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shaping the future

After a decade in the software industry, Mark Hemphill returned to his native Charlottetown to teach at the University of Prince Edward Island.Submitted

After a decade in the software industry, Mark Hemphill returned to his native Charlottetown to teach at the University of Prince Edward Island. He aimed to use his experience to help launch his students into new-media careers, but ended up creating a new venture of his own.

"It was supposed to be a springboard for the students," says Mr. Hemphill, professor of media and communications, and founder and chief product officer of Charlottetown-based ScreenScape Networks, "and I ended up probably being the most inspired of the entire crew."

One of Mr. Hemphill's projects at UPEI – partly informed by his experience at e-commerce services provider Ariba Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif. – was developing a content management system for online video. That led to a new twist on digital signs.

Digital signs and in-store video displays are nothing new. For at least 20 years, businesses have used video monitors for marketing messages and promotional videos.

But ScreenScape does two things differently. First, it is inexpensive and Web-based. A subscription for one location costs $10 a month. The customer supplies the screen, and can update the display from any Internet-connected computer.

Secondly, customers can easily update their own displays, share material and incorporate content from the Internet – including video-sharing sites such as YouTube.

Because ScreenScape makes it easy for business owners to update their own displays, a screen at the Sunset Grill in Collingwood, Ont., regularly advertises other local businesses and community events. Bruce Melhuish, who operates the franchise restaurant, uses this to build customer loyalty and exchanges ads for coupons and gift certificates he can then give employees as incentives.

Mr. Melhuish originally wanted a digital display in order to put his menu on the screen. Known mainly for breakfast, the restaurant often has lineups in the mornings. If customers are able to read the menu while waiting, Mr. Melhuish says, they would be ready to order when they sit down, which reduces waiting and increases sales.

But he has also discovered another benefit: The display reminds breakfast customers that the Grill also serves lunch items, such as burgers. Mr. Melhuish believes that's why sales after 1 p.m. have risen 15 per cent since he installed the display in February.

In a demonstration, Mr. Hemphill shows how the manager of a sporting goods store might, with a few mouse clicks, incorporate the YouTube channel of golfing's PGA of America or the National Hockey League into an in-store display. As the YouTube channel is updated, so is the store's display.

Retail chains can share promotional material with branches, he says, but at the same time branches can choose material most suited to their clientele.

ScreenScape users can also form communities to share video. A dental clinic in one city might look to see what another – non-competing – dental clinic elsewhere has come up with. ScreenScape allows participants to make content generally available, or to offer it for use with permission, which could mean with payment.

This community aspect, something other digital signage systems don't have, is "our special sauce," Mr. Hemphill says.

The Toronto-based Hearing News Network is an example. Robert Oswald operates about 35 hearing clinics inside Canadian Walmart stores. He had used digital signs running the same loop of content over and over, but wanted something better. When he discovered ScreenScape's technology, Mr. Oswald says, he saw an opportunity to offer more relevant content and paid advertising.

Early this year he formed a partnership with Optical News Network, which was doing something similar for optometrists' clinics. Hearing News Network is now installed in about 100 clinics, and Optical News Network, which was using competing digital displays, has switched to ScreenScape.

Mr. Hemphill says ScreenScape can also work with location services such as FourSquare, a social networking app in which people report their whereabouts and can earn rewards from businesses they visit frequently (becoming the "mayor" of a coffee shop on FourSquare by logging the most visits might mean a free coffee). Some businesses are using ScreenScape to advertise special offers for FourSquare users and post pictures of their "mayors," Mr. Hemphill says. In the future, signs could welcome FourSquare users when they arrive.

Mr. Hemphill put together his business plan in 2007 and started product development early in 2008, recruiting some of his UPEI students as developers.

After about a year in stealth mode, ScreenScape started testing its software at about 30 customer locations. Around the same time, Mr. Hemphill approached Kevin Dwyer, a veteran software industry executive who he knew from his days at Ariba. After 30 years in sales and management jobs with major software companies, Mr. Dwyer was taking a break – "he was sitting on a dock in Muskoka," Mr. Hemphill says. But ScreenScape fit in well with his interest in young and growing companies, and in the spring of 2009 Mr. Dwyer became its president and chief executive.

Until recently, Mr. Hemphill and Mr. Dwyer funded ScreenScape with their own money and investments from friends and family. In mid-July, Montreal-based Hartco Corp. – operator of the MicroAge chain of computer stores and Metafore, an IT services firm, announced a $6-million investment in ScreenScape in exchange for stock and a board seat.

Attracting capital is one area in which it is a disadvantage to operate a software company out of Atlantic Canada, Mr. Hemphill explains. (There are no immediate plans to involve venture capitalists, he says, since the terms and conditions they impose can be a problem.) Some investors won't look beyond Silicon Valley, never mind a small Canadian city.

But in most respects, he says, Charlottetown makes a good base. ScreenScape has sales offices in Toronto and Dallas to be closer to customers. Mr. Hemphill says finding talent isn't too difficult, except for occasional specialized positions that would likely be hard to fill anywhere.

ScreenScape now has about 1,500 customers – about 60 per cent of them in Canada, 25 per cent in the U.S. and the rest scattered around the world, says Mr. Hemphill. He says the company is now signing up about 100 new customers a month.

The next step in the company's evolution, which Mr. Hemphill hopes to realize by some time next year, will be a transaction engine so ScreenScape can serve as a marketplace for its customers to buy and sell content. Rather than leaving Silicon Valley behind, Mr. Hemphill seems to have brought a piece of it home with him.