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Startup CEO thinks global

Werner Biegler is CEO and co-founder of Varafy

It was during Werner Biegler’s time at Nortel Networks that he discovered preferences that have spanned his entire career.

He prefers working in smaller groups, has an affinity for technology companies and enjoys learning about different facets of a job or company.

The St. Albert resident got his start at Nortel Networks in the late 1980s. At the time, Nortel was one of the world’s leading technology companies, employing tens of thousands.

Now Biegler, 53, is the president and CEO of Varafy, an Edmonton-based technology startup with three founders and a team of developers. He’s gone from big to small, and he likes it that way.

He spent 13 years at Nortel, but looking back it was time spent in a smaller division that stands out.

“The most fun I had (at Nortel) when I was in a division that had less than 100 people,” he said. At the time he was in finance, and worked closely with the general manager of that division.

It exposed Biegler to different parts of running a business, from research and development to customer service. Those are skills he took to the jobs that followed Nortel: CGI as a director, then Acrodex as chief operating officer and Sylogist as president and CEO. He parted with Sylogist after some changes on the company’s board of directors and took a year’s sabbatical, doing some consulting but also exploring a new love – writing thrillers. He taught himself to write fiction and is still at work on a manuscript.

His career has taken him from his home-province of Saskatchewan to Alberta and Ontario. He’s been in St. Albert since 2005 along with his wife Kelly, daughter Brett and son Connor. He and Kelly are high school sweethearts.

It was through his children that he discovered Sailfish Swim Club. Nowadays, he’s past president of the board and has been vigorously campaigning for the club to get access to more lane space at Fountain Park Recreation Centre during the summer season.

He also has volunteered with his daughter’s hockey teams.

Business was not his first love. He started out studying chemistry in university, but switched to business and ended up in the MBA program.

“It wasn’t really my first love, but (I) got to love it,” he said.

His entry into the smaller startup world came during the time when he was consulting and writing. He was invited to sit in as a guest with a group of investors. He watched a variety of pitch sessions, including several for new technology companies.

In January 2014 an old friend approached Biegler to look at a piece of software he’d developed. Biegler did some analysis and found there wasn’t anything like it on the market. Varafy was born.

“We quickly formed the company in June 2014,” Biegler said. “We’ve been at it ever since.”

The technology is designed to help university instructors develop problems to pose to students, like engineering problems. An instructor can enter a problem and the software can then generate more problems with alternate variables, along with an image to go along with the problem if needed.

Varafy closed a contract this fall with OpenStax, a non-profit based at Rice University in the U.S. that aims to improve student access to educational resources, including open textbooks.

Biegler says the startup has also signed a contract with a large publisher that he couldn’t disclose, and is in negotiations and trials with a handful of other publishers.

“That’s never been done before, and we have the interest of some of the world’s largest publishers and online homework companies,” Biegler said. He has two fellow co-founders, Ken Fyfe and Justin Sharp.

Biegler’s president and CEO role involves everything from shopping for coffee to doing pitches, but he’s enthused by an opportunity to add to the tech scene in Edmonton and start a brand new company with a unique product.

“I think we have a chance to build a world-leading company,” he said.

Working at the small technology startup, located in Edmonton’s trendy and historic Mercer Building, also means working with millennials, something Biegler has had to adjust to.

“‘I didn’t set my alarm clock,’ that happens once a week,” he said. But he’s adjusting and adding working with young up-and-comers to his skill set.

Sharp is one of those millennials. He is co-founder and the company’s chief technology officer. He praised the mentorship Biegler has offered and the skills and knowledge the St. Albertan brings to the table.

“He knows what it takes,” Sharp said. “He’s very, very motivated.”

Two decades after Biegler left Nortel, he is still finding ways to apply the lessons learned at the big company to his new small one.

He sees Varafy as having global potential because he was taught to think globally – a lesson he credits to Nortel’s way of doing things.

“Always think global, not local,” Biegler said.

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