As co-founders of ePact, an emergency contact information system that replaces the outdated paper model still widely used by schools and recreation organizations, Christine Sommers and Kirsten Koppang Telford have seen it all.
Six years after launching, the Vancouver-based company now has 16 employees, clients like the YMCA, partners including the Canadian Red Cross, and $2.4 million in investment from the likes of BDC Venture Capital, Yaletown Partners, and HIGHLINE.vc.
Christine and Kirsten started developing ePact in 2011, moved to action by their friend Ayumi’s experience in the days following the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan that year.
Ayumi’s daughters were at school when the disaster struck and the simple paper emergency forms the school had on file proved to be useless; it would be more than 24 hours before Ayumi would know that her kids had survived and were safe. During a visit to Canada later that year, Ayumi recounted the story for a shocked Christine and Kirsten.
“We have a background in technology and thought ‘This is insane. Japan is one of the most prepared countries in the world and they’re using paper. What’s it like here?’” Christine recalls. “We called up the local school district and said that we were thinking about building something that could address this issue of paper forms. They said ‘Absolutely’ … We hadn’t even written a single piece of code and they were signed on.”
The longtime friends — they’ve known each other since preschool — quickly built an early iteration of the platform and trialled it, garnering rave reviews from the test schools. They spent another year fleshing out and refining the product before releasing it officially.
Daycares, community centres, sport groups and employers caught wind and reached out to ePact, quickly expanding the company’s markets.
The founders describe ePact as LinkedIn for emergencies; the platform is used to collect, manage and access information such as emergency contact details and medical history. It can be accessed by desktop or through mobile app, and an offline mode is available, in the case of internet outages and dead zones.
ePact is a huge improvement upon paper forms, which can be illegible, easily misplaced, susceptible to wear-and-tear and not easily updated. The platform can also be used to disseminate real-time information and instructions to users during large-scale emergency situations.
Families and individuals can sign up to use ePact for free, but the founders say they’re typically referred by organizations using the platform, such as local recreation centres and schools. These users then complete profiles and update them as necessary; when situations arise, ranging from a fall off the monkey bars to a natural disaster, the organizations can easily contact family members and emergency contacts.
In the summer of 2017, the Canadian Red Cross used ePact to register over 50,000 British Columbians who were evacuated during record-breaking wildfires.
Partnerships, like that with the Canadian Red Cross and the National Recreation and Park Association, have proven key to ePact’s growth.
“They’ve been really helpful in getting our brand out there to organizations, as we essentially build this market,” Christine says. “So many organizations that have been using paper for decades have wanted a solution but until now, didn’t know what that was.”
The founders also credit their network of advisors and their time spent in the GrowLab (later HIGHLINE vc) accelerator program with helping them navigate various aspects of the startup world that they hadn’t previously been exposed to, such as establishing pricing models, fundraising and how to pitch.
“That was the number-one thing we got from our accelerator experience — how to pitch. It was just hammered into us. It’s such a huge piece of fundraising and building a startup,” Christine says.
“Being able to leverage the experience of people who have ‘been there, done that’ has been huge”
Today ePact is focused on continuing expansion into the U.S., adding partnerships and enhancing their product. And though Christine and Kirsten have felt the effects of working within a male-dominated space, they think the tide is turning.
“It’s definitely changing. We’ve really found that people are looking for female founders, and not just because of the push for diversity and equality, but also because of the results that women get,” Christine says. “We have met investors that have specifically said that — that they’re interested in what female founders can do.”