This article was originally published in the Aug. 28, 2016 edition of the Sun.
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If you noticed a change in the air — call it a more of a playful wind — beginning in May 2015, you can thank Petricore, a versatile tech sector startup centered on game design and app development comprised of Becker College students, and bolstered by advisors from the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDiGI).
Turns out the young firm’s young co-founder and CEO, Ryan Canuel, might just be a force of nature. And nobody is more surprised than him.
Since its launch, Petricore strove to embody its tagline, “the smell of great games,” through developing games, apps and software that have permeated the United States and overseas.
In the same month as Petricore’s first anniversary, Canuel, a 2015 Becker graduate, was named the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce’s 2016 Entrepreneur of the Year, an award he said he accepted with humility and gratitude toward his team.
“I was definitely shocked when I heard,” Canuel said during a recent interview at his 20 Franklin St. office. “There are definitely times where you stop and you ask, ‘Why the hell are we doing this?’ ”
Indeed, sometimes the world can seem to be made of only obstacles. But with the right combination of self-awareness, humor and perseverance, Petricore sustained itself during those critical and unpredictable months of small-business infancy.
More practically speaking, it was the contract from an app they developed for anonymous patient feedback on interactions with surgeons, Mentorathand, that buoyed the company financially early on as it branched out
“Ryan has spent the last few years making all the right moves,” MassDiGI executive director Tim Loew said. “We’re proud of him and how his team’s grown.”
Petricore was assembled before its team members even graduated from college, operating out of dorm rooms and a spare classroom at Becker. Canuel’s own role at Petricore’s helm, and in production roles in general, may have seemed like an accident at the time. Now it appears it was meant to be.
“I don’t think I could have ever pulled this off again,” Canuel said. “There was a class at Becker, this experimental class where you were working on a live project, an already existing game, (and then) you add content or wrap it up to release it.”
It was an energy management game called Energy Drive, Canuel said. “The roles were pretty fluid, but I was basically a producer on that project. It never launched.”
Canuel first heard about the course from a friend, James “Spav” Spavold, part of Petricore’s original team and now its chief technology officer.
“I almost didn’t apply for it,” Canuel said. “I was completely honest that I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I’d do whatever they needed.”
In the class, Canuel made a sobering discovery about his own game-design abilities that might’ve derailed another person. “I realized I knew enough to know that I wasn’t good at it,” he said. “There were people who were far better than me at it.”
Rather than give up, Canuel used this knowledge to focus on his strengths as a manager and facilitator. “I realized that I was a lot more interested in the business production side of things, and I found that it was something I was actually good at,” he said.
“I think me knowing how little I knew about the other roles helped me. I knew enough about what they were doing to know who was good at it.”
Watch: Canuel and MassDiGI featured on “Worcester News Tonight”
This class would prove to be, in Canuel’s words, “a good first effort,” which funneled into an internship in which Canuel met his future audio producer, Renzo Heredia, and advisor Monty Sharma, MassDiGI’s managing director.
“We had this class four years ago that we were testing,” Sharma said. “Ryan was one of the people who [if there was] a problem, Ryan would say ‘I’ll work on that.’ Ryan was the guy. I was really impressed with his attitude towards work [and] his willingness to sort things out.
“I was impressed with him during that class, and when he applied for our summer program that year he was one of the first people I looked at.”
“Students have varying levels of interest and entrepreneurship,” Loew said, “and when one steps forward who has a well-defined interest, those are the students we put a lot of extra effort into supporting.”
This internship also led to the birth of “Catsunami,” an animated game in which players ride a wave made entirely of cats. It solidified Canuel’s interest in production roles.
When the internship ended, Thumbspire, a New York City-based publisher, grew interested in the potential of “Catsunami.” “They put money behind it, and then did test launches in Indonesia, Bangladesh and the UK,” Canuel said. “It was a lot of fun and a really cool experience.
“It was very disciplined, very well done, and that’s what we try to push,” Sharma said.
At that time, Canuel’s team grew to 20 people, while “Catsunami” drew the interest of Thumbspire’s parent company, Japan-based NTT Docomo. This sparked a continued relationship with NTT, which published Petricore’s latest mobile-gaming double feature: “Mind the Arrow” and “Gelato Flicker.”
