Startups – Communitech News http://news.communitech.ca Tech updates from Waterloo, Canada Mon, 22 Jan 2018 13:00:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.5 The Communitech News podcast is full of stories from the front lines of the Waterloo Region tech sector. Communitech Communitech socialmedia@communitech.ca socialmedia@communitech.ca (Communitech) Right now in Waterloo Region tech Startups – Communitech News https://d3bem67vv0tpdp.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/2017-tannery-shot-square.jpg http://news.communitech.ca/category/news/startups/ Waterloo Region, Ontario Plum: Making diversity happen – by design http://news.communitech.ca/news/plum-making-diversity-happen-by-design/ Fri, 08 Sep 2017 16:02:24 +0000 http://news.communitech.ca/?p=15970 Plum CEO Caitlin MacGregor has heard it all before, that companies are unable to find qualified women and as a result are unable to meet their diversity goals. “Bullshit,” she says. The reason companies can’t find qualified women, MacGregor says, is that they keep making the same mistakes, using the same broken hiring processes and […]

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Plum CEO Caitlin MacGregor has heard it all before, that companies are unable to find qualified women and as a result are unable to meet their diversity goals.

“Bullshit,” she says.

The reason companies can’t find qualified women, MacGregor says, is that they keep making the same mistakes, using the same broken hiring processes and getting the same unwanted outcomes.

“If you are using artificial barriers to [a] job that actually don’t predict success, you’re not helping attract anybody,” says MacGregor.

Plum, she says, has a fix. It’s called “diversity by design.”

Boiled down, it means changing hiring practices. It means removing people and their inherent biases from the early stage of the hiring process, doing away with résumés, and handing the job over to dispassionate machines. Specifically, to Plum and its algorithms.

“Why not let the machine do the work at the top?” says Plum’s new Director of Marketing, Andy Pandya. “How can you afford not to?”

People, Pandya says, hire what they know, and in many cases who they know. Trouble is, those people often aren’t the most qualified. Or diverse.

Plum’s products use intelligent questions that help companies more accurately identify the people they need, matching them with prospective hires on a dispassionate, bias-free basis. The byproduct of a more qualified workforce is also a more diverse workforce.

“[We know that] Michaels get more interview requests than Michelles,” says MacGregor. “And that Michelle gets more than Mohammad.

“[With Plum], it doesn’t matter about the name any more.

“This person whose name I can’t pronounce, who went to a school I don’t know about, who has only worked a few years in this space, [and] who has a 98 [out of a 100] match? You have to say, I want to meet that person.”

The male-centric, bro-culture nature of the larger tech ecosystem has long been lamented. That culture has lately generated alarming tales of sexism and  harassment.

“We can reference Tesla, Uber, or Google, or VC firms who have had their share of troubles in the last couple of quarters,” says Pandya.

Plum’s product, delivered on a SaaS platform, generates a pool of potential hires based on pure ability rather than connections, or the whims of the person doing the interviews, or merely a résumé. Plum has found that time and again, that pool will be more diverse than a pool generated by old-school hiring methods. As a result, MacGregor believes Plum can be the antidote to bro-culture.

“If we want a different outcome, we need to change the way we’ve been [hiring],” says MacGregor.

MacGregor acknowledges that many companies now have policies and training in place to change company culture and ensure more inclusive practices and employee behavior.

Her product, she says, gets better outcomes than training. She tells a story favoured by Harvard behavioural economist Iris Bohnet. It’s a story about saving energy with a hotel key card.

Bohnet says you can train people to turn the lights out in their hotel room, or you can redesign the room user interface so that when people leave their room, they are required to pull their key card out of a slot, turning all the lights in the room off in the process.

“Which one is going to be more effective?,” MacGregor asks rhetorically. “Training, or designing it differently?

“So, in our space, when it comes to HR, you have unconscious bias training. Every company that cares about diversity, that’s the first thing they do.

“But if you look at the research, it’s not effective. It’s a really, really poor [return on investment]. Great intention. Great place. But it’s not effective at creating real change.”

Plum, she says, is in effect the key card.

Plum, founded 5 ½  years ago, was part of Communitech’s Hyperdrive accelerator program back in 2013 (Hyperdrive, since wound down, was the predecessor to the current sales-focused program, called Rev). The company now has 18 full-time employees, is based in Waterloo in offices at Weber Street and Northfield Drive, and is growing, aiming to do a Series A round in the near future. It completed a $2-million seed raise last February; investors included: Thomvest Ventures, BDC, Golden Triangle Angel Network, Angel One, Capital Angels, Keiretsu, and Conconi Growth Partners.

