008 No Ordinary Business with Aware360

Gina: Today's guest on No Ordinary Business is Christine Gilles, Vice President of Marketing at Aware360, a Canadian tech company that is focused on people safety.  Christine, welcome to No Ordinary Business!  


Christine: It’s wonderful to be here, I appreciate the opportunity!

Gina: Before we get to Aware360, I’d like it if you would share with us your own background and how you got to where you are today?


Christine: Sure, I am currently the Vice President of Marketing for a tech company called Aware360.

I first got into tech marketing when I worked for a company called SMART Technologies.  They invented the SMART Board interactive whiteboard that you see in many classrooms today.  I worked with SMART for about a decade and then moved to New York City and joined a company called Thor Technologies. They did security software and were acquired by Oracle. 

When I came back to Calgary, I did an MBA and some consulting in the Arts.  I’ve always been drawn to non-profit organisations and did some research as a part of my MBA related to volunteer organisations examining what makes a non-profit effective.  After another period at SMART Technologies, I joined a non-profit called Mitacs for several years.  They build industry collaborations with academia, and now I’ve landed at Aware360, which is all about people safety technology. 


Gina: What I find interesting about your background is that you’ve worked in both the for-profit and non-profit worlds. I wonder how those experiences impacted where you are now.  


Christine:  That’s a good question.  I definitely see it as a continuum or a pendulum swinging back and forth in my career. There came a realisation that whatever I end up doing in the private sector, there has to be some kind of human good or societal good from the business contributing in a bigger way. 

The places I’ve thrived or stayed at the longest have been places where I felt I was giving back or making a contribution.  Certainly, I chose to join Aware360 because they focus on people’s safety and saving lives, which is something I could get behind and feel good about doing every day.

What we want is to merge our careers and purpose and leave a legacy.  Days are long and you want to make sure you are improving the planet in addition to improving the bottom line.


Gina: I share your sentiments completely.  I think that is a great segue to share a bit with our audience a little about what Aware360 does and how you do it?


Christine: Sure!  Aware360 is a tech company focused on people’s safety, and we describe it as the ‘Internet of things’ for people.  The ‘Internet of things’ is a concept that everything is connected to the Internet so why not connect people for the purposes of keeping them safe?  

We all have a mobile phone on us at all times, so Aware360 developed an app-based technology for a smartphone as well as wearable devices that allow people to check in with each other to make sure they are okay.  It is backed by a web-based 24/7 monitoring partner; that’s where people are keeping in touch with those on the front line who are at risk, are working alone or are in dangerous environments.  It is a really simple technology but it is saving lives. 

For instance, we have social workers that are going into precarious situations when they go out on-site visits and are using the technology. They are sometimes at risk and when those critical incidents occur, it is those initial few minutes following an incident that is often the difference between life and death. Unfortunately, often what happens is that hours can pass before anyone is alerted to the fact that an incident has occurred and it may be too late.


Gina: I’d like to explore some other examples of how your product can be used so as to ground the technology in context.  What other examples are there of this technology helping to mitigate risk in high-risk environments in the workplace?


Christine: We see companies in the energy and utilities sectors with field workers and individuals who are working alone on a job site doing dangerous work. With our technology, the workers can check in and the system will check in with them periodically to make sure they are safe. If there is an incident, embedded in the system there is an emergency protocol escalation path so that if the worker doesn’t respond to a check-in perhaps the first line response is that the monitoring partner will call you to check if you are okay and if you are unresponsive they will escalate up all the way to 911 if necessary. 

Other scenarios include school bus drivers in remote areas. School buses are traveling with children and so keeping tabs on their location and safety is important in the event of an accident. Another example is in the hospitality industry, we see incidences where workers have been assaulted while cleaning hotel rooms.  Another example of the usefulness of our technology is in health care, particularly in elder care facilities. If individuals need help, they can access it by pressing a button, but the device is also useful to help with wandering, which is a big issue for the elderly. We can monitor patients’ locations so if they cross over what we call a geo-fence then the system is alerted and they can be retrieved quickly and safely.


Gina:  I see. So not only is the system useful as an alerting device for emergencies, it can also be used to protect vulnerable populations.  How does the technology function in cases involving wandering?


