Bob Lytle, an American entrepreneur, has come full circle after co-founding his company in Canada. It was always the plan to expand back into the States, and, with the recent opening of an office in Buffalo, Rel8ed.to, his artificial intelligence data company, has received help from experts in cross-border relations.
After he’d worked for TransUnion in Chicago, the company transferred Lytle, then CIO, to Canada to run operations and its information technology office. When his contract ended, he decided to stay in Canada and team up with a number of other former TransUnion employees to launch Rel8ed.to. Lytle opened the St. Catharines office in January 2016, and the Buffalo location at the beginning of 2019.
Rel8ed.to uses AI to inform their clients about credit and related topics, though it differs from traditional credit reporting agencies. While those businesses share private, hard-to-access information with banks and other lenders, Rel8ed.to makes use of public data that anyone can find.
Lytle started the company in St. Catharines, Ontario, because it was close to the United States. “The reason for our new Buffalo office is both that we want to have a presence in the States and to fulfill some client requirements to use U.S.-based personnel for data processing,” says Lytle. “It was always part of our long-term strategy to hop over from Canada to the U.S. We originally located in St. Catharines so we would have easy access to the U.S. through the Buffalo market.”
Most of the firm’s clients are banks, insurance companies, or the federal government, and the company helps these customers make sense of the mountain of public information available on the internet and elsewhere to make decisions or assessments about people or businesses.
Unlike many startups, Lytle and his partners didn’t fund their company through venture capital or other private investors. Nor did they advertise widely for employees who could meet their specific skillsets.
For the most part, Rel8ed.to “bootstrapped” their capital, using private funding and grants accessed through Innovate Niagara, a Canadian public/private partnership similar to Invest Buffalo Niagara (InBN). Innovate Niagara got Rel8ed.to up and running, found financing, and partnered the new startup with talent at nearby Brock University and other area educational institutions.
When Lytle wanted to expand into Buffalo he approached Innovate Niagara, which immediately put him in touch with InBN in Western New York. InBN helped find a location and connected him with professors at Buffalo State College and the University at Buffalo who could send talented, trained, and enthusiastic students and graduates his way.
He couldn’t have done it without InBN, Lytle says. “With the move to the U.S., we wanted to replicate the success we had working with the Canadian business innovation center, and we found that with the InBN team, especially Lorrie Abounader, InBN’s business development manager,” he says.
“Rel8ed.to’s expansion to the U.S. is a significant milestone in their growth. Their decision to expand to Buffalo Niagara validates our region as a burgeoning technology hub, with the talent, affordability, and support resources that allow companies to succeed and grow,” says Abounader, affirming one of InBN’s main goals.
InBN led to Rel8ed.to becoming part of the Start-Up NY Program. Thanks to InBN and Start-Up NY, Rel8ed.to has found a home on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and hired two new employees—on top of the five in St. Catharines. Start-Up NY provides the company with tax benefits that will increase as it grows.
Lytle points out that tax breaks weren’t the main motivator for his company’s cross-border expansion. “We didn't move to Buffalo because of tax benefits,” he says. “It's nice that they're there. It's a great program, which we’ll continue to use to grow our business. But the real reason we moved here was the relationship with UB and the ability to sell into the U.S. market.”
Rel8ed.to partners with several large firms in the United States that have U.S. government contracts. Rel8ed.to plans to deepen relationships with local colleges and universities to research, access grants, and hire smart talent. Relationships with these institutions are critical to Rel8ed.to’s success. “We’ll continue to partner with universities to do research projects with the range of people who are leading the thinking. This is how we grow,” he says.
Lytle believes that startups who need funding should focus on applying for grants and entering business contests such as 43North, rather than searching for investors. “In our early days we entered as many competitions as we could find,” he says. “Though we didn't secure any funding from those competitions, we got ‘street cred.’ That opens doors that allows you to sell—and by selling things, you're financing yourself.”
Additional advice to founders is to talk about how many new customers they land, rather than how many new employees they hire.
He also prefers to tout the positive developments going on in Western New York, rather than comparing the area to overhyped megacities. “There is a wealth of really smart people and strong capability in Buffalo,” he attests. “We (should) talk about the strengths that we have rather than the stuff we don't have. The quality of life is better...I can't think of a better place to live than an area like this.”