Companies like Nestlé, Frontpoint Security, Timbercreek and Waterloo-headquartered video and communications company Dejero already make use of Plum’s products.

Conventional hiring, MacGregor says, depends on people sending in a résumé, a poor predictor of performance. The person making decisions about who to interview based on résumés alone can’t help but allow their bias to infect the decision-making process.

“Resumes were designed over 100 years ago, when very few people went to post-secondary school. It was a way of sorting people that was fairly effective 100 years ago.

“But in 2017 it is completely outdated.”

Women, she says, often self-select out of applying for jobs.

“If a woman sees a job post and she thinks that she meets only six of the 10 criteria, she’s less likely to apply. Whereas, a man who has three out of 10, is more likely to apply.

“So it makes a tangible difference as to who applies if you have these barriers in place and they aren’t even necessary. We don’t want people to self-select out.

“The goal isn’t to change the system to get more diversity,” says MacGregor. “The goal is to change the system to get the people who are the best matches for the job. By default, when you stop using that résumé to screen, you get a lot more diversity.”

“So what we suggest, is: What is that keycard that you remove when you leave the hotel room equivalent for the HR space.”

“We think it’s Plum.”

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That day when Alert Labs met Canadian Tire – and a partnership was born http://news.communitech.ca/news/that-day-when-alert-labs-met-canadian-tire-and-a-partnership-was-born/ Fri, 01 Sep 2017 12:00:37 +0000 http://news.communitech.ca/?p=15859 Some marriages are made in heaven. Some, like the one between Canadian Tire and Alert Labs, are made at the Tannery. When Canadian Tire opened a lab at Communitech in 2013 – the first in a growing list of enterprise companies to take up residence – it did so knowing it needed to embrace technology, both […]

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Some marriages are made in heaven. Some, like the one between Canadian Tire and Alert Labs, are made at the Tannery.

When Canadian Tire opened a lab at Communitech in 2013 – the first in a growing list of enterprise companies to take up residence – it did so knowing it needed to embrace technology, both as a hedge against disruption and as an agent for change.

It knew that part of the Communitech value prop was that it would be surrounded by nimble startups and ultimately collide with new ideas and fresh thinking.

Enter Alert Labs.

Alert Labs is just such a nimble startup, one that was part of Communitech’s Rev Accelerator program in 2016. Alert Labs makes products that measure water use and detect flooding in a home or business, instantly pushing the data to a user’s smartphone.

Last February, Canadian Tire invited Alert Labs to speak at a lunch for some of its buyers, the idea being to help introduce the buyers to Waterloo Region’s culture of innovation and the larger tech ecosystem.

As the Canadian Tire reps heard what Alert Labs’ products do, it occurred to them that those very products might be a good fit for Canadian Tire store shelves. Sure enough, a few weeks ago, two Canadian Tire stores, one in Burlington and one in Guelph, began stocking Alert Labs’ hardware as a trial project.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity for us,” said Ruth Casselman, Alert Labs co-founder and Vice-President of Operations.

Casselman said that when she and her co-founders, CEO George Tsintzouras and Vice-President of Engineering Kevin Wright, received the lunch invitation from Canadian Tire, the company wasn’t thinking about it much beyond the opportunity to be a good community partner — and the opportunity for a nice meal.

“Realistically, as a small company, trying to get into a [big] company like Canadian Tire is next-to-impossible,” said Casselman, speaking during a recent interview with Communitech News, along with Canadian Tire Innovations Lab Director Jeff Schnurr.

“So we thought we would focus on the positive, and that was the lunch,” she said, with laughter.

“But the conversation went very well. As we left, we thought, well, that’s very cool, and we were happy to have had the chance to meet them, [but] our expectation was that that really was the end of the conversation.”

Far from it. The crew from Canadian Tire liked what they had heard. A lot.

“[Alert Labs’ technology] hits the key notes,” said Schnurr, who has headed up the Canadian Tire lab at Communitech for the past 16 months. “It’s smart home, which is a category we’re interested in; it’s based on monitoring and home protection, which is certainly another important category for us.”

So. Emails followed. Meetings followed. Lo and behold, a traditional big-box retailer is now joined up with nimble startup, each benefiting from the inherent strengths of the other.

“This is exactly how it’s supposed to work,” said Steve Currie, Communitech’s Vice-President of Strategy.