Christine:  It’s an app-based solution in its simplest form, but for groups who may not always have a phone on them, we pair the system with a wearable such as a simple bracelet. Taps on that bracelet or pendant wearable functions like an: ‘I’ve fallen but I cannot get up’ device.  In the example of elderly patients, you would certainly have a wearable. If they crossed a pre-defined geographic boundary the wearable will send an alert to the monitoring centre that is staffed at all times and can escalate from there.  


Gina:  I can also imagine an application in situations where an elderly person is still living at home and has family members that are worried about their safety and wellbeing.


Christine:  Exactly. All of those scenarios apply.  The other thing to note is that it is not just a one-way alert system indicating that the wearer needs help.  The system is set up to check in periodically with the user and you can define what that period is depending on the circumstances.  In most cases when the safety time is expiring, you have the system reminding you to check in. 

To your point about elderly living at home, our health care system is designed to keep people at home as long as possible and this technology can support that objective.  There’s the two-way communication that is important because the system is asking you to check in and when you don’t it will escalate.  


Gina: What’s the difference between Aware360 and other emergency alert apps?


Christine:  The difference is that we’ve developed a system that there is always a person 24/7 in the monitoring centre who will be reaching out proactively.  They also let you know help is on the way.  The two-way communication is unique.  When you’re in trouble you want to know that help is on the way and that is critical when someone is injured.


Gina: You have partnerships with active monitoring centres with human staffing?


Christine:  We offer the end-to-end from the input on the phone all the way through to the person at the monitoring centre and we sell it as a package.


Gina:  Once the alert is sent to the monitoring centre, they have the ability to connect with the injured person to let them know what they are sending help?


Christine: Yes.  There’s an immediate connection including push notification and a phone call that is made.  There’s also a unique feature called neighbour helping neighbour. Because it’s a GPS based technology we can see where there are other individuals who are on the system (including work colleagues) that are nearby who could possibly help the individual if that is necessary.  That is an important feature for field workers in industrial scenarios that are able to get there faster than other emergency services can get there.


Gina:  Are there limitations if you are in remote areas without access to cell coverage?


Christine:   Where there is no network access or cell coverage, you can use satellite-based devices to augment the coverage.  You can essentially have coverage everywhere.  We have some clients who use both and use the satellite device when they go out of range. 


Gina:  What was the inspiration for developing this technology?


Christine:  The two founders of Aware360, Steve Matthews and Jim McDade, both have personal stories that have motivated them to develop people safety technology.  They are both seasoned professionals with more than 30 years experience and are passionate about saving peoples lives. Steve was a helicopter pilot in the military and has been in those ‘man down’ situations and knows the importance of two-way communication and of the first crucial hour after an incident.  Jim lost two family members and is also passionate about saving lives. 

Also, from my own perspective, and I don’t think I told you this before, but I was on the 87th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Centre Twin Towers on 9/11 when I worked at Thor Technologies.  


Gina:  I didn’t know that.  If you are comfortable sharing a little bit about your story I would like to hear it.


Christine:  Sure.  I was in the North Tower and the plane entered four floors above us and it was evident immediately that something horrible had happened.   Fortunately, there were only four of us in the office at the time as most people had not come in yet.  We escaped by the hair of our chins.  We were trapped for a short while under the concourse when the second tower collapsed and were saved by firefighters who shouted, “follow my voice, follow my voice!”  We crawled out of the soot and you are familiar with seeing all of those images. 

When Aware360 as a career opportunity presented itself, I thought of 9/11.  At that time, this technology didn’t exist but the idea that there were so many people in the towers and no one knew where they were--there was no two-way communication.  I think about a technology like Aware360’s and from my own personal experience--it could have saved lives that day.  You asked about the founders but I wanted to share that because it definitely has influenced my own career choices and why I believe in this technology--it saves lives.


Gina: Wow. I am sorry that you experienced that horrible day first hand but I am very grateful that you made it out and am grateful for those who helped you to make it out.  


Christine:  Thank you. Those details are for another interview!


