Behind the scenes with Creative Destruction Lab alum Bionym: from fledgling startup to MasterCard partnership

When U of T spinoff Bionym announced its landmark partnership with RBC and MasterCard in November, we shared a few of our favourite clippings from all the media attention it gained. (Bionym news roundup: Nymi’s payment pilot with RBC covered by Washington Post, NBC, others)

Now, writer Sophie Milman explains how Bionym developed from fresh startup to major player on the wearable tech scene – with help from U of T’s Creative Destruction Lab. This article appears in the Rotman alumni newsletter.

Karl Martin, CEO of Bionym

Nymi, formerly Bionym, was part of the first cohort of ventures at the Creative Destruction Lab, Rotman’s program for creating massively scalable technology-based ventures. The company entered the Lab in the fall of 2012 as a team of brilliant researchers with an innovative technology but lacking a strong  market strategy. After eight months with the Lab, Nymi emerged as a focused, viable business with a compelling product: the Nymi Band is an attractive wristband that will authenticate the wearer based on their unique electrocardiograms, doing away with the myriad passwords and keys we all currently use to access our accounts and devices.

At a recent mixer for the Lab’s current group of startups and MBAs, Karl Martin, CEO of Nymi, delivered a casual talk, along with one of his investors, Dennis Bennie. Bennie, an angel investor and founder of Delrina, spoke with Karl about the venture’s experiences in the Lab’s inaugural year. In Martin’s estimation, his team lacked focus and thought too much like researchers, not entrepreneurs. This was reflected in their first few presentations to the G7 Fellows, an elite group of successful serial entrepreneurs who serve as coaches and mentors for the ventures admitted into the Lab. Bennie, along with other G7 Fellows Nigel Stokes, Lee Lau, Dan Debow, Nick Koudas, Tomi Poutanen and Dan Shimmerman, found the biometric authentication technology interesting but was unimpressed by the team’s single-minded focus on licensing and inability to settle on a product.

It took a few months of coaching and private meetings for Nymi to turn things around. According to Martin, the team was on the verge of being dropped from the program when Bennie and Stokes pressed him to reconsider his approach. After some soul-searching, Martin and his team decided to abandon the licensing route, committing fully to the potential of their technology and vision. The result was transformational: within two weeks the team had a product, hardware specifications, and a hardware cofounder. The Nymi Band was born. Martin’s new attitude and ambition had given his team an aura of believability and success followed quickly. By the summer of 2013, Nymi had raised $1.4 million from the G7 and other investors, both private and institutional.

In May 2014, Nymi raised another $14 million in its series A round with help from Bennie, who sits on the company’s board and continues to be actively involved with Martin and his team. In fact, Bennie beams with genuine pride and admiration every time he speaks about Nymi. Through the eight-month-long Lab program, the G7 Fellows often form close relationships with compelling ventures. Financial buy-in can come towards the end, but the investment of time, attention, and carefully considered business advice that the G7 Fellows dole out in the months before any money changes hands is even more valuable in cementing relationships. Nymi is a perfect case in point.

The company’s landmark product, the Nymi Band is now available for pre-order and the company has recently announced a strategic partnership with RBC, and MasterCard — quite a feat for a company that was essentially a research team in search of direction only two years earlier.

The Lab is mentoring  a new cohort of ventures this year, representing a wide array of technologies, from computer vision for drones to nanotechnology. Four new G7 Fellows also have joined the Lab:  David Ossip, founder of Dayforce; Michael Hyatt, founder of Bluecat; Tony Lacavera, founder of WIND Mobile; and Michael Serbinis, founder of Kobo. The calibre of ventures and coaches that the lab attracts, as well as the success of its alumni, forces people to reconsider the popular belief that business schools can’t incubate real businesses effectively.  The Lab is a rare exception to that rule because it was designed with a focus on results and a process that gives ventures an edge. The strength and gravitas of the G7, combined with a milestone-based coaching approach, a team of eager MBAs who roll up their sleeves and contribute meaningfully to the ventures’ sales, marketing, and business development strategies, a wide network of investors, and just-in-time workshops by top professors like Joshua Gans and Lab founder Ajay Agrawal, make the Lab unique. Look for more successful ventures like Nymi to emerge from the Lab’s exceptional environment in the future.

The Creative Destruction Lab is entrepreneurship education 2.0. And it’s happening at Rotman.