On Thursday, specialty software-maker Notch Embedded won the $25,000 grand prize at the Memorial Centre for Entrepreneurship’s Woodward Cup student pitch competition in St. John's, with waste management AI startup SmartBin Technologies taking home the $15,000 second prize.
Headed by computer engineering student and former Tesla intern Shane Williams, Notch has developed technology that allows firmware developers to build custom drivers. Firmware is software embedded directly into a piece of hardware that allows it to perform its intended function, and drivers are a subset of firmware that allow the software on a computer to interact with its components and peripherals.
The Woodward Cup, named in honour of the late Newfoundland and Labrador logistics magnate Mel Woodward, is an annual competition that awards funding and in-kind services to Memorial University students who have launched startups during their academic programs.
“The problem that I'm working to solve is that supporting new computer chips and electronics hardware designs is really hard, especially the software that you have to write to interact with each chip in a particular design,” said Williams while delivering his pitch. “This is a problem I run up against myself. I've spent a lot of time trying to solve it at both small startups and huge companies like Tesla and Nvidia.
“And with increasing supply chain disruptions since COVID-19, tighter overall project timelines and increasing product complexity, firmware developers have to support more chips, and more complex chips, in less time.”
The Notch software is a SaaS product that allows firmware developers to automate some parts of the driver development process by inputting configuration details via graphical configuration screens.
“Within minutes, developers can bring up everything they want about a chip and then automatically generate the code that they need to interact with it, rather than having to write it themselves,” Williams said.
He started working full time on Notch in January and has so-far had customer discovery talks with more than 20 firmware engineers and managers at companies as diverse as chipmaker Nvidia, farm equipment giant John Deere and automotive startup Rivian.
Because of the diversity of components Notch will need to be able to make drivers for, Williams plans to initially sell his subscriptions bundled with his consulting services, so he can troubleshoot any compatibility issues while he works on further building out his software’s automation capabilities.
Initially, he is eyeing an annual subscription price of around $1,000 per software developer using the platform. He said he hopes to initially keep his pricing structure modest, so that engineering managers are not forced to seek special budgetary approval for Notch from their higher-ups.
Later, as Notch’s platform becomes more sophisticated, Williams sees the subscription cost increasing to around $5,000 per developer per annum.
Meanwhile, SmartBin Technologies is the brainchild of computer science and economics major Aneesh Raghupathy and serial restauranteur Niraj Shukla, whose businesses use commercial garbage bins of a type Raghupathy hopes to innovate on.
SmartBin is developing sensors that can be placed in commercial garbage bins to track how full they are, before an artificial intelligence system suggests optimized routing for garbage trucks.
“SmartBin is the first company in North America that directly helps waste management companies reduce their costs, increase services and also improve their efficiency. We do this using waste identification, route optimization software and also through sensors,” said Raghupathy.
“Our sensors determine the fill levels of the waste bins, so that only the bins that actually need to be picked up get picked up, reducing up to 50 percent of the (waste management company’s) operational costs.”
Two startup founders who did not make the main group of five finalists were also honoured with separate $2,500 prizes from the U.S.-based Fry Family Foundation.
Stephanie Roberts won the Fry Family Foundation Entrepreneurship Award for Women or Non-binary Leadership for her social enterprise Med SimuLabs, which aims to give Memorial University medical students access to a library of simulation devices to help with their training.
And Tashin Ahmed Prottoy & Shawon Ibn Kamal won the Fry’s Entrepreneurship Award for an Early-stage Idea for their company, CodeDoc Hub.