Tiny startup lands big deal with tran­sit agency

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - FRONT PAGE - JOE O’CON­NOR jo­con­nor@postmedia.com

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.

Chanakya Ramdev

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