September 16, 2019
Monogram reimagines the user experience
With help from Waterloo, Calvin Chu builds a thriving company that caters to creative professionals.
With help from Waterloo, Calvin Chu builds a thriving company that caters to creative professionals.By Claire Mastrangelo Office of Advancement
The way humans interact with machines has fascinated Calvin Chu for years.
“Interface is essential, yet it’s often overlooked,” he says.
He took courses on the subject as an undergraduate student in the Faculty of Engineering, looking at a wide range of interfaces to see what made them successful. The best ones, he says, were made for very specific tasks like music production and nuclear power plant operation. However, there were many other jobs that relied on imperfect hardware — most often the standard mouse and keyboard.
Co-op helped Calvin identify a group of underserved professionals who could benefit from an update to their tools. He’d used co-op as an opportunity to travel the world, landing placements in New Zealand, Connecticut, California and Sweden. Each time he ventured out, he took his camera with him.
“It was tedious editing all of my photos after a big trip,” he recalls. “I knew there were photographers out there who did way more editing than I did.”
Combining his knowledge of interfaces with his insights into photography, he started work on customizable controllers to improve the editing process. His first prototype, which he built for a Capstone engineering course, used a circuit board as a base for sliding bars and knobs. The setup gave photographers more precise control over the tools in their editing software: a knob could adjust the size of a brush, for example, and a sliding bar could refine the levels of light and shadow.
Calvin tested his interface with users as part of his coursework. Their response was so positive that he refined his system after he completed his classes, raising the money he needed through crowdfunding. Calvin built his company, Palette Gear, which he recently renamed Monogram.
Joining the Velocity Garage enabled Calvin to grow his company. With a lot of hard work and support from colleagues and mentors, he expanded the scope of Monogram to accommodate a variety of creative professionals including video editors and DJs. Feedback from that broad base of users helped Calvin and his team build Version 2 of their system, which they just launched from their office in downtown Kitchener.
“We've had a lot of pull to move to Silicon Valley and other places, but we wanted to stay in this region,” Calvin says. “We wanted to give back, and there’s a lot of great talent here.”
In addition to hiring local grads and co-op students, Calvin returns to Velocity to mentor budding entrepreneurs. He’s also made a StartUp Pledge — a commitment to donate a portion of his future earnings to the University.
“Waterloo made a really big impact on my life,” he says. “It wasn’t just Velocity or my courses or co-op — all of those experiences brought me to where I am now. I thought the Pledge was a good way to give back to the whole institution.
“It’s been quite a journey,” he adds, “and it’s been a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to expanding on Monogram’s mission as we continue to grow.”