More than meets the EhEye: James Stewart

July 21, 2017 | by: Heather Boyd-Kinnie

 

EhEye’s Founder and CEO, James Stewart, began his startup journey 11 months ago. Last week, he won the Grandmothers’ Choice Award at StartupFest Montreal. This is his story. 

Written by Tiziana Zevallos

Photo by Stephen MacGillivray Photography & Video

 

As long as he can remember, EhEye’s CEO James Stewart, has been interested in policing. He specifically remembers one day as a teenager in Bar Harbor looking over at the chief of police’s car and being stunned.

“He walked out and flipped me the keys. He said ‘get in, start her up.’” James got in and followed the chief of police’s instructions.  “I was turning on the sirens and the lights. That always stayed with me as my introduction to crime fighting,” he says.

Years later, he was accepted into the RCMP. But by that time, James was married and baby number two was on its way, so he decided to become an auxiliary police officer instead.

When the opportunity to be a crime analyst with the Saint John Police Force came, he took it without hesitation. The position blended computer science and policing, which combined his training and passion.

This later led into a managing position at the University of New Brunswick’s Information Security Centre of Excellence and a cyber security job at Forcepoint.

James had what appeared to be a secured career path drawn out in front of him, until it was suddenly disrupted.

“I was the lead data scientist and one day, out of the blue, my job function went to San Diego, California… without me.”

***

James knocked on every door in the province, but despite working in the field for two decades, having an impressive record, and holding a PhD in Computer Science, he could not get a job.

So he turned into creating his own business: EhEye.

“I’ve always been a closet entrepreneur anyway, but never had the opportunity to really do it until I got pushed off the cliff.”

EhEye is an artificial intelligence company specializing in public safety and security video analytics. The company’s software can automatically detect objects, people, activities and suspicious behaviour from a surveillance video stream.

When an object – such as a firearm or a mask – is detected by the software it alerts the monitoring station in real time.

***

James had been working on EhEye’s first prototype for three weeks when he walked into the Pond-Deshpande Centre (PDC) office with a red box and an idea in October 2016.

The red box held EhEye’s entire demo: a surveillance camera, the computer where the program was running, and a pellet gun. He says he took the red box to try to convince people that his idea was really cool.

In hindsight he says, between laughs, that the prototype was awful, as it took 15 seconds to detect the gun. “That’s a long time in the IT security world. Now it’s down to 0.02 seconds.”

But “Heather [Boyd-Kinnie, PDC Funding Manager & Program Coordinator] got it right away without even seeing the red box.” James went to the office on a Wednesday and was approved by Saturday for the ChangeMaker Funding Program.

“That was the first money I had: five grand.” Being part of the PDC gave James the feeling of validation to continue with his idea. He went to Enterprise Saint John next, where he was also successful in receiving support.

“So all of a sudden, I’m an entrepreneur with a desk and 5 thousand dollars. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was really strategic money and an opportunity.”

***

The first to join the EhEye team was Shawn Mitchell. He is a few years older than James and comes from a technical background as well, working at Q1 Labs for 10 years.

A couple days in, they realized that two technical people needed a business person. That’s when Patrick Parent joined the team as the third co-founder.

“And then we added a police officer who is in the SWAT team. We really need a connection to the people that are actually going to use the product and how they’re going to use it.”

Soon after, a lawyer, a white-hat hacker and four new grads jumped in.

“We love our team. At one point we wanted to have a cartoon artist draw characters of the weird backgrounds that we have.”

James strives to create a company he’s always wanted to work for: diverse, collaborative and risk-taking.

“I’m excited, because when I think about what we’ve been able to do, we’re only in our eleventh month and we got a team of nine people, we’re building a product and two pilots to test it out are on the way.”

***

EhEye was a finalist in the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation’s Breakthru competition this year and awarded the province’s Kira Awards for Most Promising Start-up and Innovation through Technology.

