Start-up for adventure
From the high seas to high tech, Fraser Hall, BESc'99, has navigated his own path
By Kathryn Kinahan, BA'86, MLIS'93
Many claim to own an adventurous spirit. Fraser Hall, BESc’99, has the resumé to back it up.
The computer engineer has travelled up and down the West Coast, spent time on the high seas bringing poachers to justice, started two companies and now, as a founder of Vancouver Founder Fund, is helping aspiring entrepreneurs get their big break.
Even choosing Western from his home in Kelowna, BC, was somewhat uncommon. After touring “out East” universities, Hall chose Western for its academic reputation and well-rounded people. Or, as Hall put it – a campus full of “not necessarily just super-nerds.” He also admits to being slightly influenced by his father, Edward, MBA’77. His sister Jennifer, BFA’98, followed him to Western later.
Graduating at the height of the tech bubble, he bought a Volkswagen camper and drove up and down the West Coast with his degree in hand.
“I’d just show up on the door of technology companies and say, ‘I’m a computer engineer. Do you want to interview?’ Almost always, they’d say yes on the spot. I got to meet with all these incredible companies.”
He landed at Creo, a digital imaging firm now part of Eastman Kodak, in Vancouver, where he designed laser-imaging systems for printing presses. Perhaps the selling point was his job title – Firmware Jedi.
“I was pretty nerdy; I still am,” laughed Hall.
A year later, Hall became intrigued with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a militant iteration of Greenpeace, founded by Paul Watson (a controversial Canadian environmental activist and one of the founding members of Greenpeace). With some background at sea, Hall joined that group in the late 2000s.
“I couldn’t believe someone was just fighting for what’s right so firmly and putting themselves at risk,” he said.
Sea Shepherd is an aggressive group with a controversial reputation for battering whaling and fishing ships.
“If you ever hear of a ship being sunk by activists, it’s this group. Greenpeace has never sunk a ship. If someone is doing something illegal, like poaching, Sea Shepherd will go out and stop them. The intention isn’t to sink, but if it got to that, it wasn’t out of the question,” Hall said.
Within a very short period, Hall was promoted to captain of the flagship where he served for two years throughout the Atlantic and Pacific hunting down poachers – whalers, turtle poachers, shark finners.
The award-winning 2006 movie Sharkwater (by the late Canadian filmmaker Rob Stewart, BSc’01) documents one of their campaigns, a tense confrontation with illegal shark finners off the coast of Costa Rica, where they clashed with the authorities, uncovered possible links to organized crime and outran machine-gun-toting coast guards until they reached international waters.
At 24, Hall left Sea Shepherd and became headmaster of a high school at sea called Class Afloat. There, he taught 48 high schoolers and voyaged all through the Atlantic and Pacific for a year.
He followed that with a five-month-long driving adventure across the Sahara Desert and through Europe in a custom-outfitted solar-paneled vehicle.
After that, he signed up as captain and expedition leader of a not-for-profit vessel with Reach the World, a program that digitally connects travellers with classrooms, and sailed from New York across the Pacific for another year.
Hall’s next change took him back to school.
“I was very salty from life at sea. Once I got off the boat, I decided to go to the University of British Columbia and do my MBA, figuring school was the best way to transition back to land, friends, etc.”
While there, he and a few friends wrote a business plan for a heads-up display company – smart eyewear with an integrated computer display. Hall landed a day job in real estate development while he worked on the business plan at night.
After two years, he quit real estate and jumped full time into the business. He reassembled the group from business school and founded what was to become Recon Instruments in 2008.
Recon was the first technology company to design and develop smart eyewear products for sports and high-intensity environments. The company’s products delivered live activity metrics (location, speed, altitude, temperature), GPS maps, and notifications to a tiny screen in front of the user’s eye. Their first offering, a ski mask with an integrated display, was released in 2010, well before Google Glass made its splashy debut.
“After eight years of that, never drawing a salary, living off ramen, experiencing the ups and downs of the business, constantly battling to raise money, we sold the business to Intel Corporation in 2015,” Hall said. Terms of the sale were not disclosed but rumoured to be worth millions.
In the later days of Recon, Hall started another business, with a different set of co-founders, known today as Article, an online-only, direct-to-consumerfurniture retailer with a modern aesthetic, delivered simply and efficiently.
Founded in 2013, Article promoted their brand on Instagram, where it now has more than 260,000 followers, and they tested their products with small production runs, refining plans based on what sold and what didn’t. Their strategy is working, with sales expected to double to $200 million in 2018.
This experience of starting, growing and ultimately selling a company gave Hall insight into the start-up process. He saw the venture industry was starved in Canada. Despite the presence of talented entrepreneurs, prestigious universities and a highly qualified workforce, there hadn’t been a surge in seed funding.
So he launched a fund to address the shortage.
The Vancouver Founder Fund (VFF), a venture capital firm ‘built by founders for founders,’ leads early-stage financings for companies based in the Pacific Northwest. The fund typically supports start-ups focused on software, but considers a broad spectrum of companies and industries where they feel they can add tangible value – the only caveat being the potential for rapid-growth.
Over the course of two and a half years, the company has invested in 10 companies.
Today, Article and VFF share office space in downtown Vancouver and for now, Hall is enjoying the mix of running Article while sharing his experience and expertise with upstart entrepreneurs.
That is, until the next adventure comes calling.