Commlet in the news again

Greg McNeil of the Cape Breton Post, a local newspaper from the saltwire network interviewed our CTO. This is from the publication.

SYDNEY, N.S. — 

Even at an early age, Veronica Merryfield showed a knack for problem solving and a penchant for learning something new. It was a skill set that many Cape Breton startups would benefit from in later years.

She was around seven when she learned to play piano and, in her teens, when the sound emerging from an analog synthesizer caught her ear, she built her own. She would also carve out her own bass guitar, mostly because she wanted to play one.

Those would be considered projects or hobbies and not problems, so it was in her working life that a knack for seeing and solving issues others could not would start to emerge.

“I was born intersexed. I was initially raised male and I had to get all that sorted out in an era when the solution was probably electric shock treatment, and to parents who were fiercely religious,” Merryfield said during a recent Skype interview with the Cape Breton Post.

“As a young kid, I became very independent because I didn’t have the kind of support that I needed. I look back now and see there was a high degree of emotional, psychological independence because I had to be. That kind of tends to drive you differently.”

Merryfield was born in East London and would go on to study electronic engineering in the 1980s. Her first job out of university was as a technician at a hospital, fixing everything from life support machinery to toilets and all things in between.

Cost-cutting at the hospital meant a new job in the petrochemical industry working on density and flow meters. It was also the trigger for some world travelling that would eventually lead her to Cape Breton and its startup community.

Working with custom automation equipment, gas flow analysis for power stations, and then industrial inkjet printing would follow.

In the auto industry, Merryfield wrote the operating system for a Formula 1 race car and did work on commercial diesel engine controllers, which would lead to new experiences in Detroit working for Caterpillar, General Motors and others.

As her resume continued to grow, she found herself working with thermal cameras to identify failing brakes in large cement kilns and working with companies that make software for cellular phones.

She made her way to Israel in 2002 to work on solid state storage devices — new tech at the time but everyone uses flash devices and flash memory these days.

“I had a job offer back in England, one in Finland with Nokia and I had an offer in Vancouver with a consultancy company. I took the Vancouver one because I had been everywhere else and not Vancouver.”

Commuting regularly, Merryfield met someone working with BC Hydro who had a product not working particularly fast. She made a few successful suggestions after a 30-minute look. That connection led to work on parallel computer architecture, initially on an IBM contract, and then film production, particularly rendering for animators.

“All this time I was living around Vancouver,” she said. “My wife got ill. She was a clinical psychologist and had very serious heart issues and had to retire. She always wanted to retire to Cape Breton so I said sure.”

Merryfield worked from their new Cape Breton home, ramping down significantly while they checked off other bucket list items, before her wife Marlo Gal died in 2018.

“In coming to Sydney I started getting involved with the startup community much more significantly than I had been anywhere else. I did some teaching work for entrepreneurs who are getting into software products, how to avoid the pitfalls and that sort of thing.”

Dave Johnson’s company MindSentinel is currently developing a smartphone app he describes as a “check engine light” for mental health. The idea behind the app is to provide a user with early warnings that they may be at increased risk for declining mental health, depression in particular.

He met Merryfield in 2018 during her “pitfall” discussions and called that very timely and valuable information and immediately asked her to join his project. She has since made major contributions to the design of the software architecture for the app.

“I know what I want the app to be and Veronica is the one to begin translating that into actual code. I have no background in software engineering so she is my bridge and translator,” he said.

“In addition to her technical skills and international experience, Veronica brings a great deal of empathy and humanity. She has this fantastic, holistic view of the startup community. It’s not just ones and zeroes with Veronica. She cares deeply about the people who make up this community.”

When mentoring, Merryfield likes to ask the entrepreneurs a series of questions to help them think their project through.

“You have to think about the questions you need to ask yourself to process the answer to those questions. That’s something I just naturally do,” she said. “If I look at something and say, ‘how does that work,’ it will spark a whole pile of following questions and curiosity to figure it out. If you are doing that from a fairly young age, when you get to be 53 and you have the business or technology issues that have been presented to you by startups it is fairly easy to think those through.”

Merryfield also works with the Cape Breton company Commlet Technologies and a renewable energy company, among many others.

“There’s a lot of ideas coming out of people here,” she said. “I’m getting to the point where I can’t keep up with the number of people that come to me with ideas.”

She continues to advocate for improvements to the Cape Breton startup ecosystem and also does volunteer work with LGBTQ youth, and teaches about gender and sexuality at Cape Breton University, in its nursing program.

She continues to live in Cape Breton with her partner Joanne Landry and works virtually from their home with companies around the world.

You can reach Veronica at veronica@commlet.ca

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