In this era, commonly coined as the ‘information era’, many individuals embark on creative journeys to solve social problems. At UTSC, The HUB serves as an innovations lab for students wishing to find the resources to help equip them for such challenges. Recently, a psychology and neuroscience student, Ravi Ravindran, not only created a map-based mobile app at The HUB but got funded over $100 000 to continue with his endeavours.

Our News Editor, Sajjad Jaffery sat down with Ravindran to speak about his recent investor success and asked him about advice he would give to aspiring innovators.

ravi

The Underground (UG): Ravi, we are extremely happy to have you and intrigued by your accomplishments as a student. Can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your university experience?

Ravi Ravindran (RR): I started at UTSC in 2008, right when everyone stopped hiring due to the financial crisis.  I saw people who were in fourth and fifth year having a hard time finding jobs after they graduated. Me and my friends saw that and started our own company installing cameras and alarm systems and it grew within two years. So I left school to pursue that for a while and this is where my love for entrepreneurship started. We sold that company successfully and I decided to come back to school.

While I was in school I ended up doing a part-time scrap metal business in 2011. That was when the scrap prices were going up so that took off really well. I’d literally be sitting in the library while studying and I had two trucks working for me with GPS trackers so I could see where they were.  There were all these logistics I was running, like planning pickups, etc. and I started to get clients like Walmart and Target. I was literally getting paid while studying in library. That just shows the potential of your mind when you open it up.

UG: It really seems like you have been striving to solve problems from the very get-go. You saw the financial crisis, predicted its prolonged effects and you tried to make the most of your time at University. With your app, Mapian, what problems were you trying to solve?

RR: In 2012, I took some time off.  For [my first time ever], I took a year and volunteered.  I helped with Rathika Sitsabaiesan (ex-NDP MP) and her political campaign. I was her first on-the-ground volunteer, so we solved a lot of problems together. I was on the board for a committee that was building housing for single South Asian mothers. We were trying to give back to the community. There was an old client I had that was a builder [who could help].  

At the same time I was helping out at a school for children with disabilities, so like afterschool homework help.  I guess I was putting my psychology degree to use [Laughs]!

It was a great experience! I had this one day where I had to drop a student home right near the Petro Canada, which is very close to a municipal housing area. Right behind the Petro Canada there used to be this lot which was previously an abandoned medical centre but is now demolished. At the time I thought that it would be a premium lot to [build the housing] in – it was already zoned for municipal housing and schools and bus routes were already all close.  

So I put this forward to the committee and we spent our money buying the lot. What then happened was that when the soil was sampled, which is the first thing [one does] when buying a lot, six centimeters in there was industrial waste.  

It turns out that, in the sixties, someone from Russia came here bought the land when there was nothing around, got paid a lot of money to dump the waste, cover it and build a medical center of all things on top of it, and left the country.

UG: That is absolutely crazy!

RR: So crazy right?!? Maybe we could have planned better but we ended up using the entire budget for cleaning up the property.  I was mind blown and felt personal responsibility since I brought it up to the committee.  

So I approached Sitsabaiesan about getting some support from the local government since the city had put a lien on our property that we cannot sell the property until it was cleaned up. We ended up selling it when it was done and broke even. Now there is a condo that’s coming up there [Laughs]. Nobody cared about this. There was no media coverage. I guess it had to do with maintaining this image of revitalizing Scarborough. I got frustrated and started to even realize that most of the students that were going to the disabled school were from that area. I talked to them all, and most of them told me they played in that area. Industrial waste and kids with learning disabilities? There were no inquiries made.

There are thousands of people who live there and there is no way for me to go door-to-door telling everyone about this.  I put it on a few flyers and the newspaper. At this time, Facebook was the dominant medium so I made a few posts and a few people shared it. But after I started to track this, people from all over the world were liking this. So I felt there was no real way for me to tell those people. Now you can do sponsored ads, but even then you can’t target it at one area.

I thought, how can we share information in such localized areas? There is no platform like that. I started looking into online forums and it turns out each neighbourhood in Scarborough and Markham have their own forum where they talk about small neighbourhood things. That would be a way to share the communal news. But since there are so many small sites, there isn’t much usage or traffic. But after adding them all up, there are hundreds of thousands of people that are checking these sites, across the city. So then why can’t there be one medium where people can go to and see everything – all of this.  It would be there to keep people engaged longer and keep people more informed.  

I went back to school and I remember seeing things like a job fair and thinking that I never had information about it before. As a student there are so many things that you miss out on campus, and growing up in the post-financial crisis era missing something like a job fair or a networking seminar or a TED talk or a small social party is a loss. These days it’s all about meeting the right people because when you meet the right people it changes your life.  These kind of events can change your life and open your eyes to completely different career paths than you ever thought off.

More than anytime before us, right now university students need to be engaged in things around them. If you share on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat – everything shows on a timeline from everywhere interfering with what’s happening right in front of you.  Our generation is going through this ‘FOMO’, or ‘fear of missing out’ – a social anxiety that requires us to know everything. I want to connect people in a localized setting where you can send your information and see that happening in the room next door, upstairs, downstairs, across the street. [I wanted to] create a filter bubble where people can see information and social content from their own experience.

Now, more than ever, with longer lasting battery and a GPS in your pocket, you can stay more connected to your environment.

UG: I think that’s super cool. Throughout your whole answer you brought me through your early work, solving problems at different scales, and then finally realizing how the world functions and using that to solve more. I applaud you for that. What would you say really inspired you to look at social problems? A lot of the time, I talk to students on campus, and they don’t seem as inclined or maybe they are not as able to think at that level.