Gina:  Yes.  Similarly, while I am not happy about the circumstances that brought the founders to create this technology, I am happy that their experiences drove them to develop it.  Based on these stories and the examples of application, I would think Aware360 is a ‘tech for good’ company.  Would you and the founders describe it as such?


Christine:  Yes! Absolutely!  We signed a ‘tech for good’ declaration for that reason.  It is interesting when you are launching a company and trying to tell the story about what it does, especially a tech company, you can easily get wrapped up in bits and bites and tech jargon. But at the core is the piece you identified correctly, that these two founders thought about a way they can contribute to something bigger than themselves and use tech to save lives.  We are a people-centric company that offers something that helps people to stay alive and be safe!


Gina: How long has Aware360 been around?


Christine:  It was founded two or three years ago as a result of a merger between two asset-monitoring companies.  The companies have almost 25 years of asset management experience. Aware360 took the lessons learned from that business and applied it to monitoring people for safety. 


Gina: What are some of the barriers to entry that you’ve faced when rolling out this product?


Christine:  The number one barrier is the lack of awareness. We know that companies spend millions of dollars protecting their assets but the same amount of energy has not gone into protecting individuals.  There are health and safety protocols but it is still an area that people have to fight for resources.  The awareness piece is still a challenge and many companies that we meet admit that they were not aware that there was legislation requiring them to comply with certain standards and that these technologies are available to help them meet those requirements.  

The other element that we are working through is to ensure that people understand our commitment to protecting data and personal privacy.  There are ‘big brother’ questions that arise and concern around that.  We have built-in protections for ensuring privacy that addresses those concerns.  For instance, if you are not logged in, you are not monitored.  The second solution is that the system can be set up so that your identity is unveiled only in the case of an emergency.  And, we found that education and training help employees to get comfortable with that issue so that they don’t feel like their employers are monitoring them and checking to see when they clock in and out of work or otherwise.   Also, we see them relax when you remind them you are on a phone that monitors where you are at all times anyway!


Gina: Absolutely!  We tend to forget that!   


Christine: Certainly the Cambridge Analytica incident in the recent months has caused people to have more questions for good reason. 

There was one other piece I wanted to mention about how the technology is architected to ensure privacy.  There is a framework called “Privacy by Design” and was produced by the Privacy Commissioner of Ontario with roots in the Netherlands’ Dutch Data Authority.  It’s an entire approach to how you would architect a system that ensures for data privacy. For instance, data is only housed in certain places and only certain individuals are authorised to access it. There’s a whole set of permissions around who can see who’s on the system.  

It’s important that we as a company advocate for our approaches because consumers are weary because they’ve been wronged and there’s a scepticism around ‘tech for good’.


Gina: Do you have any examples yet of instances where your technology helped to save lives?


Christine:  Yes!  There was a news article that ran in June about our client Crescent Point that had two employees whose lives were saved using our technology.  What we are finding is that companies are offering use of the monitoring systems to employees even when they are off duty.  For instance, employees on vacation, going snowmobiling or hiking, they are given the opportunity to log on to the system. There was a couple that worked for Crescent Point and on the system that were driving together after-hours when their truck was swept far off of the embankment from a mudslide.  They were badly injured both with broken bones and the woman remembered that she had the system on and pulled her cell phone out and used the Safety Aware app to send an alert. They were both quickly located because of that and both survived.  It was confirmed that there was no way that anyone would have found them otherwise.  

These incidences are why we get up in the morning! 


Gina:  That’s incredible!  I’m wondering if you are tracking and measuring your impact?


Christine: We are tracking our impact anecdotally and measuring safety events that we manage with each client. 

We have data on the number of safety events handled that are in the tens of thousands so far.  These are statuses or alerts that have been made and actioned.  That’s what we’re measuring along with the stories such as lives saved. 


Gina:  I want to talk about your new outreach programme and ask you about the potential scope of how this technology can be applied to addressing other social needs.  


Christine:  We ended up falling into this programme realising that our technology application became relevant for particular groups of vulnerable populations.  It happened through our CEO, Steve Matthews, who was involved in offering security services with the Gitxsan First Nation in British Columbia. They were working with protecting people on the Gitxsan First Nation near Highway 16, where there have been incidences of missing and murdered First Nation women.   