“Our early stage growth companies are looking for easier access to bigger customers and markets to help them scale and expand. Our corporate innovation partners, on the other hand, see connecting with our tech ecosystem as a critical piece of their innovation puzzle that allows them to tap into new and exciting technology and products.

“Bringing together both large and small companies highlights how we can leverage the Waterloo Region ecosystem as a key differentiator for our members.”

Schnurr agrees.

“One of the important outcomes we get from being [at Communitech] is being connected to this wonderful innovation ecosystem and access to the best and brightest companies and people and ideas,” said Schnurr.

“I think the fact that we brought together the buying executives from across the business in one place at one time to talk about how startups and innovation can fuel our business is in itself an exciting thing to have had happen.

“To do it in Waterloo, where we’ve got such a rich ecosystem that we can bring to bear to really make it real [and say] here are companies that we can be working with now, that are ready to go. There’s something special there.”

On its part, Alert Labs, which now has 17 employees and is aiming to grow to 25 by the end of the year, has gained access to a buyer it likely would not otherwise have been able to reach.

“Selling to retail is different than selling online or selling through b-to-b,” said Casselman. “[Canadian Tire has] been very open to working with us about how things can be better and lessons learned. It’s been very valuable for us.

“And being associated with such a great Canadian brand is massively important to us as well.”

Canadian Tire’s Burlington store was particularly receptive to Alert Labs, Casselman said, because the Burlington area was hard hit three years ago by what Casselman calls “once-in-a-generation flooding.

“Within eight hours they had 3,000 homes flooded,” Casselman said.

“Canadian Tire played a significant role in the recovery after the flooding. [Canadian Tire is] where people go when you have an issue with your home and you need to fix something.”

The Guelph store became interested in part through a partnership Alert Labs has with the City of Guelph that aims to help residents reduce their water usage.

“[Canadian Tire’s staff] have been extremely accommodating,” said Casselman. “They’ve allowed us to come in and do some training sessions with their teams. It’s been a very easy relationship.

“If our product can help Canadian Tire move into a new market, that’s great. It’s certainly helping us in a number of ways. From directly understanding the retail process, which is a huge learning, and, as Jeff mentioned, it’s not something that a lot of smaller, growing companies get access to early on.”

There’s a possibility the partnership will expand further. In September, Alert Labs will take part in a trade show that will be attended by representatives from the nearly 500 stores in the Canadian Tire stable. Each store will have the opportunity to hear the Alert Labs’ story and decide if they, too, will stock its products.

Casselman: “That 500 Canadian Tires stores can walk past our product and potentially make a buying decision is simply not an opportunity we would had without this relationship with Communitech.”

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Two firms share $100,000 at Fierce Founders pitch competition http://news.communitech.ca/news/two-firms-share-100000-at-fierce-founders-pitch-competition/ Fri, 25 Aug 2017 01:05:40 +0000 http://news.communitech.ca/?p=15803 You might call it urban meets rural. A pair of companies, one aiming to help city dwellers furnish their spaces and another that helps farmers produce better milk and healthier cows, emerged as joint winners of the $100,000 Fierce Founders pitch competition Thursday. Furnishr.com, a Toronto-based home decorating platform, and SomaDetect, a Fredericton, N.B., maker […]

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You might call it urban meets rural. A pair of companies, one aiming to help city dwellers furnish their spaces and another that helps farmers produce better milk and healthier cows, emerged as joint winners of the $100,000 Fierce Founders pitch competition Thursday.

Furnishr.com, a Toronto-based home decorating platform, and SomaDetect, a Fredericton, N.B., maker of a sensor that measures two important indicators of milk quality and cow health, each earned a cheque for $50,000 and a guaranteed place in this fall’s Fierce Founders Accelerator.

“It feels incredible to be supported by a community of entrepreneurs like Fierce Founders, and to not only take part in a program like this, but to then get to pitch and to be selected as a winner – is a feeling of joy,” said SomaDetect CEO Bethany Deshpande.

“It does feel good,” said Furnishr CTO and co-founder, Karen Lau. “I didn’t think I would win. I thought everybody was really strong so I didn’t think I’d have a chance. I would have been happy no matter who won.

“But it does feel good.”

The pair emerged from a group of nine companies pitching to an audience of 175 at the Crowne Plaza hotel in downtown Kitchener.

Those nine companies, in turn, were the survivors from a cohort of 20 companies that took part in the just-completed Fierce Founders Bootcamp.

