want this, is this even a good idea? You always get the people who say, “If it was a good idea, why hasn’t it been done already?”  So that was in the back of our heads. It’s actually where Kickstarter came in, and why it’s perfect for answering that question.

You go on Kickstarter and say?

“Hello world, do you think this is a good idea, and do you also think it’s a good enough idea that you will pay for it before it exists?”

And what did the Kickstarter nation say to Matthew Sheridan and Nix Sensor?

We ended up doubling our ask – we raised $70,000 in 30 days. We were actually one of the first groups to raise money on Kickstarter on its first official day in Canada.
 

And you took from the Kickstarter feedback?

These people are just random strangers from around the world, they are just kind of interested. That gave us the confidence to move forward, and then we used those funds to actually fulfil the first batch of orders.  And that was still a prototype product that these people were getting, because it was the first in the world of that nature.

We’ve gone from hiding the design in someone else’s 3D print project and paying with beer to Kickstarter. Where next?

We circled back to the thousand or so people that purchased the original product. We figured out what the most popular features were based on 90 per cent of existing customers. You could never cover 100 per cent of the people – that’s a dangerous road to go down. Then I went back to the drawing board and completely redesigned the product from scratch so nothing was the same other than looks.

I imagine Nix Sensor is really for interior designers, contractors, art directors. Is it all creative people working with colour?

That’s a really interesting question, because when we started, the purpose was to replace the fan deck. So at the beginning, we were thinking that designers have this fan deck of swatches, that’s how they design. And then you think, maybe contractors, professional painters and graphic designers, so you branch out a bit. But really, a lot of the people that purchased from that first batch, had nothing to do with design, but they still use swatches and fan decks.

More learning as you’re developing . . .

What we found out was that basically every industry in the entire world, literally every single industry that makes a physical product, uses some sort of colour quality control. Right now most companies are using a fan deck which is totally unreliable. When I was working on the colour sensor I thought it was something people would want but I didn’t realize at the time that the market was basically unlimited. It extends to anything: cosmetics, automotive, Hollywood movies. The list goes on and on and on.

Food too?

Yes, all food and produce is basically graded on quality and color is part of that quality control process. There’s a fan deck that measures the color of egg yolks, roses, tulips, there’s even a fan deck for the fat in steak. This is where it opened up and the possibilities expanded, when we figured out that all these industries are different, but they have the same underlying problem. They need to accurately measure color, quickly, right on their line.

If they all measure colour, what are they using?

They are either using an $8,000 or $10,000  lab instrument or they are using a fan deck, there is no middle ground at all, nothing.

Where there’s a gap in the market, there’s an opportunity.

So that’s where we are trying to play right now, the middle. We don’t have to compete against the people selling the expensive briefcase size color scanners. We’re here for all the other users that have been walking around with a color fan deck, that’s where we want to play, and that market is so much bigger. It’s endless, really.

You can even sell to the guy manufacturing green tractor parts?

That’s literally the kind of thing that happens. A tractor part manufacturer has some parts coming out of Italy and others out of three different countries.  When they come together they better be the exact same color.

Any really cool companies using Nix Sensor?

We have food, that’s a big one but also Industrial Light Magic – George Lucas’ company is using 15 of them right now.

How?

Say there’s a scene where there’s a police car and it explodes in the next scene. The explosion is probably CGI, so the colour has to match or you will see a gap when it explodes, so they scan things on sets and photography for colour.  

You’re constantly learning.

Actually, the reason the guys aren’t in the office right now is that they are getting on a plane to Mexico to work at a chicken farm to get the chicken skin color.

Was it obvious to you at the beginning how big the market was for this kind of invention?

It seems so obvious when I explain it now, but for some reason it wasn’t obvious to me at the beginning that literally every physical object has a color, by definition. And that if you are building physical objects you have to have some sort of book of quality control.

That people can afford.

Yes.

The fan decks or color cards seem to be so flawed now that I’m talking to you!

