Tiny startup lands big deal with transit agency
Chanakya Ramdev is a joyful, plain-spoken 28-year-old entrepreneur who isn’t afraid of telling it like it is when sharing war stories about his days as an engineering co-op student at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, and his work terms as a coder for Blackberry Ltd. and Bombardier.
That is, sitting at a computer and pounding away at codes for eight hours a day, a desk-tethered existence that provided the immigrant from northern India some professional experience, but also keen insight into what he didn’t want to be doing for the rest of his life.
“Coding was super boring,” Ramdev said. “When I’d get bored at Bombardier, I could at least go to the manufacturing floor and see planes getting built, which was amazing.”
Fortuitously, before his employment future was forever cast, another internship took Ramdev to Hong Kong with the university’s alumni outreach office. Wearing a suit to work was a requirement. He packed two for the trip, one black, one grey, neither of which survived the humidity.
“Every day I was drenched in sweat, and so I wound up ruining both suits,” he said. “It frustrated me thinking here we are, in the 21st century, and clothes can still get ruined by sweat because salt sticks to fabrics, which seemed to me like a problem that should be solved.”
That, in short, is how the founder of Sweat Free Apparel went from coding to clothing. Instead of inventing a newfangled app, as Waterloo techies tend to do, Ramdev created a sweatproof fabric with the help of a university lab — and a good deal of gumption.
Now, about that gumption: when the pandemic hit, Ramdev and his business partner — a.k.a. his dad, Yash, who remains locked down in northern India with Ramdev’s mom, Nisha, and an aquarium full of fish — were planning their spring launch as an online retailer of sustainable sweatproof apparel.
Of course, their plans changed, as did the world, and they pivoted the business (along with their fabric technology) to produce washable, reusable, non-medical-grade multi-layered fabric masks that prevent droplets from passing through the material.
With the help of some connections in the Waterloo tech scene, Ramdev scored a video-pitch meeting with some decision-makers at Metrolinx, the regional transit agency serving Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe region and Ottawa.
Metrolinx liked what they heard, requested some sample masks and, ultimately, contracted Ramdev to provide 10,000 masks, an order he delivered last week, right around the time he pinched himself.
“It is crazy,” he said. “We are a tiny, tiny immigrant startup, and Metrolinx gave us a massive opportunity. We were hoping just to get the word out on the masks. Now we have a major client.”
Metrolinx staffers were in pandemic planning mode as far back as January. By March, many were in masks, a variety that, it was agreed, were “uncomfortable,” according to spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins.
Metrolinx shifted to disposable masks, but as the horizon for mask-wearing protocols kept stretching further and further out, churning through disposable masks seemed wasteful, not to mention costly.
Then Ramdev appeared.
“He didn’t have a track record of making masks, but we liked his story and we liked his pitch,” Aikins said. “And the masks themselves, they are as soft as a baby’s diaper, and not a soiled one.”
On a recent afternoon, Ramdev could be found at his company headquarters, more commonly known as his apartment, in Waterloo. He was fixing the printer, shortly after negotiating a reduction in shipping costs with a delivery company, and being in discussions with the factory near Shanghai that manufactures the masks about expanding the range of available colours.
“I am the boss, and the janitor,” he said, laughing.
Individual masks cost $19.99 on Sweat Free Apparel’s website, and, for now, they only come in green and grey. Metrolinx bought its 10,000 at a steep discount, Ramdev said, since putting his company’s name on the map seemed more valuable than putting some nickels in his pocket.
His father, no rookie to the textiles scene, agreed.
Yash ran a factory making scarves and shawls for the European, Russian and northern Indian markets before he retired, but his son coaxed him into a second career.
Sweat Free Apparel’s production was based in India until everything there closed, sending Ramdev scrambling to find alternative manufacturers, finally securing one in China.
“I couldn’t find a factory in Canada that could produce our masks, to be honest,” Ramdev said. “It would be a lot less stressful for me having the masks made in Canada, and so if any of your readers know of a Canadian manufacturer, I’d really love to hear from them.”
He didn’t have a track record of making masks, but we liked his story and we liked his pitch. And the masks themselves, they are as soft as a baby’s diaper.
Sweat Free Apparel, a Waterloo-based startup with two employees — a 28-year-old immigrant from India and his father — will be providing Toronto regional transit agency Metrolinx with 10,000 masks for its staff. The order for the reusable masks is the company’s first big job.