Tenant Feature: Viamo

The elevator speech goes like so: they’re a software company that creates communication software for organizations working overseas in developing countries.

But when you step off the elevator and sit down with Chief Technical Officer Mark Boots for a chat, the full story reveals itself: Viamo is a company that guides governments, shares information, connects people and even saves lives.

The company, located in the Atrium at Innovation Place in Saskatoon, was co-founded in 2012 by engineers Mark Boots and Louis Dorval.

Previously, Louis spent time in Ghana, West Africa, with the Canadian non-profit Engineers Without Borders. He worked with regional governments that wished to use data as a decision-making tool—information that could guide the development of things like schools or water infrastructure. The problem? There was no such data.

This challenge became something Louis and Mark set out to investigate on their own, and they headed to Ghana to get started. The duo wanted to collect input from the citizens of the African cities and towns and villages who would be affected by any government-directed changes. Their approach was to, quite simply, ask the people what they wanted.

“So many people in the world right now have a mobile phone,” Mark explains, referring to the classic-to-us, utilitarian, “candy bar”-style mobile phone. “You have people that don't necessarily have access to great healthcare systems or access to high-quality education…but everybody has that mobile phone.”

Armed with that knowledge, and aware of its potential to help people access information and share feedback, Viamo emerged in its earliest iteration.

It began as an SMS polling company. In the first tests, where they texted a short survey to people in Ghana, they received response rates under 2%. Mark and Louis knew something was missing.

They headed back to Canada and back to the drawing board. They considered the varying literacy rates and the 250+ languages and dialects throughout Ghana, then moved Viamo into the realm of interactive, two-way, voice-response software. “We tested that out,” Mark explains. “We ran that same survey in five or six different languages. And suddenly we were getting 20–30% response rates to those phone calls. We were meeting people on the channels that worked for them.”

Additionally, “Something we found out from some of those initial surveys is just how much people appreciated the chance to be heard,” said Mark. Viamo partnered with an electricity company in Ghana to collect information on a potential supply-and-demand project. The multilingual voice-response software calls went out, and the replies were fascinating. “What was really neat to see is just how eager and excited people were to have their voice heard.”

For another project, Viamo partnered with a maternal health organization. They morphed the software into a one-way communication platform to deliver information to expectant mothers. Every week, the mothers received a phone call — in their own language — that corresponded with where they were in their pregnancy so they could learn about their health and their baby’s development.

Viamo’s software is used outside of Ghana, too. In Madagascar, one of their partner organizations uses it as part of an early warning system that delivers critical, life-saving information to 25 million people. Similarly, in Nepal, the software sends alerts to people when their village is in the path of a flood, and in Rwanda, Viamo’s software supports a call-in legal aid service. Throughout Asia and Africa, Viamo partners with telecom companies to allow people and businesses to connect through the use of customizable, smart message and voice tools (think: what Twilio does, but in places where Twilio isn’t available).

With an international reach and hundreds of employees worldwide, Viamo’s Saskatoon office is home to 10 employees. The team moved to Innovation Place from an office in downtown Saskatoon. “Being close to the innovation community here was the major draw,” Mark said.

With team growth in mind, Mark also considers the future of the province’s tech sector. “We want to find the people that we need to grow…and that’s another area where I think we’ll all have to work together, to figure out ways to build this sector in Saskatchewan — not only how to recruit the tech talent that Saskatoon will need for the next few years, but also how we can build and mentor that growth over time.”

To learn more about Viamo, visit their website.

- October 18, 2019