Meet Our Year Four $500,000 Winner: Suncayr

Suncayr’s product, SPOT, is a smart indicator of UV light to help everyone be safer in the sun. SPOT shows sunscreen users when their sunscreen is protecting them and when it is no longer protecting them using a simple color change.

Hometown: Kitchener, Ontario, Canada


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Q&A With Andrew Martinko, Co-Founder & CEO

How did your team meet each other?

We were friends since our first year of university in 2010. We worked on projects together, hung out after class, and have worked on Suncayr for more than three years now.

Finish this sentence: I’ll know my company has succeeded when…

…children have improved their sun protection behavior so they become true habits, like brushing their teeth twice a day.

Describe your team in 3 words.

Cohesive. Dedicated. Fun.

The startup life can be a real grind. What do you and your team members do to blow off some steam or during downtime?

We love to play board games. Our current favourites are Agricola (a landmark game where you use ‘workers’ to take actions and build up your farm) and Game of Thrones: The Board Game (a more advanced ‘Risk’, where you use diplomacy and negotiation with other players to attempt to control the most territory).

What’s the biggest reward from running your startup?

Being able to see real results every day from what we are working on. Having such a direct impact in moving the company forward.

What problem is your startup solving?

Overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun causes damage to your skin, such as skin aging (ex: wrinkles), sunburns, and even skin cancer. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of these effects, and see sunscreen as a powerful, proactive method of reducing their overexposure to UV light. However, sunscreen is difficult to use effectively because it is impossible to know when it has worn off. Sunscreen users still end up with a sunburn because they do not apply enough sunscreen initially, and they do not reapply their sunscreen in time. Skin cancer is now the most common form of cancer in the world. One bad sunburn as a child doubles risk for malignant melanoma later in life.

How can working in the Buffalo startup ecosystem help your startup thrive?

We will be able to work closely with other companies who are in a similar stage as us, helping push each other forward. USA is the largest addressable market that Suncayr hopes to target first, so having our headquarters in Buffalo will help us more easily target this market. Specifically, we can leverage the experiences of science and consumer product companies who have gone through 43North in the past to learn how they targeted the Buffalo and USA market (especially since they all relocated as well).

Finally, Buffalo is close to the Canadian border, which allows us to stay in touch with our current partnerships in Toronto (particularly [email protected], run by Johnson & Johnson, who we have high potential to partner with). Many major sunscreen brands are based in the Northeast: Neutrogena and Coppertone have headquarters in New Jersey, Nivea and Banana Boat are based in Connecticut, and L’Oreal is in New York. Buffalo gives us close access to all these key partners!

Did you have an entrepreneurial side at a young age? Explain.

I greatly enjoyed making up games/stories and forcing my sisters/parents to play along!

What’s something you wish you knew about being an entrepreneur when you were still in high school?

The opportunities and support that exists, especially for students. Getting started is easy, and you can learn a lot from just starting.

Describe a time when you failed – how did you respond or come back from it?

One of our earliest failures was not properly listening to our customers. We spent almost a year pursuing a technology form factor that our customers didn’t actually want.

We believed (based on our earlier interviews) that a marker product (ink) form factor was the favourite form for our product. However, we weren’t understanding the concerns our customers were bringing up. The parents we talked to told us they liked the marker idea the best (better than say, a sticker), but they asked questions afterwards, which indicated that they actually wanted something else (the sticker). Such questions were: How do I know there is enough ink there? How do I know the ink is still there? How much do I apply? Is the ink safe for my skin?

These questions are all answered by the sticker: a sticker is a familiar form factor that is very easy to use and understand. It is the same thing each time, so you always know you put enough on (same size) and that it’s still there (you can see it). Despite this, parents still said they wanted the marker instead of the sticker (likely because it seemed like a ‘cooler’ idea). We stopped listening to what they thought they wanted and instead listened to the questions they were asking, which showed what they truly wanted.

We switched to developing the sticker technology (which required new developments) in October 2015 and have made great progress since. But we could have made progress faster if we had listened to our customers sooner.

This has helped us better understand how we need to listen to customers, and provides a good grounding point for whenever we are moving forward on a major assumption without testing it. Looking back on the time we spent is a good way for us to remember to properly test assumptions.

Explain your startup as if you were explaining to a kindergartener.

Short: Our product SPOT will help you not get a sunburn.

Long: If you stay outside in the sun too long, you’ll get a sunburn, which really hurts! Sunburn is caused by invisible light from the sun. Trust me, it’s there; it is what turns your skin red. Your parents put sunblock on you to prevent that from happening. Sunblock blocks that invisible light. But your sunblock does not last forever, and after it’s rubbed in you don’t know when it is no longer there. SPOT will help you use your sunblock better so you will not get a sunburn.

What’s your why? (Why did you create this company?)

I (and my co-founders) have a family history of skin cancer. My aunt and grandmother are thankfully okay, but I want to do something to help prevent a very preventable issue.

If you could go back in time and talk to yourself at the beginning stages of your company, what advice would you give yourself?

Listen to your customers better (what they are saying behind the words).

Is this your first startup?

Yes. The startup bug bit me when I worked as an R&D intern for 8 months in 2012 at a startup in Indiana. We made inorganic nanomaterials for researchers.

What was the moment when you thought to yourself, “This (idea/company) could actually work?”

When we realized that we had value to both our customers (brand partners where we can print designs on SPOT) and our end-user (the parents who we are helping protect their families).

If you could perform live on stage with one singer or band, who would it be? Why?

Between the Buried and Me is, in my opinion, the most interesting and talented metal band that ever is or was. I would love to play piano during their songs, since I think it would fit well.

What can’t you live without?

Music (I am very picky: I like progressive metal, classical, and contemporary classical/orchestra) and reading fantasy and science fiction novels.

Name a few items on your personal bucket list.

Visit every continent. Create a computer game. Transcribe my favourite metal songs/albums to piano melodies.

What are you most proud of this far in your life? (It doesn’t have to be business related.)

Becoming a much more social and confident person, and becoming much better at public speaking. My time at Suncayr has allowed me to grow in these areas where I used to really struggle and feel nervous.

Who are your heroes?

Frank Herbert (wrote “Dune”). Carl Sagan.


Learn about Suncayr’s plans to make sun protection easier and more fun in their 43North Finals pitch