How Poptronic turned a virtual dream into reality
Published in CanadianSME, January 2024
When Kelly Bergeron first thought of the idea for her start-up company, she knew just the person to call. It was September 2021 when she sat down to dinner with former colleague, Chatnie Herne, to talk through her idea and the possibility of partnership. The two first met at the Ontario Emerging Jobs Institute while working on a project aimed at teaching adult learners about how to use technology and digital skills to upscale their job skills. With their shared passion for technology and accessibility, Bergeron was eager to share the idea for a new business: Poptronic, a company that would make virtual reality (VR) technology accessible to those for whom it had been largely out of reach.
By the end of the dinner, Herne was on board. Only two months after their first conversation, Bergeron and Herne were starting to establish their VR rental business in Cornwall, Ontario. VR technology creates a simulated 3D environment that gives users the feeling of being immersed in a different space. The benefits of this immersive experience include deepening the users’ sense of empathy, Bergeron says.
She points to the example of how their team recently went to a local high school on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to share This is Not a Ceremony, a film by the National Film Board about Canada’s residential schools and foster-care system. By immersing students in the story through VR headsets, they got an up-close glimpse of the injustices inflicted on the Indigenous peoples depicted in the film. “The feeling of empathy you can get from that immersive technology trumps anything you can get from a piece of paper,” explains Bergeron.
Poptronic now offers virtual technology for a range of functions, including training, education, gaming and entertainment, fitness, meditation, and more. Since this technology can be costly, they rent it out to lower barriers for users.
Herne, who grew up on a Mohawk reserve in Akwesasne, says her own upbringing shaped their decision to set up Poptronic in that area, having seen significant inequality in Indigenous communities’ ability to access the latest technology firsthand: “It’s important for me to tie my work into the Indigenous communities. If I’m working, I want to be benefiting them somehow.”
The virtual reality industry has been growing rapidly in recent years. Insight Partners suggests the global market will grow to US$441.84 billion by 2030. At the same time, data shows that women-led start-ups receive less than three per cent of all venture capital investments — a barrier the Poptronic team encountered in their early days.
After launching Poptronic, Bergeron and Herne struggled to find funders. As Herne recalls, “If you’re a woman co-founder or entrepreneur, people come at you with harder questions.” In hindsight, she calls this initial lack of interest a “blessing in disguise”, allowing them the time to fine-tune their approach.
In late 2022, the Poptronic team heard about the WEOC National Loan Program – a program offering loans of up to $50,000 to women-identifying entrepreneurs starting or expanding their businesses. They applied for a loan by contacting WEOC loan fund partner, PARO, a not-for-profit social enterprise that supports women-owned businesses across Ontario. Receiving the loan was a game-changer, Bergeron says: “Without WEOC, we wouldn’t be here right now. The loan was basically our calling card to get the tech we needed to start proving our thesis throughout the past six months.” The funding they received allowed them to expand their business and design their studio space in Akwesasne.
Herne adds the loan program also allowed them to acquire new headsets, which led to clients with larger orders.
Connecting with WEOC further helped Poptronic make connections with other loan recipients, including Trembar, a female-led supplier of refurbished VR headsets. They ended up supplying Poptronic with those headsets, which helped them save money while supporting another female-led business.
Today, Poptronic can accommodates clients with a broader range of needs, from corporations to community organizations: The range of requests include supplying VR technology to birthday parties, corporate training sessions and mosques seeking an immersive religious experience.
Looking ahead, Bergeron and Herne say they are excited to keep building on their vision. Herne says she’s particularly looking forward to delving into the education space: “Having more curriculum available that we can tailor to whatever the students are learning, whether that’s the solar system or Egypt or marine biology, is super exciting.”
Bergeron adds that they also want to keep deepening their connections to their rural community in southeastern Ontario. Experiences like the ones offered by Poptronic help them because they cannot afford field trips to museums, for example, where students experience “moments of awe”, making VR technology their next best bet. She hopes to create more of those moments of awe in the future.