The bootcamp is a six-day, Communitech-run program that helps women tech entrepreneurs build their companies. Sponsors include the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), Thomson Reuters, Google Developers, Bereskin & Parr LLP, FedDev Ontario, Scotiabank, Deloitte and Kognitiv.

“Both [winning companies] had really good potential in terms of growth,” said Deloitte’s Zahra Jivan, who served as one of five judges. Deloitte donated the event’s prize money.

Jivan said the strength of the winners’ products and unique proposition of their respective ideas made them stand out.

“I just thought SomaDetect was amazing, to be able to do real-time reporting on the stats on the antibiotics in the milk – that really was something.

“With Furnishr, it was [a case of me wanting] to use that service.

“Both presenters were amazing.”

Other judges included Michelle McBane of MaRS; Joseph Fung of Kiite Inc.; Nicole LeBlanc of BDC; and Lisa Rowsell of Thomson Reuters.

Their task wasn’t easy. All nine of the companies offered compelling products and delivered strong pitches.

“I’m so glad I’m not a judge,” said Seema Esteves, the Fierce Founders Senior Program Manager.

“The transformation from Day 1 [of the program] to today is as night is to day. They surpassed all our expectations.

“I am so proud of all of them.”

Other companies that made pitches included:

StayBillety, a Cambridge-based online accommodation service connecting like-minded guests and hosts; QuantWave, a Kitchener-based firm that helps drinking water suppliers and food and beverage manufacturers with pathogen and contaminant detection; SWTCH, a Toronto-based startup that upgrades and monetizes chargers for electric vehicles; Tricolops, a Kitchener company that makes hardware that quickly and accurately scans an object and measure its dimensions and weight, providing e-commerce companies with shipping solutions; ShuffleSpace, a Toronto-based storage solution company; RockMass, a Kingston company that makes a handheld data collection tool for geologists; and Healthypets.io, a SaaS platform which connects pet owners with veterinarians for online advice about the health of their pets.

Fierce Founders exists to help women entrepreneurs gain traction. The boot camp exists in concert with the Fierce Founders Accelerator, a six-month program that will welcome a new cohort on Oct. 16 (applications are being accepted until Aug. 27).

Deshpande said the bootcamp made her company stronger and she’s looking forward to the accelerator.

“I think that Fierce Founders is about more than individual workshops. Fierce Founders is about creating a community of practice for women entrepreneurs. I think it’s something that is done very thoughtfully and very effectively by the program creators.”

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Fire-plagued BC breathes easier thanks to Waterloo Region startup http://news.communitech.ca/news/fire-plagued-bc-breathes-easier-thanks-to-waterloo-region-startup/ Thu, 10 Aug 2017 21:27:18 +0000 http://news.communitech.ca/?p=15745 Rich Szasz was all set to execute a soft launch of his company’s air filtration masks this month in China. Two and half years of work had gone into the Kitchener startup’s masks, which it hoped to sell to customers worried about air pollution in the Asian country and other parts of that region. Then […]

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Rich Szasz was all set to execute a soft launch of his company’s air filtration masks this month in China.

Two and half years of work had gone into the Kitchener startup’s masks, which it hoped to sell to customers worried about air pollution in the Asian country and other parts of that region.

Then wild fires erupted in the B.C. interior.

As residents scrambled from their homes and a massive evacuation unfolded, Szasz and his partner Peter Whitby, co-founders of O2 Canada, realized they were in a great position to help.

In mid-July Szasz hopped on a plane to China where he visited the company’s manufacturing facility. There he arranged to speed up the production and packaging of the masks so they could be shipped as soon as possible to the western province.

The first 250 masks arrived last week. O2 is distributing them for free to Salvation Army workers, front-line staff, helicopter pilots and residents with breathing problems in the areas of Kelowna, Kamloops and Cache Creek.

A further 1,000 masks arrived this week. O2 can’t afford to give away those masks but is hoping to distribute as many as possible free of charge using a crowd-funding campaign on Go Fund Me.

It’s all been a bit of whirlwind for Szasz who flew home after two and half weeks in China, then got on another plane to B.C. two days later. He spent the long weekend in the fire zone making sure the masks were distributed properly.

“We thought, what an amazing opportunity to help people at home,” he said in a phone interview.

The reaction of the people in B.C. has been incredible, he said.

“Everybody who put a mask on, there was just a big sigh of relief. One lady has been wearing one ever since. She said it changed her world.”

