Eddy (Qi) Song believes that by collecting and translating sensory signals, wearable technology and IoT will play a significant role in helping people enjoy a fully digital life. As Founder and CEO of Inlighten Co., his company is taking technology first used to create smart clothing for music festival goers and turning it toward solving real-world problems, including improving safety on the streets and in the workplace. It can even brighten the lives of people with mental health conditions and their families.

Eddy, who prefers to be addressed by his first name, came to Ontario in 2011 to complete graduate studies in event management and education before his eye for fashion trends and eagerness to wow customers convinced him it was time to start a business.

"I've always enjoyed wearing the loudest clothing whenever I go out with my friends," says Eddy. "I like meeting new people and I find it's a great way to attract attention. I wore light-up shoes before they were popular – that's me, I've always enjoyed being a trend-setter; I'm not afraid to try something new."

After completing a master's degree in education at Brock University, Eddy worked as an intermediary between a Chinese clothing manufacturer and a customer in Toronto. Unfortunately, it didn't work out as planned. That's when Eddy had the idea to hang up his consulting hat and venture out on his own. Jodie Goodfellow, founder of Start-up Fashion Week, pointed him to Ryerson University's Fashion Zone (Ryerson FZ) – one of Canada's first fashion-focused accelerator programs.

Ryerson Fashion Zone – An incubator with style

The Fashion Zone at Ryerson University works with a variety of different businesses, from fashion and accessories to mobile process innovation and applications to wearable technology. Members have access to 24/7 office space, drafting tables and storage, 3D printers, CAD software for the apparel industry and industrial sewing machines. Since 2013, 760 members have joined the program, which has accelerated over 140 companies while raising $30 million in equity funding and producing $80 million in revenue.

With a sales target of $5 million annually set as a modest goal for Inlighten in 2019, Eddy views the wearable tech space as one that's ripe for growth and opportunities. "There's a need for material innovation in order to create wearable pieces that are both comfortable and aesthetically pleasing – and we see this as a place where Inlighten's design can step in to fill the void," he says. These days, Eddy receives a lot of compliments whenever he wears one of his company's products to a music festival or nightclub, but the feedback he's received has also challenged him to step up and answer real-world problems that go far beyond wardrobe dilemmas. "We're in talks with some of the world's top DJs and some big-name investors and we receive all kinds of requests for custom-made products from influencers and celebrities – we have even been asked to design someone's wedding dress." But what the young entrepreneur has found most impressive is the outpouring of enthusiasm from people with ideas to put Inlighten's technology to better use, with thoughts on how to leverage the technology for everything from protecting runners, bikers and the visually-impaired at night, to improving safety on construction sites. "That's how I came to realize that this isn't just a party company," says Eddy. "There is a real opportunity to benefit all kinds of people in many different ways."

From fashion statement to real world problem solving

"Imagine, if your child's jacket lights up when she strays a certain distance from you, and the same thing if your pet gets lost." By equipping clothing with GPS, people can not only keep better track of people and pets, but also enable joggers and bikers to communicate with drivers, for example by signalling when they are about to make a turn. "We're also experimenting with different ways our clothing could help people with Autism communicate, for example, through changing of colours in order to indicate various stress levels." Inexpensive biometric sensors open up limitless possibilities in a market that's estimated to grow to $34 billion by 2020.

Asked to describe his experience as a Chinese-born entrepreneur in Ontario, Eddy praises Ontario's multiculturalism, the supportive start-up ecosystem and an unparalleled quality of life. "The feeling of 'being at home' is how I have heard my immigrant friends express how they feel about Toronto. It's a place where everyone has an opportunity to be successful, and I have experienced tremendous encouragement from the local community. We've received a great deal of support from Ryerson University and Ryerson Fashion Zone, from our friends at Nanoleaf and Tapplock, Start-up Fashion Week and of course the Ontario Centres of Excellence."

Advice for the entrepreneur

Eddy's advice to those considering an entrepreneurial path is to: "dig in; don't be afraid to try new things or worry about getting your hands dirty." He also stresses to be mindful of your mental health, which, if you manage it well, could lead to high performance and productivity. Eddy believes morning routines, mindfulness practices and exercise are three crucial ingredients for a productive life. "There remains a stigma around mental health, but it's a big part of a successful entrepreneurial journey. With the excitement and expectations of being an entrepreneur also comes disappointment and anxieties about what the future may bring. I live close to a lake and going for walks in nature provides me with a natural source of energy – I think we're fortunate to have so many green spaces in and around the city. It's also important to draw support from close friends and family – whatever it takes to keep yourself in a good mental space."

Why outsource when it can be done in Ontario?

In addition to growing revenue, Eddy is also looking to bring more of his operations in house as the company continues to expand. "Last year, we outsourced our R&D, but this year we are looking to bring it in-house to our operations in Ontario. I'm lucky to have a team that embraces innovation; we're always looking for ways to innovate and come up with cool, new stuff. We are all festival goers, we love fashion and we geek-out over the latest technology. We live and breathe wearable tech and I believe that loving what you do is the best fuel for success."

Sector/subsector: 

March 1, 2019

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