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Kitchener wayfinding startup MappedIn snags big-name clients

Four years ago, Hongwei Liu was an undergraduate with an idea, who managed to score a 15-minute meeting with the general manager of a regional mall in Kitchener-Waterloo. Today, he’s 24 and employs 22 people in a business that has him working with not only the biggest properties in Canada, but jetsetting around the world to meet international clients.

Mr. Liu’s company, MappedIn, started out by offering property owners a way to map out their interior space and create digital wayfinding maps, the kind you’d see on a mall sign or a mobile app or website. But it wasn’t long before he realized that he could actually solve a much bigger problem in the process.

“Once we started working with our customers, we realized that the biggest problem we were solving was helping businesses manage their indoor spatial data,” he says.

Hongwei Liu is the founder of MappedIn, a Kitchener-based startup that specializes in indoor wayfinding. (Katherine Scarrow for The Globe and Mail)

Property owners, he found, had a mapping problem. They didn’t just have to keep one set of drawings current, but three or four: There would be, for instance, a technical computer-aided design (CAD) file of the mall’s layout. There would be a facilities map that kept track of physical assets – what key opens what door.

Moreover, there would be maps used by the marketing department and leasing salespeople, who would be taking this collateral on the road, trying to convince new tenants to set up shop there. Then there’s be the customer-facing maps: One for the website, one for the signs, one for mobile, never mind the prospect of large-format interactive screens.

Each one of these maps would be created by different people, using different tools.

The company has teams dedicated to researching and developing the gold standard in indoor maps and directions.

And to top it all off, tenants are constantly changing, so each one of these maps needs to be constantly redrawn.

“You have this super-fragmented process of doing the same work across different teams,” says Mr. Liu. “They’re throwing it away every quarter and starting from scratch.”

MappedIn pulls all these functions together into a central portal. The software starts by ingesting and interpreting a map of the facility – typically a CAD drawing. Then, it attaches database information to every location on the map. For instance, it might associate a Starbucks location with informational text about the chain and a link to the Starbucks logo – the materials that will need to be used on marketing and wayfinding materials later.

From there, it’s a relatively simple task to re-purpose this data for different uses. In the marketing world, this map can be overlaid with traffic reports and sales data, that can be shown to prospective tenants. In the wayfinding world, large-format touch-screens can intelligently direct visitors to different stores. And an update to the central map through MappedIn’s portal will update all the subsidiary applications.

And while the company has snagged big-ticket clients like Brookfield and Oxford properties, and will be appearing in marquee centres like Mississauga’s gigantic Square One and the Scarborough Town Centre, it’s built for more than malls.

Companies like RackSpace, the San Antonio-based web-hosting firm, are using it to map out their sprawling corporate offices, and cutting down on the time employees spend looking for each other’s desks and meeting rooms.

It can be used by large-format retailers to map out the departments in their own store, and track which see traffic and sales. Hospitals and airports, both of which have heavy-duty facilities-management and wayfinding requirements, can overlay their maps with real-time data like emergency room wait times and which flights are leaving from which gates.

Ultimately the China-born, Ottawa-raised Mr. Liu – whose undergrad is still on hold while he builds an international company – has an ambitious goal: to become the leader in geographic information system (GIS)-like systems for indoor facilities. The firm hasn’t lost a customer to date, he says.

“It’s been a long four years, but I think, very recently, we’re seeing the whole global market move from early adopter to early majority,” he says. “Who’s the best out there? I’m proud to say we’re pretty well-positioned.”

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