O2’s masks are more effective than a typical air filtration device because they have a tighter seal made of high-end silicone, Szasz explained. It hugs the face so all the air is forced through the filter.

In addition, the mask contains an electrostatic charge, which is highly effective in purifying the air, he noted.

The mask was designed and built with the help of engineers at SnapPea Design, a Waterloo company made up of former engineers at BlackBerry, Szasz said. It went through extensive testing at the air pollution research innovation lab at the University of Waterloo.

Even then, the company kept tweaking and improving the device.

“We’re on iteration number 20,” he said.

Making air filtration masks was not something Szasz and Whitby set out to do when they started their working careers.

Szasz launched his career in the property-management business in Waterloo Region. As part of that job, he began importing furniture from China. When he decided to visit the factory in China where the furniture was being made, Whitby begged him to take him along.

While there, the two were stunned by the terrible air quality. Szasz had worn a lot of masks in the construction business. He felt they were poorly made. He also considered himself an entrepreneur.

Say hello to O2 Canada.

At the moment the company is a lean operation with just Szasz and Whitby on the payroll. O2 is run out of an office on Gaukel Street in Kitchener.

Szasz is flying out to Kelowna on Friday to ensure the latest shipment of O2 masks gets into the right hands.

The company was able to expedite the shipments from China by putting them in bags instead of boxes, he said.

“We did a creative switch on the packaging.”

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Emmetros: Where everyone, including employees, feel the love http://news.communitech.ca/columns/emmetros-where-everyone-including-employees-feel-the-love/ Fri, 04 Aug 2017 14:33:59 +0000 http://news.communitech.ca/?p=15707 “We build respect for boundaries into our agreements [with our employees] and we stick to them. Foosball tables can’t compare with being able to go to your daughter’s horseback riding lesson after work.” – Mary Pat Hinton, CEO and co-founder of Emmetros, in The Waterloo Region Record, May 18, 2017. Most of us are reminded daily […]

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“We build respect for boundaries into our agreements [with our employees] and we stick to them. Foosball tables can’t compare with being able to go to your daughter’s horseback riding lesson after work.” – Mary Pat Hinton, CEO and co-founder of Emmetros, in The Waterloo Region Record, May 18, 2017.

Most of us are reminded daily of the anxiety affiliated with juggling the competing demands of work and personal life. Compromise one or the other  – will work pay the price today or will family? – and we hemorrhage worry and guilt. We’ve all been there.

And so you’ll understand the tears of gratitude that welled up in Tanya McPherson’s eyes recently as she talked about her current employer, Emmetros. When McPherson was hired, Emmetros helped her custom-design a short work week that suited her family needs; it enshrined her work week in a written contract and continues to make iron-clad certain that the contract gets respected.

“It changed my life,” says McPherson, Chief Operating Officer at Emmetros, a three-year-old Waterloo Region startup that makes a software platform designed to help people suffering from dementia better manage their lives.

Companies that commit to work-life balance are hardly unique. Many forward-thinking firms have an informal, or perhaps even a formal, policy of give and take with their people, recognizing that everyone needs time to address personal issues.

What’s different about Emmetros is that its leadership believes it has a deliberate, even moral, responsibility to the people it hires – a responsibility to be sincere, to listen, to take an interest in the lives of its people and to make sure the interplay of home and work life is in a rough approximation of balance. The 70-hour work week? At Emmetros, it’s just not on.

“It’s not rocket science,” says CEO and co-founder Mary Pat Hinton. “You’re always going to have potential investors who want to hear that you’re going to sleep under your desk and be the first to market.

“We just don’t buy it.

“If we can’t succeed this way, we don’t succeed. Full stop. We’ll figure it out. It’s a solvable problem.”

So, what’s that look like in real life? It means that the company’s projects are tailored to work around the agreements made with its people, not the other way around. It means the company encourages employees, and management, to walk their dog, spend time with their girlfriend, take a university course – whatever they need to do in order to be – God forbid – happy.

“We’re really committed to it,” said Hinton.

In McPherson’s case, that means she works four days a week and spends Fridays at home. Salaries are negotiated and adjusted accordingly.

And if there is a cost to be absorbed because project timelines have to be adjusted outward in order to accommodate employees, so be it. Hinton is convinced that in the long and short term, the company reaps a net benefit when its employees are happy.

Take talent, for instance. At Emmetros, prospective employees have a habit of showing up at the door the way people who’ve been walking in a desert show up at an oasis.

