Safe harbour

A unique Haligonian startup is bridging the worlds of construction and high technology.

Harbr is the creation of Dave Kim, and husband-and-wife team Jeff and Ashley Kielbratowski. They plan to market an artificial-intelligence system that will predict and prevent delays at construction sites.

Meanwhile, Harbr offers an app that allows site managers to file digital progress reports with their employers, simplifying what is traditionally a time-consuming, paperwork-intensive process.

Casual dressers who pepper their speech with industry buzzwords, the company’s founders could easily be mistaken for recent transplants from Silicon Valley. Kim promises to seek out “new efficiencies” and Jeff Kielbratowski wears pristine white running shoes with a spare pair next to his standing desk for good measure.

But, all three entrepreneurs are long-time Nova Scotians.

Kim grew up in Australia, where he studied marketing at university, but dropped out because he found the lack of flexibility involved to be stifling. He preferred to direct his own learning.

He left Australia at age 20, spending time in England and later New York state, where he worked at a summer camp staffed by several Nova Scotians. “I was like, ‘alright, let’s go and check out this place,’” he recalls. “So I drove from upstate New York with a bunch of other camp counsellors and landed in Cape Breton… That was in 2003.”

He settled in the region and spent several years working for a local video game design company, Techlink Entertainment, before co-founding his first business, GoInstant. Two years later, Salesforce bought GoInstant (for $70 million US, according to the Wall
Street Journal).

Jeff Kielbratowski is the son of local development magnate Victor Kielbratowski and spent the early stages of his career working as a real estate executive at his father’s company.

“I had a specific kind of role when it came to the Kiel Developments stuff, which was more so focused around paying attention, essentially. It’s a family business, so you’re not there to run the show, you’re there to learn,” he says. “There were opportunities if I was to stay there, but he supported me [in founding Harbr] and said, ‘If you’re going to go, go take a big swing.’”

Ashley Kielbratowski trained as an interior designer before she began working alongside her husband at the family’s development company, where she oversaw the details of major construction projects.

“This is why Ashley is so good at a product and customer success role,” says Kim. A lot of her experience was very close to the metal, boots on the ground… Her understanding of that dynamic and of the personalities is really what helps us build the right products.”

Jeff Kielbratowski adds: “Ashley can speak the language.”

The three met when Kim hired Ashley to renovate his house. They began having long conversations on Kim’s boat deck about the state of their respective industries, hatching the idea of a startup that would combine their areas of expertise.

“And I hung his blinds, too,” Jeff Kielbratowski laughs.

The new project was to be a platform that would help homeowners find local contractors for renovations and home repairs. It quickly became clear, though, that a competitive landscape would have limited the new company’s growth potential.

Instead, Kim and the Kielbratowskis focused on enterprise clients: large corporations that could enter into high dollar-value business agreements. They decided to build software that would help streamline construction projects, beginning with the Harbr app, before eventually rolling out the AI system.

Harbr is not the only company to offer app-based project management services (Fieldwire is a notable competitor based out of San Francisco) but if the AI is a success, it will be an industry first.

The program will rely on a technology called machine learning, which means that it will teach itself to recognize and interpret similar types of information. In this case, the AI will use data about past construction delays to identify factors that might cause similar problems in the future. For example, it might suggest changing the order in which certain tasks are completed, to minimize downtime for workers.

Mike Ouellette and Candace Delory later joined Harbr as chief technology officer and senior engineer, respectively. Both are co-founders as well.

In characteristically technical language, Kim explains, “The goal is to be able to create high-efficiency construction schedules that will help cut costs and bring projects in on time, while delivering real-time management insights.”

Harbr’s founders believe that Halifax is key to their company’s future success. “My wife and I have two small kids,” says Kim. “They love it here. There’s great day cares and schools. We’ve really got a great life for our family here.”

Jeff Kielbratowski agrees: “It’s an interesting time for the city. It seems that our talent pool is growing, and access to good people to join our company and be impactful in our company is huge.”

Equally crucial for Harbr, both the construction and technologies sectors are benefiting from recent growth in Halifax. According to economist Ian Munro of the Halifax Partnership economic-development organization, Halifax has been undergoing a period of sustained development, the first of its kind since the early 2000s, when development largely stagnated.

“People joke that when the cranes came up in recent years, it was the first time they’ve seen them since the late 1980s,” he says. “There have been major projects like the convention centre on Argyle Street, the King’s Wharf, and Queen’s Market. All these different things are popping up.”

One potential issue raised by the new construction is that there are currently high vacancy rates for office space, but Munro says this is common for cities that have undergone development booms. It also has the effect of lowering rent prices. For startups, this makes Halifax more competitive with major centres like Toronto and Vancouver.

Also crucial for tech companies is the steady flow of qualified employees produced by the local universities. “We’re blessed with, especially for a city of our size, great post-secondary institutions,” Munro explains.” We have a lot of universities, including graduate programs, churning out lots of students, and all sorts of interesting and innovative programs in and around the IT sector.”

Harbr rents office space from Volta Labs, a local startup incubator that transformed the sixth floor of the ageing Maritime Centre on Barrington Street into a brightly-lit, open-concept office. Its windows look out over Halifax Harbour, with construction sites visible along the waterfront and an orange tower crane obscuring part of the view.

With the help of the networking and knowledge-sharing opportunities that Volta and the Halifax tech community create, Harbr has grown rapidly since its creation two years ago.

Last spring, the company finished raising $1.75 million from investors (mostly in Nova Scotia) and hired two new software developers. It now serves customers across Canada and the United States.

Despite this geographic reach, the founders say they’re determined to maintain offices exclusively in Halifax. “There are highly talented people here, interesting companies, and an openness that is helping everyone learn from both our successes and our failures,” Kim says. “[Halifax] is iterating as an ecosystem much like a startup would.”

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