We found that there are people who are vulnerable hitchhiking in these areas, at-risk populations, people trying to escape domestic violence, human trafficking, people who are in the sex trade need protection and most of those individuals have a phone and the technology is low cost. We saw an opportunity for our technology to help mitigate these risks!

We formed a ‘Safer Communities Initiative’ and set out about six months ago inquiring and bringing together reps from non-profit agencies working with at-risk populations and showed them the technology and asked how can we help your clients?

We’ve learned a lot.  The agencies see the need for their frontline workers who work with these vulnerable populations to have access to the tech.  The second piece is that those agency workers are the key to getting the clients onto the system themselves.  Obviously, a corporate entity like ours is not best positioned to do that.

We have 25 plus organisations interested in a partnership. We’ve partnered with a non-profit called Ignite Tech that is working to close the technology gap that exists in social agencies. And we have a few agencies that are on the system now along with some individuals but it is very early stages and we are very passionate and excited and the genesis of that is that we feel like that the people who need it most should have it especially because it is low cost.

You asked about barriers before so there is a barrier to getting people from vulnerable populations onboard for safety that offers a new set of challenges versus a B2B context including trust because many of these individuals don’t want police to know where they are at any point of time.  With our system, we can design it so that it does not include police monitoring.


Gina: I’d love to get an update on this project as it progresses!


Christine:  Absolutely! As to your other question, we kind of see the sky is the limit as far as applications for the system even beyond safety.  The platform has been designed in an open architecture format so that you can have any type of device or wearable input that offers data.  For example, in a hospital, bedsores are a problem so you could have a blanket that measures and monitors pressure points and give feedback that encourages people to move.  This is not a safety issue but it is health related.  Also, we see schools wanting a system to be able to find the location of students and communicate with them (particularly given the incidents of school shootings in the US).  Or parents wanting to monitor the whereabouts and well being of their kids.


Gina:  What comes to mind is latchkey kids.


Christine:  Right, exactly.  For today, we are focused on people safety from dawn to dusk.  Going back to the examples of those people from Crescent Point, they were not on the job when that happened but it was able to still help them after hours.  


Gina: You’ve spent time in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors.  What do you see as the interplay between these two worlds?    


Christine: If I figured this one out I would have the golden nugget! It is refreshing that while not widespread, more corporations have adopted social responsibility mandates.  I remember a quote from Einstein “Strive not to be a success but to be of value”.  It is a post 9/11 era and the world is different. People want to feel good about what they do.  It’s not just a Millennial initiative even though they get all the attention on this, but people want to know that the work they do is making a difference.

How do we reconcile the two worlds?  I know many entrepreneurs who buy into “Do the right thing and the rest will come” motto but I feel that’s a little oversimplified because if it were the case then all corporations would be doing it.  

Despite all that, I believe we are moving beyond the greenwashing or the whitewashing and moving toward businesses that start with a purpose at the centre that is finding a way to make a difference socially without compromising profit.  I cannot wait to see how the next decade plays out because it is integral to the success of companies who are not just thinking about CSR as something that we have to do or looks good for PR but are looking at how can we architect social impact from the inside out?

I don’t have the magic solution but I am optimistic about where the world is going


Gina: I am too and I also believe that consumer demand is a powerful tool to drive responsible business as we choose which brands to get behind.  I am with you but I also believe we have to pick up the pace even though things are shifting I feel we need to make it happen faster because the urgency for sustainability is ever present.


Christine:  I agree with you and consumers holding companies accountable is key.


Gina: On that note, thank you so much for doing your part and for taking the time to chat with me today and sharing your stories. I really enjoyed our conversation!

One last question, if readers want to follow up with you how can they find you?


Christine:  I can be reached by email at christine.gilles@aware360.com or they can reach out through our website www.aware360.com and you can find our contact information that way.


Gina: Thanks, Christine!  Looking forward to having you in LA sometime!


Christine Gilles is the Vice President of Marketing of Aware360, a Canadian tech company that is focused on people safety. Aware360 creates solutions to connect people with personal technology to those who care and can help.