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Simon Tian, Founder and CEO of hardware startup Neptune, poses in their offices with their new Neptune Duo device, in Montreal, February 16, 2015. (Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail)
Simon Tian, Founder and CEO of hardware startup Neptune, poses in their offices with their new Neptune Duo device, in Montreal, February 16, 2015. (Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail)

How a Canadian whiz kid plans to upend the smartphone market Add to ...

Simon Tian is your typical millennial in some respects: He still lives with his parents in Brossard, Que., a city on Montreal’s south shore, and he had to hustle extremely hard to land his first job.

But that job is CEO and founder of a wearable technology startup, and Mr. Tian, who turns 21 next week, is already working on the second smartwatch release of his young career.

The young Canadian entrepreneur who's shaking up the smartwatch market (The Globe and Mail)

The Neptune Duo is a bold departure from current wearable tech design, not least because it aims to make both your smartphone and any competitor smartwatch obsolete. In doing so, Mr. Tian’s taking on a system maintained by Apple Inc., Google Inc., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and a host of other technology players, from Microsoft Corp. to China’s Xiaomi.

“You can sense the ambition here,” Mr. Tian said during a press tour in Toronto last week. He looks younger than his 20 years, a slim, calm, snappily dressed budding salesman. He smiles readily but is quick to turn serious and redirect tangents back to his pitch notes.

“My goal is to create a new brand that can stand on its own. If I can even grab 0.5 per cent of the market, we’ll be a huge business.”

The watch – called the Hub – is a smooth, curving bangle with a 2.5 inch screen, 64 GB of memory, a quad core processor and its own SIM card slot for 3G/4G wireless connectivity. Basically, it’s a small-screen smartphone you wrap around your wrist. It will be packaged with something that looks remarkably like a smartphone, but isn’t. The Pocket has a five-inch screen with a touchscreen keyboard and functions as a secondary control device for the Hub, providing a bigger platform for watching video, playing games, navigation, etc.

So far, the Duo exists only in mockups, though some of the key technologies have been built and tested. In the parlance of tech launches, it is vapourware: Its features are known, but it will be late 2015 before consumers can buy one for Mr. Tian’s expected price of $800.

That doesn’t deter Mr. Tian. His first smartwatch, the Pine, was even more of a long shot. He was 18, still in school at the private Marianopolis College CEGEP in Westmount, Que., when he posted some drawings of a smartwatch on a website he created.

“I didn’t even incorporate, [it was] pure vapourware,” he says now. “I took an Apple press release and I just switched the words, I sent it out using PRWeb.com for $249. The next day I was in history class, and my phone started buzzing with reservations.” Tech media flocked to cover the non-existent product and within a few weeks Mr. Tian had 20,000 orders.

His next step was a crash course in contract manufacturing in China. He launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter in 2013, which raised $800,000 for the bulky, boxy wearable called the Pine. All told, he has sold around 8,000 to consumers, and is in talks with enterprise clients to sell more.

As for the name? “It’s a bit random. I just figured that people like names that have no association with the product. Your iPhone doesn’t have anything to do with a real apple. Neptune I liked because it’s the last planet in the solar system. It just sounds cool: blue and futuristic.”

But Mr. Tian is not a solo tech genius writing software or soldering parts. “I don’t know how to code, I don’t know how to actually design the PCB [printed circuit board], but you don’t need to know that,” he says. “I manage everything. The R&D, the hardware, the software. The depth of my knowledge is just enough to guide.”

Neptune has only five employees, and as many functions as possible have been outsourced.

Mr. Tian is taking non-refundable pre-order pledges on Neptune’s website to help fund the new device and is shopping around for better terms for potential venture capital investments, including in Silicon Valley.

The main contractor making Mr. Tian’s Duo vision into a reality is industrial design company Pearl Studios Inc. “We turned Simon away about three times before we started working with him. I dismissed him because he is young and this is an extreme endeavour,” says Mladen Barbaric, 36, CEO and founder of Montreal-based Pearl. “It makes me feel so old. I used to be the young guy in the room … now I have a 20-year-old client.”

“It’s funny that people keep referring to him as a kid,” says Anthony Middleton co-founder and CEO of Kitchener, Ont.-based Swift Labs Inc. “He is an adult. He’s very astute.”

Mr. Middleton, 37, is an 11-year veteran of BlackBerry Ltd., and worked a three-month contract with Mr. Tian and Neptune to help the Pine pass the regulatory hurdles required to run on wireless carriers.

“The mindset of that generation is just different, they don’t necessarily want to conform. He sees problems and says ‘why not just solve them?’”

Mr. Tian’s competitors have a daunting head start. A recent Canalys report calculated that 700,000 devices running Google’s Android Wear software have already shipped (out of about 4.6 million wearable tech bands). A recent J.P. Morgan estimate of Apple’s possible market for its upcoming iWatch predicted 26 million units sold by the end of 2015. As of late last year, the last of Neptune’s Kickstarter backers got their Pines (more than 4,000 of them) and Mr. Tian says he has sold another 4,000 or so through other retail channels.

Thus far, media reviews of the Duo have been positive on the concept, but doubtful on the execution. Fans of the Pine collected on Facebook fan pages to express excitement and also some concern over the price ($800). There was also some confusion over the Pocket and Neptune’s pledge-taking system (sort of like Kickstarter, but with no refunds).

Mr. Tian’s drive is matched by his belief that the Duo has a chance to upend the smartphone market.

“When the iPhone first came, everyone had Nokias,” he says. “Eventually people replaced their devices because they see a more compelling product and they buy into it.”

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