This month, the company was the co-winner of the Grandmothers’ Choice Award at StartupFest Montreal.

But getting here hasn’t been an easy ride.

James regards these past 11 months as a journey through all kinds of stages. He says when you’re trying to build something and people ask how you’re doing, the answer is “awesome,” but also “at the brink of catastrophic failure” at the same time.

He says people like what EhEye’s doing and it resonates with them. But it is still a huge challenge to find investment and now people just assume that they’ve got it.

“It’s funny, when people say ‘James is doing so well,’ my wife is quick to point out ‘oh, he hasn’t had a paycheck in 11 months.”

It has also been mentally rough and he can point to specific turning points throughout his journey. There was one in particular a couple months ago where he had to get on a plane at 5:30 in the morning. “All the demons come late at night, right?”

He was sitting at the airport by himself and thinking ‘what the heck am I doing?’ He says it was a flip of a coin what made him get on the plane instead of turning around and driving home.

“It was listening to my wife Connie’s voice say ‘you gotta see it through, there’s still too many opportunities on the table. You haven’t exhausted everything,’ that kept me going.”

A few months ago, James took on running “just because I knew I needed some kind of therapy.” He has lost 25 pounds since.

He was told by one venture capitalist, who evaluates hundreds of companies each year, that he sees patterns, and that James and his team are in the first of several hard spots: where there isn’t enough money, and trying to get that first investment is tough.

He also said they will reach a point where they have a million dollars in revenue, and that will also bring along its respective hurdles.

“It sounds like there’s several stages where you’re a house of cards. I recognize that it’s a long journey,” James says. “But I kind of like it, because being a creative person, I get to figure out how to get around, under, through and over challenges.”

***

Last week, James travelled with 55 other entrepreneurs from the Atlantic region in a bus dubbed the ‘East Coast Caravan’ to StartupFest in Montreal. The trip was organized by the Taskforce Fredericton Startup Network in collaboration with regional partners such as Ignite Fredericton, Planet Hatch, Enterprise Saint John and the Pond-Deshpande Centre.

When James stood up in front of the group of senior experienced women in the Grandmothers Pitch Competition, he didn’t introduce himself.

With only 90 seconds to deliver his pitch, he began by saying there are 184 cameras present on Parliament Hill and “yet, somehow, on October 22, 2014 a lone gunman was able to pass these cameras, wearing a mask and carrying a long gun, and was able to kill a trained Canadian soldier.”

By 2020, there will be a billion surveillance cameras on the planet.

But it doesn’t matter how many cameras there are, he said, there’s not enough people to be watching them.

He continued: with EhEye’s system, if a gun passes by the line of sight of an EhEye enabled camera, a warning is immediately generated.

The group of women started leaning forward and asking questions right away.

“I think they saw the sincerity.” He believes that’s why they were a good fit. “The fact that I’m doing this to make a difference and not just make a million bucks resonated with them. I think they saw that I am on a mission.”

James says one of the greatest things from winning the Grandmothers’ Choice Award is being validated by someone of their caliber and have the chance to participate in the three-month FounderFuel accelerator program. “It’s going to change the game for us.”

He hopes this will encourage investors in the region to be less risk averse.

“In one year, if we break those barriers down, we’re going to be the organization that is protecting critical infrastructure across Canada. That’s the dream,” he says.

For James, it’s starting to feel possible. Even though James and EhEye’s CTO and co-founder, Shawn Mitchell, are in the same boat, where they have no fall-back position and burning all of the money they ever saved, now they feel like they can go further and risk more because “it feels real.”

He says it’s a terrifying journey but wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s never been happier.

“If I gave advice to a younger person, I would say it took me 20 years to figure out that there’s always risk anyway. I had a great job and I lost it, so at least now I’m happy with the risk, because I own it. Succeed or fail, nothing feels better than doing what you’re passionate about and what has meaning to you.”

 

 

 

 

 

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