Carproof Corp. may not be a household name, but the company hopes that will change as it works to strengthen the Kitchener-Waterloo area as a national centre for automotive innovation.

If you bought a car after the year 2000, you probably pulled a Carproof report on the vehicle’s history, appraisal and valuation. Over the last 17 years, the company has been accumulating billions of datasets, from auto dealers, auction houses, provincial licensing agencies, law enforcement and insurance companies. This much data is a powerful and valuable resource.

Leveraging that data is, in part, behind the company's decision to launch the Carproof Product Lab at Communitech. The lab had its official opening Wednesday.

“The auto industry is a huge industry and there’s a lot of innovation that is happening and could be happening, and we want to be a participant in that, but we want to encourage other related endeavors,” said company President Mark Rousseau.

“Increasing the profile of innovation in the auto industry would be one of our goals here.”

Referencing the autonomous and connected car research now ongoing at the University of Waterloo, Rousseau added, “We want to help strengthen KW as an area for automotive innovation.”

Innovation is the key to unlocking the value of Carproof’s datasets.

Greg Beckman, Carproof’s vice-president of product management and head of the lab, says, “The Carproof report has been our bread and butter for years.” But consumers, dealers and manufacturers are asking for efficiencies and cost-savings, “and we need to push to the next level, the next stage of growth, to satisfy that.”

Although the bulk of Carproof’s 140 employees are based at the head office in London, Ont., the decision to place the 15-person innovation lab in Kitchener was easy, Rousseau said: “This is the area that has the top talent in North America.”

Beckman said that with the number of applicants for the Carproof lab positions — several hundred applied for the three data manager positions alone — the data science team was assembled quickly.

And just as quickly, the team – working in a 950-square-foot space with its black lockers and striking Carproof wall mural by graffiti artist Arturo Parada (aka Durothethird) – created its first app: a mobile version of facial recognition software that can pull data on automobiles.

Currently, a vehicle’s VIN number – the cumbersome 17-character combination of letters and numbers that no one can memorize – is the link to a specific vehicle’s history. But with a single mobile phone photo, the prototype app can search make, model, and price range based on current listings from auction houses or dealers. A dealer could take the photo before the prospective customer finished parking, and have the data available before the first handshake.

Says Beckman: “We can speed up how quickly you can have that conversation with the customer who just drove on to your lot. For a dealer, they can see dollar signs, efficiencies.”

The as-yet unnamed prototype is still in development as the team considers adding aspects that would appeal to the consumer as well, such as predictive value, or value on reconditioning.

Rousseau and Beckman took time Wednesday to answer some questions about Carproof and the company's new lab.

Q – Carproof is based in London, Ont. Why not set up a lab there, or in Silicon Valley, for that matter?

Rousseau: We tried doing this from offices in Toronto and it just hasn’t worked out, because of the distance [from London]. You know that London has got a lot of innovative companies, but there’s no aggregation of like-minded people like Communitech has ... Plus [the lab is only] an hour away from London, so people from this office can spend a day in London and London folks can spend a day here without much hassle. We believe the talent here is as good or better than anything we can find in Silicon Valley, so why bother? This is the area that has the top talent in North America.

Q – You mentioned you had hundreds of applicants for a few positions. What attracts developers and programmers to a company that gives automotive valuations?

Beckman: We’re not a household name, but when we talk about the opportunities, we get candidates excited. That’s why we were fortunate to build the data science [team] up so quickly – these are really interesting, meaty problems that you can solve.

Rouseeau: We’ve got an amazing culture [at Carproof]. People are excited to work here. I’ve worked at large companies all my career and I’ve learned what not to do, so I make sure that ‘what not to do’ is not happening at Carproof, so that while we scale, and we’re scaling fast, we’re going to keep all that great agility and empowerment and engagement and that’s been a huge attractor. Even people who have left remember how much they loved to work here, and [Communitech and the lab] is perfectly matched to the kind of atmosphere we want to create. Fully empowered, everyone equal, wanting to create together.

Q – Are there more hires in the future?

Rousseau: Four or five years ago, we were only 30 people. We are looking to add another 15-16 next year. A good chunk of them will be here as well.

Q – Do you see collaborations with other players in this ecosystem?

Beckman: With our big partners – Kijiji, Autotrader, folks like that. All these integrated partners that we’re really close with, they’re asking the same questions of data, they’re asking the same questions of innovation. This location is an ideal spot to have those collaborations. My history in this area (Beckman spent eight years in senior positions at OpenText) has … created really great relationships. [And] it’s a really good ecosystem, too. There’s a real sense of community around partnering to further technology in Canada. This is a collaboration environment.

Rousseau: I think that as the connected car hub grows in KW, we’ll get more involved with the whole aspect of how you utilize information. It’s still early. I think the insurance companies, as well, would be another partner, as we provide more solutions to the insurance industry.

Q – What do developers need to be able to answer when they come to you with their Big Idea?

Rousseau: We want to be a customer-focused company, so there needs to be an identified need. First you identify a need and then what the solution is. We solve the need through data. We are an information company, but we’re trying to solve needs through the use of information. We’re not going to sell cars, but how can people use information to solve a need.

But if someone comes to us with this amazing tech and hasn’t figured out the need yet, we’ll help them figure out the need.

Q –What will other labs and startups learn from you?

Beckman: We’ve got a really unique position in the auto industry in that we’re sort of a neutral party. We have relationships with all the different types of players in the auto industry, whether it’s insurance or the financial companies or governments or OEMs or consumers or dealers, and with that and with the data we have, we’ve got these really interesting insights on the trends and relationships in the whole industry. I think that with some of the discussions we’ve had with startups in the auto industry, we have a perspective that they maybe don’t. We can become a leader in that analysis of the market and the insights into what’s going on the market. And then through IHS (the parent company that operates Carfax in the U.S.) as well, there’s another ecosystem there we can look to bring into this.

Q – What’s the timeline here for Carproof?

Rousseau: I would say our presence in KW is permanent. This is not a trial. This is a permanent placement in a rich, talented innovation centre. We’ve got a great business aggregating information and adding value to our customers, dealers and consumers. We’re trying to use this location as a place where we can completely innovate the way information is being used, using some of the most recent advances in AI and machine learning.