When Kumaran Thillainadarajah started Smart Skin Technologies in 2009, the original idea was to create a sensor that could be used in prosthetics, giving amputees back a sense of touch.
But as the pressure-sensitive skin technology business was developed, Thillainadarajah realized that a bigger market was required to sustain his startup. He started investigating a few different uses for the technology, including gaming, packaging and golf-club grip.
The Fredericton, New Brunswick-based company went the packaging route, specifically developing a state-of-the-art system for measuring the pressure on materials such as glass and cans on a production line to prevent breakage.
Smart Skin's trademark real-time sensor is used in factories to help manufacturers improve efficiencies, reduce waste and diminish downtime. The technology is currently being used in about 35 plants around the world.
"It took us a while to find the right opportunity, but when it came we had to latch on to it," said Thillainadarajah, whose customer list includes a half dozen major alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverage brands (which he's not allowed to name).
"A lot of people think innovation is the invention side of the company … but I think the innovation is really centered around understanding how our technology adds value for the customers. Once you understand that, then you are ready to build a business," said Thillainadarajah.
Smart Skin is an example of how startups are using innovation to work around business challenges and exploit certain advantages. Innovation can be something as small as a process improvement to something large and disruptive like the Uber car-sharing service. Companies of all sizes rely on various types of innovative to stay competitive and meet changing consumer and client needs and demands.
"Companies need in their DNA to be constantly changing and evolving," said Dr. Dhirendra Shukla, the J. Herbert Smith professor and chair in technology management and entrepreneurship at the University of New Brunswick.
He said most innovation is incremental, and shouldn't be shied away from as too costly or challenging.
"I don't want people to think of innovation as larger than life and begin to get scared of it, as though it's not for them," said Dr. Shukla. "Innovation is about how to move humanity forward in a positive way. From a startup perspective, it is, 'How do you take new and novel idea and cause a disruption and try to make the world a better place?'"
Another example of innovation out of UNB comes from Castaway Golf Technologies, a Fredericton-based startup that is cleaning up lakes and ponds from stray golf balls and reselling them for up to 60-per-cent less than new balls. The product is now being sold at about 1,200 retailers across parts of North America.
Not only does the business recycle golf balls, but the Castaway team is also developing an automated technology to retrieve them from the water without the need for humans to dive in the lake and disturb the aquaculture. The company is also working on an automated ball sorting system and developing a more eco-friendly ball cleaning product.
"Our innovation isn't just one single element. It's across the business," said Josh Ogden, Castaway's co-founder and chief executive. "As we get into this more and more we will recognize that there is more opportunity to innovate and get better."
HotSpot Parking is another innovative startup that's taking the stress away from drivers running errands and attending meetings or events in urban centres. The mobile payment app allows users to pay for parking and delivers notifications when their parking is about to expire, allowing them to top up their metre from any location.
There are also automated features that will pay for parking if the users forget, which prevents them from getting a ticket. HotSpot also has accounts for business owners that may wish to pay for customers' parking, which allows them to spend more time in the store.
The Fredericton-based startup's plan was to offer the service free to municipalities, but quickly discovered there was too much red tape involved to make it happen. Instead, the company has partnered with North Carolina-based Passport, one of the world's largest parking companies, and is rapidly expanding the service across North America.
HotSpot founder and chief executive Phillip Curley said the company's direction has been largely driven by consumer behaviour, and finding ways to take the worry out of wondering whether you'll get a parking ticket.
"Innovation to me is a more natural way of doing things … to make problems disappear," said Curley.
This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's advertising department, in consultation with University of New Brunswick. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.