“We have zero issue with recruiting,” Hinton says. “Talent comes to us. So, where you’re hearing that people are starved for talent and are finding [talent] challenging, we do not have that issue.”

Employee retention? Same deal. At Emmetros, people stay.

Making good on making employees happy, Hinton says, begins with listening to them. She tells the story of hiring her team’s first full-time developer, Mingyao Liu. Liu had the opportunity to work for another “very successful company.

“I spent an hour getting to know him, and I asked what he liked to do on the weekends,” says Hinton. “He loves fishing. I sent him a map of all the places to fish in the Grand River [area], and where to park. And I know that’s why he took the job.”

Sometimes there’s slippage. Sometimes the competitive urge to finish a project or achieve a company goal means staff stray past the boundaries of their contracts.

“We’re all hard workers, we all want to see the company succeed,” says McPherson. “We all get caught up in the excitement of building this company. It’s really easy to stray away from those values.”

So team members look out for one another and remind each other that it’s important not to stray.

“One of the things that works well is we support each other in knowing that all of us are committed to this approach, so we help to support each other to make sure we’re sticking to it,” says Chief Experience Officer Jennifer Krul.

Krul says every employee’s work arrangement is unique. In her case, one morning a week is spent in London working on a master’s degree.

“Playing video games at work means nothing to me,” says Krul.

“What matters to me is that I work hard when I’m at work and when I leave the building I go home and spend time with my kids.

“For someone to listen to that and understand what I’m looking for at work, and offer me the opportunity to still be a senior leader in the organization, have a family and be there for my kids, means more to me than I can really say.”

Emmetros is still a relatively young company. Its main product, MemorySparx, is a customizable, mobile  device-based memory aid that rolled out in May. It helps people with dementia keep track of appointments, daily activities, health and drug information and the people in their lives. The company has seven full-time employees and “a handful” of part-timers.

Hinton says that the way the company treats its people is a seamless extension of the way it handles its product development – that is, listening to the needs of its users and, frankly, caring about them.

“When you work with people with dementia, this is the end of their life,” says Hinton. [You hear] what’s important to them, you get a really good sense of people’s priorities. At the end, what do you wish you had done differently? What do you wish you had done more of?

“People say: “I wish I had worked less. I wish I spent more time with the people I love.’ So we listen to them.

“We just listen to people and then just do it.”

Hinton, Krul and McPherson are all former BlackBerry employees. Hinton says weathering the downsizing of BlackBerry served as something of a training ground in terms of looking after people.

“I think the years of working at BlackBerry, and leading teams, we honed those skills there,” she says.

“Imagine going through all the tumult and change and managing people when they are so anxious. All these young people had bought their first houses, they’re getting married, they’re having kids and they’re getting nervous about what’s going to happen in the future.

“You learn how to care for your team in that environment and help them through those really difficult changes. I think that really set us up to know how to support people.”

Hinton acknowledges that continuing to tailor individual employee contracts might prove too difficult as the company grows.

“So, of course, there’s [a] question: Is this scalable if you increased to 15,000 employees? Well, we’ll see.”

In the meantime, Emmetros will navigate according to a line currently firmly drawn on its chart.

“I’m the founder and the CEO,” says Hinton, “but i’m also an investor.

“[As an investor], you’re always looking for proof points along the way. Are you on the right path? Should you keep going? Should you pack it in?

“This idea of doing good work, with good people, creating a product that is of good quality that will help people … really, just talking about how we work, and what we do, somehow stands out.

“We wake up every day with good surprises in our inbox. It does make you feel like you’re onto something.”

 

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AI and data the focus of Google for Entrepreneurs Exchange program http://news.communitech.ca/news/ai-and-data-the-focus-of-google-for-entrepreneurs-exchange-program/ Fri, 23 Jun 2017 21:58:23 +0000 http://news.communitech.ca/?p=15465 Google for Entrepreneurs (GFE) has been running its Exchange program at Communitech for seven AI and data driven startups from Australia, Canada, the U.S. and Brazil this week, and I just didn’t get it. I didn’t get GFE at all, even though Communitech has been a part of the program since 2013. It seemed to […]

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Google for Entrepreneurs (GFE) has been running its Exchange program at Communitech for seven AI and data driven startups from Australia, Canada, the U.S. and Brazil this week, and I just didn’t get it. I didn’t get GFE at all, even though Communitech has been a part of the program since 2013. It seemed to offer an incredible amount of value to everyone involved but Google. GFE’s mission is to “bring together startup communities and create spaces for entrepreneurs to learn and work.”

