If you’ve ever had a sit-down conversation with an entrepreneur, it’s common to hear that their journey the founder decided to pivot, either to accommodate the changing trends or to meet the market demands. However, for the innovators at EXAR Studios, the need to pivot also came from an intuitive understanding of customers’ wants, even before the market was able to articulate it. As winners of TechAlliance’s third London Innovation Challenge, we sat down with Ben Switzer, Chief Growth Officer, to talk about his experience as a founder and how they utilized the $40,000 prize to drive their business growth.

A London-based digital creative tech venture, EXAR Studios leverages extended reality (XR) technology to bring engaging cultural content to users on location. In simple words, using entertaining storytelling and an immersive, world-class augmented reality technology, the studio works with experts to produce culturally authentic content and help people explore and engage better in their communities. Led by The EXAR Studios leadership team, the idea first came at the crossroads of operating a store front virtual reality (VR) experience in the middle of a pandemic. “When COVID disrupted our retail and long term care businesses, we had to reimagine how we leveraged our talents to focus on a new market,” shares Switzer. Divided by different interests, but united by the common mindset of creating a social impact, the team soon adapted a transformative approach, and started working on their vision of revolutionizing the tourism industry through their state-of-the-art technology. 

EngageARt, EXAR Studios’ flagship product, was born out of the much-needed integration of technology in the world of tourism. For consumers, this meant better ways to explore local arts, music, and culture.  This benefits the tourism industry at the same time by increasing attendee numbers, and giving  deeper insights to businesses that help them serve their customers better. “Our flagship product is an app that is available on Google and Apple stores. All you have to do is download the app and it’ll suggest to you the most geographically relevant cultural experiences near you. When you’re roaming around the city, you can also hear local interpretations or discussions around that art piece or mural, creating an immersive and very personalized experience for you,” says Switzer. 

That’s not all – the app’s most distinctive feature lies in its ability to be gamified. Leveraging 3D digital artwork, the EngageARt app creates an enthralling experience by placing objects, mini-games and even animated elements. For Switzer, this turns out to be the best of both worlds, “A lot of Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) aim to create spaces for ‘place making’ which is the idea of giving life or emotions to an area to make it unique, distinctive and special. Our technology definitely helps in bridging that gap.” 

As a promising startup, EXAR is always on the lookout for funding opportunities. The London Innovation Challenge stands out with its significant amount of investment, that doesn’t need to be matched. The entire $40,000 is non-dilutive (meaning it does require the company to lose equity in the company) and also comes with a suite of advisory supports, provided by TechAlliance, to set and reach the milestones of the project. The London Innovation Challenge is supported by the City of London and the fourth challenge launches this fall. Switzer was drawn to London Innovation Challenge’s latest focus on innovating in the creative industries. “Music is very close to my heart, and I’ve always loved listening to local artists and seeing their performances. I knew that if more people knew about these experiences, they’d come to see them. I realized early on that there is an opportunity to curate live music through technology in a way that benefits both the audience and the artists,” says Switzer. 

Collaborating with the London City of Music, Ben and the team focused on a Digital Activation Program that used technology to help people discover artists through new media channels. The EngageARt app was transformed to include wayfinding and an embeddable web map to discover artists’ locations while providing other important information such as a preview of their latest creation and short description about the artists. The app itself combines ease of use with delivering big results for creative industries. For this project, EngageARt was deployed with the London Arts Council and resulted in a 50% increase in attendance. Over the next 3 years, the project hopes to involve 60 artists and generate approximately $120K in revenue for downtown businesses. With support from the London Innovation Challenge, EXAR will be accelerating the growth of local creative industries in London for years. 

Looking back at his experience and his journey until now, Switzer shares the importance of building strong partnerships in the innovation ecosystem, recognizing the role that TechAlliance plays in bridging the gap between entrepreneurs and overall economic growth.

We’ve had support from TechAlliance for years and I think the reality is that we wouldn’t have been here without their support all the way through our journey. When it comes to the London Innovation Challenge, I believe that the initiative itself had a great structure. We had loads of takeaways from our mentorship sessions and the specific deadlines, metrics and result measurements made us more accountable.

Ben Switzer, Chief Growth Officer, EXAR Studios

TechAlliance is bringing back the London Innovation Challenge and its focus on growing business in local creative industries. ‘Challenge 4: Bolster Creative Industries’ is open for applications from October 10 to October 23, 2023. New this year is a two-stage application process where the top four companies from the written application stage will move onto a live pitch competition, inviting local leaders, venture capitalists and other community partners to select two recipients of $40,000 each.  The four finalists will pitch their plans and answer judges’ questions on how they will deliver impact for the London creative industries.  
For more details or to apply, visit https://www.techalliance.ca/london-innovation-challenge/