This Woman is Reaching for the Startup Stars

Harleen Kaur is a former NASA engineer and Rolls-Royce executive. But growing her mobile social-networking company, uCiC, has been her biggest challenge yet.

Candice Helfand-Rogers By Candice Helfand-Rogers

harleenAs a child, Harleen Kaur didn’t aspire to own a business. “I wanted to be an astronaut growing up, like a lot of kids do,” she says.

Kaur fulfilled her childhood dream of working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as an engineer, but she has since shifted her sights back to Earth. Today, she’s the cofounder of uCiC, a social-networking app that enables its users to ask each other for real-time photographs and videos of locations they’re interested in seeing.

Before starting her own venture, Kaur had found her way into the business world and C-suites at companies big and small. But among all her professional experiences, she says entrepreneurship has been the most difficult. “Nothing prepares you to be a business owner. It’s harder than people make it out to be — it’s a very difficult thing.”

But Kaur, like many entrepreneurs, relishes thorny challenges with exciting payoffs. So when her brother Sukhsagar Singh came up with the idea for the uCiC social app, she saw the opportunity to join him in founding their Waterloo, Ontario, company as too good to pass up.

A Helpful New Idea

It was late in 2013 when Singh, while on his way to work, saw smoke rising from what appeared to be his home in Waterloo. Concerned, he tried to contact people he knew to get more information. But his roommates were at work, and he didn’t know his neighbors. So he turned to social media and local news outlets.

“In every photo or video he saw, there were people holding up their phones and recording,” Kaur says. Singh thought there ought to be an app that would let users reach out to individuals in a given location and request instant snapshots of where they are. After some research, Singh and Kaur concluded there was no such app — and that they had found a gap they could fill.

On New Year’s Day of 2014, the duo began developing the app in earnest, while still maintaining their respective day jobs. In September of that year, Kaur left her position to focus on uCiC full-time, ahead of a planned beta launch at CES Las Vegas in 2015.

It was the right move. UCiC won the event’s Mobile Apps Showdown, resulting in a glut of media attention. At that time, Singh also made the app his full-time focus.

Up, Up and Away

Kaur grew up in India, and had astronomical aspirations for herself from an early age. To turn her dreams into reality, she aggressively pursued higher education. She earned an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering from Ryerson University in Toronto in 2004 and then a graduate degree in space studies from the International Space University in France the following year.

Unlike other women in the STEM world, Kaur says her gender presented little problem — except that “missing classes wasn’t an option — I’d be spotted very easily” as absent, because there were so few other women in the room.

After finishing school, she secured an internship at NASA, which turned into a job supporting the New Horizons mission to explore Pluto. It was a dream-come-true at first, but ultimately not equal to her ambitions. “What I found working for NASA is that, at a very big organization, it would be years before you’d go to the next level. I didn’t find that appealing.”

So she went to work for a German company that built and launched satellites, becoming one of the first engineers the firm hired. She watched from the inside as it went from 14 employees to 140. Kaur had been bitten by the startup bug, and she wanted the chance to help grow other firms by taking on sales and business development projects.

But while she excelled, she lacked a formal business education. To fill in the gaps, she earned an MBA at INSEAD in France in 2009. Soon after, her career took another turn when she was hired as one of the youngest executives at Rolls-Royce, the 113-year-old British auto maker.

It was a great opportunity, but she soon found herself longing for another new venture to grow, and moved to a soccer-centric tech startup in Berlin. While there, she says the company went from 5 million to 25 million users, thanks in no small part to her management efforts. But a year into that role, her brother came up with the idea that would change both of their career trajectories and bring her back to Canada.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Sights Set on the Future

Today, uCiC has 250,000 users in 180 countries. To expand, Kaur is pursuing a round of funding in the first quarter of 2017. UCiC’s launch and growth were bootstrapped until this summer, when the company got into Techstars, an accelerator that gave it $500,000 in funding.

Kaur and Singh also got their first corporate customer in 2016: The Weather Channel, to which uCiC will supply user-generated content including live photos and videos of weather events. “News is broken on social media,” Kaur says, and media companies have to keep up. Kaur hopes to forge similar partnerships down the road, and says other media outlets have expressed interest.

Going forward, to improve the look, feel and utility of the app, she and Singh want to build their technical team and hire people to generate content. But Kaur and her brother are dedicated to keeping uCiC versatile.

“Some [people] use it for breaking news. Some use it to see what people are writing,” she says, and some just use it to find out where the party is happening.

With a lengthy growth ramp still ahead, Kaur says that developing uCiC has been extremely rewarding, if immensely challenging — enough to keep her attention so far, anyway. “It’s much easier to grow a company from 5 million to 25 million users than it is to go from zero to 500,000.”

Posted: January 10, 2017

Candice Helfand-RogersThis Woman is Reaching for the Startup Stars