Canuel said he values team-member input and perspectives throughout the production process, rather than simply taking direction.
“As a producer, you’re kind of a team lead in a way, but not really,” he said. “You’re helping more to facilitate communication between everyone.” This type of management, rooted in advocacy rather than authority, has been an important part of Canuel’s philosophy.
“The idea was, ‘How can you take people’s ideas and share them with the group?’ rather than, ‘How can you take your ideas and dump them on people?’ ” he said.
Canuel, a native of Swansea, often found himself outdoors instead of playing video games in his youth, but the games he did play were usually of a storytelling or city-building nature, like Sid Meier’s “Civilization,” “Sim Theme Park,” and “Age of Mythology.”
“I really liked those games because there was a huge story behind them,” Canuel said. “It was like a movie or a book but you could change what was happening, and I thought that was cool.”
Toward the end of high school, Canuel took programming classes in Visual Basic and Java, and became interested in the idea of designing games himself. “I love all kinds of entertainment, movies and TV, and all that,” Canuel said. “It was something I enjoyed and knew I wanted to do; something that involved creative media.”
And when Canuel realized one could make a living designing video games, that started him on the path to a life just like his favorite games; putting the pieces together, building a team, and telling stories. Though the experiences in between have often been trying, Canuel is glad he made the effort to start a business earlier, rather than putting it off.
“The advice that I got is that there’s no better time to start your own company than when you’re young,” he said, recalling wise words from Sharma. “I thought I needed to be in the industry 10 years and get experience before I started my own company, but life also happens within those ten years; it gets exponentially harder to make the jump from a salaried job to having your own business.”
But with the help of the experienced advisors from MassDiGI, Petricore had the chance to flourish as an IT-based small business. “I don’t think we’d exist as a company if it weren’t for them,” said Canuel.
“They are by far the most critically honest people you will ever meet. They will tear (your idea) apart if it has holes in it,“ Canuel said. Such feedback can be vital in determining the viability of an idea before launch, rather than discovering its failures when it’s already in the marketplace.
“That is the most helpful thing you can have,” Canuel said.
“I think the sky’s the limit for them when it comes to growing their company,” Loew said. “They know what they’re doing at this point, and if they continue to build their skills, hone their portfolio, they’ll have a nice long run and be one of the original Worcester game companies and be that sort of center of a growing cluster in the area.”
With assistance from Loew and Sharma, Petricore stabilized its revenue streams, internal practices and business development efforts. The company also solidified itself as something reminiscent of television’s “The A-Team.”
While the goal is to eventually focus solely on games and apps, the team does a lot of software development for museum databases and other odd jobs.
“I’d say that our niche is to take on things that may or may not be outside of a development shop’s comfort zone,” Canuel said. “We learn quickly, but we’ll be honest if we haven’t done something before.”
Beyond Canuel and Spavold, Petricore’s A-Team includes lead artist and designer Christina Andriano, lead designer and programmer Oliver Awat and programmer Chris Bruno; and contractor workers Gary Charlton, Matt Williams, Grace Barrett-Snyder, Rejon Taylor-Foster, Christian de la Cruz, Renzo G. Heredia; and intern Alex Sharma.
Though project sizes typically cost from $10,000 to $30,000, Petricore is always happy to speak with clients who have an idea and want to develop it. In the app space, however, Canuel strongly urges clients to consider building an MVP (minimum viable product) first.
“You can take that idea, test it, and pay a lot less to figure out if it will work before you move forward,” he said. “It’s hard to fight that urge to want the final thing, but you should build a test prototype of what you want before you move forward.”
The team’s next steps, along with promoting its gaming double feature, are to network, keep drumming up new business, and design new games. Its most recent gaming endeavor, “Lot o’ Boxes,” tackles income disparity and poverty.
“It’s based on ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’ but it’s really a metaphor for not having enough,” said Oliver Awat, lead designer and programmer.
After each success, Canuel said he is determined to give credit to his team and enjoy the little rewards along the way. “We stop to celebrate the victories more than most people do, I think,” he said, “but we’re always trying to push forward.”