In our Startup Spotlight Blog Series, we want to recognize some of our local peers and fellow companies in the Pittsburgh startup ecosystem. Today, we are highlighting John Rattray, CEO and founder of Sparkwear, a technology company that strives to provide communication tools for everything from conferences, cruises, college orientations, and beyond.
We began by asking John about his professional background:
John Rattray: My professional background is primarily academic. I went to University of Maryland, Baltimore County, I did my undergrad in electrical and computer engineering, and then from there I did my Master's at Johns Hopkins University in electrical and computer engineering as well, in the niche field of neuromorphic engineering. I'm currently pursuing my Ph.D. but there also was a tiny, six month stretch that I worked in Silicon Valley as a software engineer at Cisco.
From there, we learned about John’s company, Sparkwear, and what inspired him to start it.
I was inspired to develop Sparkwear by my upbringing, I feel. I was born in the 90s and I sort of had my feet in both worlds of growing up in the 90s where there weren't cell phones--cell phones weren't ubiquitous yet. People would talk to one another and play sports outside like backyard soccer, football, and all that. It was a very tight community in terms of people interacting with one another in physical spaces. Then circa 2000 cell phones become more popular. Everyone's on Facebook and using cell phones more often and you sort of lose that interaction with people in person. But technology is still awesome, right? It just didn't seem as though the two things were working together simultaneously. So the idea for me was like, hey, why don't I mix cool technology that we have now with the way in which we would interact with one another in person. That's sort of the premise behind it all. It's using technology to help people interact with one another.
"It just didn't seem as though the two things were working together simultaneously. So the idea for me was like, hey, why don't I mix cool technology that we have now with the way in which we would interact with one another in person."
He then talked more about social media and its effect on his business:
I think [social media] plays a major role in exposure. With so many people being on social media now, it's an exceptional way to let people know what you're working on and have them interact with your brand and your everyday developmental process. It's really cool to be able to go and work on these cool products every day in the lab and be making constant development and be able to share that [with your followers]. Look at Boston Dynamics - they're constantly creating new stuff. It's cool to be able to see them work on the process and not just see their final results. So I think [social media] plays a major part in helping people, customers, and clients- they’re connected with your startup and your business.
As with most businesses, Sparkwear has endured the challenges that came about due to the Covid-19 pandemic, especially considering that Sparkwear relies on creating social engagement.
So the biggest challenge, no surprise, is that social networking events stopped completely, which is what my company is premised on. How did we accommodate for that? Two ways: One, our technology is designed to provide personalized introductions to users based off of their proximity to one another. So what we did is we utilized the same technology and made a pivot to give users feedback on how close they were for social distancing. So we utilized that proximity component, but for a different purpose now [during the pandemic].
The other way that we accommodated for the challenge, and this one is sort of funny, is to be patient. What we were able to do in being patient was really discover how important it is for people to interact in person, right? We could have done a full pivot and forgotten about our main goal and sort of lose sight of how important it is for us to interact with other people in person and then kind of give up on the idea. So in being patient, now we're here in 2021, and now we're thinking about reopening those public spaces. We have the reemergence of the cruise line industry. Some small social networking events are starting to come back online. It's important that we stay true to our mission because now we're prepared for it.