Emad Rizkalla has a story or two to tell – about being an Egyptian-born tech entrepreneur in St. John’s, who credits Newfoundland roots band Great Big Sea for his mergers and acquisitions breakthrough. There are no ordinary days for this 44-year-old engineer as he pursues the dream of revolutionizing electronic learning through his small, growing company, Bluedrop Performance Learning Inc.
How did you end up in St. John’s?
When I was seven, my father decided to come to Canada to do his master’s at University of Waterloo in Ontario – he is a meteorologist – and then we lived in Toronto for a couple of years. When I was 12, we moved to St. John’s when my father got a job in offshore oil. It was quite a culture shock. We were pretty well the only dark people in the mall in the early 1980s, but it’s been a great place and very accepting.
How did you end up in business?
It started with a class project in engineering school. This was in 1993, which was a very bad time for engineering jobs. [My partner and I] thought we would commercialize our project, sell it to a local company and make some money, and then move to Vancouver. But we found we loved what we were doing.
Did you always want to have your own company?
As early as 10 years old, I would walk into a restaurant and try to do the math in my head about how much money they were making. I added up burgers being sold and how much it cost them, such as labour costs. And yet, if the economy had been better, I don’t know if I would have ended up in this role.
How did you develop Bluedrop?
In the first company, we did a lot of general information-technology consulting, but we were kind of unfocused as a small company – we were working in so many areas. We decided to focus and make an impact. A small company from the middle of nowhere can’t succeed without a very clear focus. In 2004, I spun out two separate IT companies and personally focused on e-learning, where I saw a great need. It was early days for e-learning. One of [our] early projects was for the European pharma company Schering-Plough, and we developed training systems. Then we went out to try to sell the technology, which we owned, to other pharmaceuticals.
Is it a challenge to try to build an international tech company from Newfoundland and Labrador?
It is doable – I see it as the same as when one of your [body’s] senses is off, the performance of the other senses increases. I just like the work culture and living [in St. John’s]. But our customers are everywhere else. And if we can’t find the talent we need in St. John’s, we have centres of excellence elsewhere with groups of people. In all, we have about 120 people, with 35 to 40 in St. John’s, including the executive team.
How did Great Big Sea help you out?
Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle is a friend from Memorial University days, and [another group member] Sean McCann was president of the student council and I was vice-president, so we go way back. Alan got to know Taleeb Noormohamed from the Vancouver Olympics; Taleeb was a vice-president of the Olympic organizing committee, and then he was brought in to fix this ailing e-learning company called Serebra. He decided the best thing he could do was find an M&A opportunity. So he asked Alan if he knew this company in Newfoundland, and Alan connected us right away.
Did Alan get a finder’s fee?
No, but we play his music as the elevator music for our conference calling. I don’t think we pay him for that either.
But why this reverse takeover of Serebra, which was trading on the Toronto Venture Exchange?
It had really great technology that we wanted to import to our product and, also, being a public company will come in handy soon. At the moment, there is a limited amount of stock out there and very little trading [the stock was recently quoted at 13 cents]. But last year we took over operations and raised $2-million in R&D financing for our CoursePark product and a simulation centre in Halifax for our defence and aerospace group. There was so much growth.
Do you really want the added cost of a public company?
I actually like the governance. We could have added more to bottom line by staying private, but we are not structuring the company for today’s reality – we are structuring it for growth. We are in one of the hottest areas of technology and we will do well when we get our story out.
What is your defining technology?
We launched CoursePark in 2011, and we think it’s a platform that will change the world of workplace learning. We started off by building courses for companies and we got a marquee client list. Companies have systems to manage their learning, called learning management systems. But I’ve never been a fan of the LMS world and I have seen large companies tie themselves up into knots …
These systems are really pushing top-down learning, and at a time when social media was happening, we wanted to empower people. We saw people left behind. Anything external to the organization – sales panels, partners, suppliers – didn’t want these big clunky systems and small businesses were completely left behind. We saw a real gap in the market, in how to get access to learning in a way that suits these disenfranchised groups.
You’ve enlisted veteran Newfoundland entrepreneur Derrick Rowe as chairman. What is the role?
Derek isn’t there to be my friend, which is a good thing. He has invested his own money because he sees the opportunity. A lot of times, CEOs get tunnel vision because everyone around you is going the same direction. That’s not how we will get to where we want to go. We need diversity of opinion and good passionate debate.
How useful is your mechanical engineering degree?
I’ve never used my degree. The thing is, I was never a strong math person in high school. The common wisdom as a parent is you ask your children what they are good at, and then say, “That is what you should do at university.” I wanted to do geography and teaching, but I couldn’t see teaching my whole life. I did this degree that rounded out elements of problem solving and analytical thinking. Some people who follow their academic strengths become uni-dimensional. It was good to do something I wasn’t good at.
Do you run the company as a virtual organization?
While we are passionate about virtual, we are not zealots in saying everything will be done that way. We believe you still have to do face-to-face, with
a roomful of people, which is why we are successful. When you help companies, you find there are enthusiastic people who say the old ways are done. And at the same time others say, ‘This will never work.’ The middle ground is where success lies.
Title President and CEO, Bluedrop Performance Learning Inc., St. John’s.
Education Mechanical engineering degree, Memorial University, Nfld.
1992: Founded IT consulting firm ZeddComm from university project.
2004: Spun off two divisions in separate companies, and focused on e-learning through Bluedrop.
January, 2012: Completed reverse takeover of Serebra Learning Corp., Vancouver.