The tech company aioTV has ceased operations, and Innovacorp has lost its entire $1.7 million investment in the company.
The company was founded in Halifax in 2010 by Michael Earle, whom Innovacorp described as “a veteran executive from the cable television sector and a seasoned entrepreneur.”
Before he started aioTV, Earle ran a company called TV Anywhere, Inc. As tech blogger and podcaster Brian Mahoney explained in 2009, TV Anywhere was betting against the success of the now ubiquitous Roku.
At the same time, Earle was the president of v.1 Labs, which developed and sold an “application software to broadband, Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), wireless, and dial-up Internet service providers.” While v.1 operated out of a Halifax address, Earle listed a Centennial, Colorado address as his personal address with the Registry of Joint Stock Companies. Centennial is a suburb of Denver. v.1 folded operations in 2010.
aioTV is the acronym for “all in one TV.” In 2010, the company billed itself as an “all-in-one metadata, curation, and personalization software development company. By enabling video operators, content owners and apps to build world-class video software solutions, aioTV makes it easy to turn metadata into relevant, accurate, and personalized video experiences for consumers.”
Perhaps “world-class” should have been a tell, but in 2011 Innovacorp bought a $1 million equity stake in aioTV. The next year, aioTV sold 44 per cent of the company “to China’s UTStarcom Holdings Corp. for $8 million,” wrote Peter Moreira. The headquarters of the company was moved to Denver, but the firm kept a development office in Halifax, on Argyle Street.
In 2015, the company changed focus, wrote Moreira:
About a year ago, the company realized its strategy of offering several products on a single platform just wasn’t the path to get where it wanted to go.
“We were successful in selling to second- and third-tier telco operators, but they didn’t have the scale to give us what we wanted,” Earle said in an interview from his base in Denver. “You end up spending a lot more in customization for these small guys than you could ever recoup.”
So the company began to research what the Tier 1 telecom and television companies around the world need in the ensuing one to three years, and the answer came back that they needed an enhanced curation function.
The aioTV curation function that it has now produced is a personalized recommendation engine that chooses a broad array of material for the user from more than just a list of movies. For example, if you have just watched a movie, the curation function could tell you there is material on YouTube about the making of the movie, or where to find interviews with the stars.
Evidently, Innovacorp was impressed, as it invested another $700,000, Charlie Baxter, Innovacorp’s VP of Investment, told me in a phone interview today.
But the re-focus has not been successful.
No one was at aioTV’s office yesterday, and no one answered the phone in the company’s Denver office. The company did not respond to a voice message or an email from the Examiner.
Baxter confirms that aioTV has ceased operations. “You’ll have to ask them what options they’re pursuing,” he said.
It’s unlikely aioTV will find a purchaser, and Baxter agreed that the Innovacorp investment has evaporated.
The tech start-up business is a risky business, of course. Most start-ups will go south, so it’s not surprising that a particular Innovacorp investment will fail.
But rather than pay too much attention to any one company, I wanted to understand how Innovacorp sets goals and measures success. What are the benchmarks? I asked Baxter. I can understand that Innovacorp getting a positive return on its total investment portfolio may be a worthy pursuit, but how does that match up with the economic development goals of the agency?
For instance, I told Baxter, it seems that “success” for a start-up is typically declared when the start-up is bought up by a larger company. But that larger company may move operations to Ontario, or Denver, or Silicon Valley — how does that help the Nova Scotia economy? I asked.
Baxter agreed that some companies will move away, but others will keep the start-up operations here in province, and others have expanded operations locally. He did not, however, have any overall numbers for provincial employment matched to Innovacorp funding. And, he noted, after Innovacorp sells its stock, it has no way of knowing where the companies’ operations are, or how many people are employed.
Baxter said that Innovacorp ramped up its investment portfolio in 2011, at which time it started to more aggressively invest in tech start-ups and other smaller operations. He said the agency is now developing a Total Value to Paid In (TVPI) assessment tool for its portfolio, as part of an accountability report that will soon be developed.
Innovacorp has apparently never before tried to assess its success or failure rate, connect its investment outcome to specific employment or economic development benchmarks, or compare itself to similar agencies in other jurisdictions.
Asked when the accountability report will be available, Baxter said he wasn’t sure if it would be July of this year or July of 2019.
Whichever year it becomes available, Baxter said the TVPI assessment won’t be fully reliable until 2021, 10 years after the 2011 portfolio was created.