Genna McKeel, Partnerships Manager at GFE, explained that “our metrics as a team are jobs created and funding raised.” McKeel said GFE’s goal was to help startups “scale, hire more people, meet investors, raise funds and connect with industry experts and customers in different markets.”

But why would Google, a massive Internet company with one of the most recognizable brands on the planet, want to do that?

The Velocity Garage (Communitech Photo: Harminder Phull)

The Velocity Garage (Communitech Photo: Harminder Phull)

First, it seems really expensive. Google has physical campuses across the globe where people can work, and it provides financial assistance to communities like the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor that have existing infrastructure for startups. It recently announced a significant investment in Geoffrey Hinton’s AI team in Toronto, for example. I thought maybe Google wanted customers for its cloud business tools, but companies who qualify get $100,000 in credits for those as well.

It seemed so warm and fuzzy. I kept reading and hearing about how Larry Page and Sergey Brin were a garage startup once upon a time and passionately believed in entrepreneurship. Fair enough, but GFE is a large, global organization with a team running week-long immersion programs like this week’s at Communitech, enabling all kinds of entrepreneurship in tech. This represents a significant investment of resources. What’s the hope of a return?

Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (Communitech Photo: Harminder Phull)

Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (Communitech Photo: Harminder Phull)

It finally clicked for me when Kory Jeffrey, a Googler with deep roots in Waterloo Region, explained how Google sees the success of the Internet itself as a part of its business.

“Google is an Internet company in the most general sense of the term,” Jeffrey said. “The success of others leads to the proliferation of our own success. Floats all boats. Any time that tech companies are successful, we’re heavily invested in the Internet economy so that makes us successful in indirect and direct ways. It’s an investment.”

He gave the example of a shopping app. Incubating and mentoring a small startup company while it builds a shopping app doesn’t help Google directly, but if it goes on to become a large company that adds value to the Internet economy, that’s good for Google. If it’s incubated through the GFE program, it’s likely to make an awesome experience on Android as well. If you’re trying to make the world more technologically friendly, Google wants to help you.

The Communitech Data Hub (Communitech Photo: Harminder Phull)

The Communitech Data Hub (Communitech Photo: Harminder Phull)

Jeffrey also emphasized that the warm and fuzzies are no joke. He said that in the early days of Google “the company was successful based on a lot of mentorship they got in the Bay Area” because the Bay Area “is much like Waterloo in that you can get people’s time without paying for it.” Paying that gift forward really is part of Google’s ethos, he said, and is part of the explanation for the zeal Google has in approaching the GFE program. It shouldn’t be so surprising, since many Waterloo Region founders have the same ethos about fostering innovation and giving back to the communities that supported them.

The reason for the focus of the Communitech cohort of the GFE Exchange Program — AI, machine learning and data science — has more to do with the strengths of the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor than anything. Part of the GFE exchange was an ecosystem tour of some of Waterloo Region’s facilities with strengths in those areas: the University of Waterloo Quantum-Nano Centre, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, Catalyst 137, the Communitech Hub and Data Hub, the Accelerator Centre and Velocity. The group also toured companies like Vidyard, Alert Labs, Shopify Plus and of course Google’s local office.

The Communitech Hub (Communitech Photo: Harminder Phull)

The Communitech Hub (Communitech Photo: Harminder Phull)

Part of what made this GFE Exchange cohort unique was that at Google’s Waterloo Region office, companies were paired with Google engineers for continued mentorship and support for the first time in the program’s history. It’s another example of the spirit of free collaboration that the Bay Area and Waterloo Region have in common.

When asked for a highlight from the week, McKeel points to a very Canadian trait: the frankness and openness of the discussion and advice.

“We talked with (James Slifierz) the CEO of SkyWatch, really talking about fundraising, lessons learned on how they’ve pivoted their company,” said McKeel. “We went to NetSuite and got insights into founder problems and how you resolve those, working with boards of directors and best practices… Really, the community has been so open with these entrepreneurs about their journey, so it’s exciting to have that takeaway.”