RR: I think they are. It all depends on what you are interested in. There’s a weird saying that we are the narcissistic generation, but that’s not entirely true since I feel [all generations] are narcissists. My reality and your reality are completely different. Everyone experiences the world from their eyes, their ears, their tactile sensations. For me to see the colour is red is completely different from you, you may see it as green. We would have no idea though, it’s just our own trained perception. I think it’s important to look at things from other people’s filter bubbles.

But the idea of geographical context, it has a function for you. If it happened nearby, it is important. I think [Mark] Zuckerberg, when he first started Facebook, had this quote that was like, “People care more about a dead squirrel in front of them than dying people in Syria.”

Why is news so addictive? It’s because knowing about what’s happening around us is about survival. We still have that need to know what’s going on around us. Survival is not that big of a deal but the instincts are still there. Everyone still needs, even if you don’t care, to log that information in their brain for later use.  Right now, there is too much information being pumped at us. It’s not filtered in the way that it needs to be. How can we get more engaged with those around us? The wicked thing about Mapian is that it connects people to those they don’t know. Connecting people through geography, through time and space, but also with different perspectives. I want to foster these types of connections.

UG: Wow, this is all really blowing my mind. It makes me feel like calling you an entrepreneur is marginalizing you because this is far bigger than being an entrepreneur. What words of advice would you give to innovators and visionaries like yourself?

RR: The best advice I have is also the weirdest and harshest, and it is that nobody cares about your stupid idea. Everyone has ideas and people think if they share it people will steal it.  Nobody really cares, to be honest. If someone steals your idea, look at it as flattery. That’s how good your idea is.  

Always talk about your idea, talk about what you’re trying to solve but talk about the why never the how. Talk about why it’s important and what you can do, and get feedback. See how many people are interested in it, see if people experience the problem in the same way. By being challenged, your arguments are being refined. When I first thought about the app, I never thought about the looks, only the function. I went around campus and got my idea challenged and refined it which helped me build this platform in my head centered around what other people wanted.

UG: I was reading on the U of T website that you have just been given a huge sum of money.  Are you able to talk about that more?

RR: So this is now my second investment. Last year, we got an angel investment to start off from a UK based company called Lebara Group. This is a billion-euro corporation that we were able to catch the investment from.  He gave us the initial capital to build the app.  So we built the app and will be launching in February.

In the meantime, I saw this ad for an entrepreneurial competition for South Asian youth.  I applied, and I called in to get interviewed. The show is basically Dragon’s Den style where you pitch your idea and they have a budget of one million dollars to give to the best ideas. We were one of the finalists and pitched for $100 000. Obviously, the real talks with lawyers and others will be soon to finalize details. So they are now our second investor.  

UG: Have they given you a specific goal they want you to work on? How does that work?

RR:  Most of the investors give without telling. It’s a risk they take. Most people who know what they are doing do not want to interfere.  The early on investment isn’t really about the company, but has more to do with the person or people. You have to see the grind. They are prepared to lose that money because out of every 10 investments they make, one may succeed which will return for the losses. They are just hedging their bets.  

UG: Do you have plans to monetize Mapian?

RR: We wanted to engage advertisement publishers to be able to push a limited amount of highly targeted, location based advertisements to our users once we are big enough. So imagine walking into a Starbucks, shoe store or movie theatre and a custom ad popping giving you 20 per cent off meant just for you.

UG: That would be dope! How does ownership work with Mapian and The Hub?

RR: Mapian is a wholly independent corporation. We graduated out of The Hub’s IDEAS program in May. Currently, I own 90 per cent of Mapian and Lebara group owns 10 per cent.

UG: This is all really awesome stuff.  Is there anything else you want to say about Mapian?

RR: For our launch, we want to do an analytical based approach. We want to gauge what [the level] of engagement on campus is like. What are clubs, associations and teams and how are they engaging the student body?

So we will be launching a competition, where we will give the apps to the clubs first. They can make announcements that will be posted on a map for 24 hours, kind of like Snapchat on a map. There will be an up and down vote option and the club that gets the most votes will be funded by us next year.  

UG: That is amazing, since that is currently a hot topic on campus.

RR: It’s always a challenge to get more money as a student-run group. We will reward the club that engages students the most. Anyone can make an account for that time period only on campus, or they have to be sent a code from someone using the app. This semester will be only UTSC, but in September we are launching Ontario-wide at eight major schools.  

UG: Well that’s a great way to start off. Like most of our other interviews, we like to get some personal or fun questions too. What are you listening to on your iPod these days? Or do you even listen to music?

RR: Yes, I actually do. It’s so sad man. I never thought in my life I would say this, but Justin Bieber.  

UG: Okay! That’s a great new album!

RR: I haven’t really listened but it has that “Sorry” song [Laughs]. I was a hater for a long time but he converted me so congrats to him! Lately I’ve gotten really into Latin and Reggaeton music. Basically anything from artists like Farruko, Yandel, Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, and Marc Anthony. The Latin American music industry has really popped off over the past few years and I’ve become obsessed with Latin culture. Peru, Brazil and Venezuela are next on my travel plans.

UG:  My co workers at The Underground are sick of me asking this but I love asking: If there are three people dead or alive you could have dinner with who would they be?

RR: Elon Musk. Einstein. Steve Jobs.

UG: Love the list! Thank you for your time Ravi and good luck with your future!