Your personal trail guide: No Wi-Fi or data required

Jul 14th, 2017

By Susan Flanagan

Shawn (Meishang) Chen and Diego Alejandro. Photo by Susan Flanagan
Your personal trail guide: No Wi-Fi or data required

How did two international computer science students, one from South America and one from Asia, get together to start a company to improve hiking experiences in Newfoundland?

Diego Zuluaga

When Diego Zuluaga finished high school in Colombia, his parents encouraged him to continue his studies in a place where he would also learn English.

Five years ago, Mr. Zuluaga came to St. John’s to stay with his uncle, who was involved in a hydro-electric project in Newfoundland and Labrador at the time.

Once Mr. Zuluaga completed his English as a second language studies, he decided that rather than return to his hometown, he’d stay on and pursue a computer science degree at Memorial.

Shawn (Meishang) Chen

Shawn (Meishang) Chen, originally from Guangdong Province on the south coast of China, came to Memorial via Belize.

He he had been living in the Central American country with his sister for seven years, completing his high school and two years of college in computer information systems.

While there, Mr. Chen attended an information session about Memorial University and subsequently learned he would be able to transfer over half of his college credits towards a computer science degree at Memorial. So, with financial assistance from his sister, Mr. Chen hopped on a plane to St. John’s where he moved in with a Belizean friend.

Auspicious meeting

When Mr. Zuluaga and Mr. Chen first met in their computer science program, they realized they had common interests, but never imagined they’d be in business together.

That is, until the Memorial Centre for Entrepreneurship (MCE) came into their lives. MCE is a campus-wide centre led by a partnership between the Faculty of Business Administration and the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science.

Last winter when the two were applying for traditional summer co-op jobs, they had interviews and offers. However, when Daan Goossens at the MCE suggested the students pursue their own company instead, they were intrigued.

“Thanks to funding from the Vice-President (Research) office, federal and provincial governments and the John Dobson Foundation, this is the first time we have been able to offer funding to students to commercialize their business ideas as part of a co-op work term,” said Mr. Goossens, program catalyst, MCE.

“The Cente for Entrepreneurship is a smart place to take risks,” said Elyse Summers, program support co-ordinator, MCE. “We give you the support, resources and money to do what you need to do, when you need to do it.”

For Mr. Chen and Mr. Zuluaga, this meant they could put all their energy into developing their hiking app and not have to worry about working for an outside company to ensure they’d have the money to do it.

Encouraging critical thinking

“We had been taking a mobile development course in computer science and originally we were going for educational apps, but when we spoke to students and profs, they said there was no need. Either the app was already available or was not a priority,” said Mr. Chen.

“That’s when Daan helped us with our way of thinking,” says Mr. Zuluaga. “Daan taught us that it’s not enough to develop something that is good to have, but you have to ask the question: Will someone buy it?”

So, they revised their idea and came up with an app to help hikers.

Support for hikers

“We wanted something that would supply recreational hikers with essential information normally only accessible at tourist information centres or online,” said Mr. Chen, who met a man while hiking the East Coast Trail who had problems getting offline content without using his costly data.

“We want hikers to be able to access this information without needing Wi-Fi,” he continued. “Instead we will use GPS tracking to detect user location on the trail. Through our participation in the Genesis Evolution Program this summer we came up with the idea of Camina, which comes from the Spanish caminar – to walk.”

The Camina app offers four options: offline maps; placemarks, which allow you to get to know the geological and cultural landscapes you are exploring; recommendations of other trails in the area; and a place to share experiences with family and friends.

When the prototype of the Camina app is ready at the end of July, Mr. Chen and Mr. Zuluaga hope hikers will sign up for their beta app, an early-stage version of the application that will help them troubleshoot any issues before they launch it publicly.

“Based on that feedback from users, we will make improvements,” said Mr. Zuluaga. “When it is launched, the app will be free to use, and you can download it from the App store and Google Play store.”

“Memorial plays an important role in developing the next generation of leaders in our communities, including through support of innovative entrepreneurs such as Mr. Chen and Mr. Zuluaga,” said Dr. Ray Gosine, vice-president (research), pro tempore.

“It is a pleasure for my office to be able to partner with the MCE in supporting Mr. Chen and Mr. Zuluaga, and I wish them both much success in the growth of their business.”

Anyone interested to try Camina out and provide feedback can sign up online.

If you are a student doing a Memorial-recognized co-op placement, you can apply for an MCE entrepreneurial internship by sending in an application before Monday, July 24. This fall the MCE will take up to 10 students for paid placements.

For more details visit the MCE website.