Think of it this way: Typically, if you are building a yellow plastic chair in China, there’s thousands of them going through the assembly line and there’s a person sitting there with a reference plastic card and they just keep looking at it.

And the reference card would fade and their eyes would get tired!

Yes, and it’s a huge problem, so the Chinese yellow plastic chair is a perfect example. This happens over and over, you buy something, they say it’s the same color when you ask on the phone. You want a sample to compare to the yellow chairs you already have. They will send the chair in a shipping container and it shows up a month later. You open it and it’s not the color you ordered. So now what do you do, even if you are right, it’s 30 days to get another batch. It’s the same thing with hardwood floors, plastic sand buckets, every possible sort of combination of these goods that are travelling between countries. It’s very difficult to communicate the color or to really measure color affordably,  until now.

That’s a sophisticated piece of equipment in that small black diamond. How do you know it’s reading color right when it leaves the lab and heads to, say, the chicken farm?

One of the reasons why we do all the assembly here is because we can actually control the whole calibration process. With us, we calibrate on site before it leaves. But the existing color scanner, the $8,000 one from our competitor, it doesn’t come calibrated. They build the units in batches and then they supply you with a reference color tile. When you get the unit, you scan the reference tile and then it calibrates.

Sounds low-tech for a high-tech device worth almost $10,000.

Yes, plus if you lose the tile then it’s over, you have to buy another one. Or if the tile changes color then it’s not calibrated anymore, either. Or if you smudge it.

Or it fades.

Anything. That’s why the reference tile comes in a little case and you have to be very careful with it. The problem with the whole system is that if you try to build a low cost unit, how can you possibly have that tile? You would have to carry this tile around with you, you would have all the same colors.

So that’s why you’re calibrating here.

Every unit is calibrated individually, right here, by hand.

Does it ever fall out of calibration?

Any device will eventually fall out of calibration, but the goal for us is to have such  a long range that it won’t lose it in its lifetime. And you can have it recalibrated as well. Our buyer just sends it back to us to calibrate, that’s a service we offer.

You have office and lab space here at McMaster Innovation Park, what’s the draw?

One of the benefits of being in this building is that we use the resources extensively, every day.

Any city trying to lure you away?

We get offers  to move to different places, from Europe to San Francisco to Boston to New York City to Waterloo all the time, but we wanted to stay here because that original story was in Innovation Factory downstairs. There’s nothing better, in the whole timeline of our business they have been the most helpful people you could ever imagine. And the whole thing is not for profit, it almost doesn’t make any sense. The team will say it all the time too – we will have a really, really good day, close a big deal or solve some big problems, and we are all happy with ourselves. Then everyone will take a step back and say, “We wouldn’t have been able to do this unless it was for that one guy that helped us downstairs or got us over that one problem.”

Do you think a place like Innovation Park exists in New York, San Fran, Rome or do you think it’s a special role, a culture here in Hamilton?

I think similar things exist in other cities, but you don’t have the Hamilton aspect of it, which is very unique, heads down, hands on, work. There’s ten companies in the Forge [a startup accelerator program in Innovation Park]  and you probably never hear about them or know who the people are, but they are grinding away.  They are working 12 hours a day on their project and that’s all they are worried about, they don’t worry about some sort of popularity contest or whatever.  So that’s where the culture really works here, especially for a hardware type company where you are building something that you cannot build just on hype. You actually have to build the product. With software, though, you can build a whole company on hype and then catch the software up later, but with hardware you have to physically sell something, it has to go in the mail. So you can’t be distracted too much.

That’s interesting.

I want to say, our value in being Hamilton-based and Canadian is huge, the pride in being able to say that we are a Hamilton-based company. I think every single one of our products on the bottom of the box says Made in Hamilton, Ontario, the Ambitious City and then it has a Chamber of Commerce link on the bottom, to their investment page.

