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Quebec entrepreneurs drive ‘social industrial revolution’

Alexandre Leclerc and Antoine Bisson founded Poka, a social platform for manufacturers to train staff using videos and other interactive content to be shared in real time through an iPad app. Poka claims its technology is helping to drive “the social industrial revolution.”

Poka

Those cumbersome paper-based training manuals could soon become a relic on the factory floor if technology created by two Quebec-based entrepreneurs takes off.

Alexandre Leclerc and Antoine Bisson founded Poka, a social platform for manufacturers to train staff using videos and other interactive content to be shared in real time through an iPad app. Poka claims its technology is helping to drive "the social industrial revolution."

Poka's platform promises to save companies money by training employees more quickly, improving workforce development and institutional memory, which in turn reduces production downtime. The technology could help move the more traditional manufacturing industry into the digital era at a time when productivity is key amid a ramp up in activity and increasing global competition.

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"Skilled training is the biggest challenge facing the manufacturing industry," says Mr. Leclerc.

The technology is already being used by a handful of companies at factories in Quebec, Ontario, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Poka is poised for a rapid expansion after landing $2.5-million financing from a group of venture capitalists including iNovia Capital, SoftTech VC and entrepreneur and Google executive Nicolas Darveau-Garneau.

The funds will be used to speed up Poka's product development, grow its engineering team, and help it expand into new markets across North America and Europe. The founders are planning to pitch potential new clients in Germany and Switzerland next week.

iNovia senior analyst Antoine Nivard says his venture capital firm was impressed Poka had already landed three major clients, one of which claimed the technology saved them enough money to further expand their operations.

"It's very rare to see a tech company like that having that much traction at such an early stage," says Mr. Nivard.

iNovia was also drawn by what it calls "founder market fit," which is when entrepreneurs are well suited to solve the problem they're tackling.

Mr. Leclerc, 26, is the latest generation of the family-owned food business Leclerc Foods and has worked at the company in roles to help reduce waste and costs. Mr. Bisson, 25, studied software engineering at the University of Waterloo, worked at video game developer Ubisoft and later Microsoft in Seattle, before quitting to start Poka with his friend, Mr. Leclerc.

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"I think their profile and passion is unique," says iNovia's Mr. Nivard. "We hear a lot about technology companies that are trying to become the next Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram or Pinterest, but rarely do we see young and dynamic entrepreneurs that have such deep knowledge expertise in unsexy industries like manufacturing."

It was during a study term in China in early 2012, while obtaining a Master's degree in international business, when Mr. Leclerc came up with the idea for Poka. (The name is based on the Japanese manufacturing term "poka-yoke," which means "mistake-proofing.")

He sent the idea to Mr. Bisson, who also saw the huge appetite for instructional videos online, for everything from baking a cake to fixing a faucet.

Together, the duo started to develop the business for the manufacturing world and build the app, which they worked on until May last year. Leclerc was able to test the platform at his family's business and in September, Poka announced a deal with software company, The Createch Group (a division of Bell Canada), to help integrate and launch the platform.

Their first client was Leclerc Foods, which rolled out the technology at six of its plants across North America. Poke then landed other clients, including labelling company Multi-Action and PG Hardwood Flooring Inc.

"Poka helped us break down walls and silos in our company and transfer knowledge more effectively amongst all employees. Now, we see staff making more informed decisions and collaborating interactively," Multi-Action president Jonathan Bourbonnière states in a release on the $2.5-million funding announcement.

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Poka's founders say they have nine clients who have signed a contract to launch their platform in the coming months, and are close to signing four more.

While the business is gaining interest, Mr. Bisson says the disruptive technology can sometimes be difficult to sell in an industry like manufacturing that can be set in its ways.

"When we go to meetings and pitch people, you should see the look on their faces," Mr. Bisson says.

The founders usually tell potential clients that they'll be using the technology eventually, but should get ahead of the trend.

Mr. Leclerc says Poka's biggest competition today is the internal systems already set up by many manufacturing companies.

"Most companies have spent tons of hours building procedures with Microsoft word and programs like that. It's just saying 'Guys, documents are great, but do people really have time to read a 20-page procedure manual?'" Mr. Leclerc says.

Poka and its investors are betting more manufacturers will pick up the slack and go digital, following in the footsteps of many other industries.

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