It’s time for us to meet this made in Hamilton actual product. Tell me how this little black bag contains all the magic.Nix Sensor is so small so you can have it in a pocket or purse or bag at all times. Love the design.

Basically, if you just place the device down and press scan, in two seconds you get the color on your phone screen through the free Nix app.

I love this, even I can totally wrap my head around this, and I’m tech challenged.

It takes you two seconds and you can also share it with people, which makes approving a color for a bathroom or a company logo faster. Now you can save it with a note and put it in a folder, you can say these are my inspiration ideas for the bathroom or for the logo.
 

It links up to paint collections too?

You can select from libraries of paints, so if you wanted to know what this color is in Benjamin Moore color codes, it will tell you. It sorts them in order, your Nix Pro will tell you red stone is the closest one, but bull’s eye red is the second closest, and then salsa is the third.  And then it will mathematically tell you actually how close it is, so for the other guys who are in the quality control aspect, you now know to two decimal places how close it is.

Any examples of how Nix Sensor saves the day for a local company?

We were working with  a company that makes a laminate paper furniture, including kitchen cabinets, and they have 98 per cent of their market in Canada. They don’t have any color quality control. Sometimes they will get a new batch of paper and that’s where some of the problems start.

I think if my new cabinet doors didn’t match I wouldn’t be too happy.

Right? The way that they do it now is that someone, somewhere just by chance will say, “That doesn’t look right.” And they actually have to shut down the whole assembly line because it’s automated. Then they get all the employees and go out into the parking lot in the sun and they say, “I think it’s more green, I don’t know.”  And they just argue about it, that’s it.

So you showed them a different way?

When we went to visit they shut down the assembly line because everyone wanted to know how this could work. We stood there, scanning stuff on the line, giving them instant answers to the question of “Is this the right color?”

They must have been ecstatic. You’ve taken what was subjective and made it objective. No question. No opinion. No standing in the parking lot wondering if the color matches. Does it make you wish that you were selling the Nix Pro Color Sensor for three times as much?

Sort of.

I feel like we should be raising the price of this. [Laughs.] Imagine the money a manufacturer would save not stopping the line to debate on the color. This little device is a bit heroic.

Yes, and it’s such a small cost compared to these industrial applications, it can pay for itself in one phone call. It can pay for itself in one flight to go and check something. And the nice thing is, it’s so user friendly that you don’t need to be trained on how to use it. If you are using the higher end lab equipment, you have to have an individual that has been trained, with this anyone can do it.

I’ve heard you compare the Nix Pro to a tape measure.

Yeah, there’s a tape measure for length. That’s what we do but for color.  If you are a contractor and you are building a house, you don’t take a two-by-four to the parking lot and just eyeball it and then decide, Yes, I am going to make the cut right here. You use a tape measure and then you get it right.  There wasn’t a version of that for color. There’s electron microscope-type things, high end, for color but there’s no tape measure.  I want Nix Pro to be the standard for measuring color.

You have office and lab space here at McMaster Innovation Park, what’s the draw?

One of the benefits of being in this building is that we use the resources extensively, every day.

Any city trying to lure you away?

We get offers to move to different places, from Europe to San Francisco to Boston to New York City to Waterloo all the time. We wanted to stay here because that original story was in Innovation Factory downstairs. There’s nothing better, in the whole timeline of our business they have been the most helpful people you could ever imagine. When we have a really, really good day, close a big deal or solve some big problems, everyone here takes a step back and says, “We wouldn’t have been able to do this unless it was for that one guy that helped us at Innovation Factory or got us over that one problem.”

Beyond Innovation Factory, what's the value in being in Hamilton?

I want to say, our value in being Hamilton-based and Canadian is huge, the pride in being able to say that we are a Hamilton-based company. I think every single one of our products on the bottom of the box says Made in Hamilton, Ontario, the Ambitious City and then it has a Chamber of Commerce link on the bottom, to their investment page.​

Matthew, it's been a pleasure talking to you, thank you for sharing your story.

You're welcome.

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