The Velocity Garage (Communitech Photo: Harminder Phull)

The Velocity Garage (Communitech Photo: Harminder Phull)

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Young Waterloo entrepreneur lands Thiel Fellowship http://news.communitech.ca/news/young-waterloo-entrepreneur-lands-thiel-fellowship/ Fri, 16 Jun 2017 20:43:34 +0000 http://news.communitech.ca/?p=15401 A biotech startup entrepreneur who studied at the University of Waterloo and took part in Communitech’s Fierce Founders Bootcamp has landed a prestigious Thiel Fellowship for 2017. Laura Vaughan is co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer at Acorn Cryotech, a UW Velocity company that cryo-preserves clients’ stem cells for potential therapeutic use in the future. The […]

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A biotech startup entrepreneur who studied at the University of Waterloo and took part in Communitech’s Fierce Founders Bootcamp has landed a prestigious Thiel Fellowship for 2017.

Laura Vaughan is co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer at Acorn Cryotech, a UW Velocity company that cryo-preserves clients’ stem cells for potential therapeutic use in the future.

The Thiel Fellowship lasts two years and provides US$100,000, along with high-level mentorship, to young entrepreneurs who are encouraged to leave their studies to build their companies. It is funded by the Thiel Foundation and was launched in 2011 by San Francisco-based billionaire entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel.

Vaughan is among a select group of 25 recipients of the fellowship this year, which routinely attracts thousands of applications from around the world. This is the third consecutive year that a Waterloo student has been named a Thiel Fellow (previous local recipients were Alex Rodrigues and Panashe Mahachi in 2016 and Harry Gandhi and Liam Horne in 2015).

A year ago, Acorn Cryotech was selected to participate in Communitech’s Fierce Founders Bootcamp for female-led startups.

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The Funder’s Side: Tips for founders on choosing an advisory board http://news.communitech.ca/columns/the-funders-side-tips-for-founders-on-choosing-an-advisory-board/ Fri, 16 Jun 2017 11:30:52 +0000 http://news.communitech.ca/?p=15386 Choosing and managing an advisory board can be one of the most rewarding activities for a founder when growing their company – but it requires careful handling to do it right. As an angel for GTAN, I’ve been asked to serve on advisory boards for many different types of founders and companies, and I’ve learned […]

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Choosing and managing an advisory board can be one of the most rewarding activities for a founder when growing their company – but it requires careful handling to do it right. As an angel for GTAN, I’ve been asked to serve on advisory boards for many different types of founders and companies, and I’ve learned some valuable lessons about what makes a founder-advisor relationship productive. For founders looking to build an outstanding advisory board, here are some best practices:

Understand the purpose of advisory boards

Many founders fail to understand the function and workings of advisory boards, and it’s important to realize that normally, members of advisory boards for emerging companies are intended to be temporary. Typically, an advisory board will join a founder to provide advice and assistance over a period of 12-24 months, to help the company solve a specific issue or navigate a particular phase of growth.

Your advisory board should be there to help you and your company succeed, and when the agreed-upon term of service comes to an end, your organization should be able to carry on successfully. When you approach someone to serve on your advisory board, be as specific as you can about the time commitment you’re seeking.

Build relationships with prospective board members

Many founders make the mistake of asking people to serve on advisory boards before really getting to know them. The person you’re approaching to serve on your advisory board should never be a stranger to you. If you’re aware of someone within the industry or investing community that has valuable experience, take the time to form a relationship with them before formally asking them to be on your advisory board.

In the process of getting to know your potential advisor, pay attention to how passionate they are about your cause and your company. Your advisory board will be more dedicated to your company’s success if its members care about what your organization is trying to achieve, so choose advisors who believe in you and your cause. There are no shortcuts around this process – you must get to know them first.

Give and take: what you’re offering, what you’re receiving

In the Region of Waterloo, founders are usually not expected to pay their advisory board. Having said that, when the company does succeed, it is usually nice to find a way to share that success with the advisors who helped you get there. When you ask someone to serve on your board, it’s important to understand that they stand to gain something out of the advisory relationship as well. For many advisors, it’s important to them to feel that they are leaving a legacy and passing on their hard-earned experience with founders who can use it, and this sense of satisfaction can also be a powerful motivator for advisors.  

When you create your advisory board, you should set a quarterly or monthly meeting schedule with them. Having a meeting schedule that your board follows will benefit both you and your board members. For you as a founder, meeting with your board regularly will instill a sense of discipline in you and provide you with regular, reliable advice from people who have more experience than you, and want to help you avoid repeating the mistakes they made. Knowing you have a dedicated advisory board will also encourage you to think more strategically about your business as you ask for advice.

While it may seem that advisors aren’t getting much out of the deal if they’re not being paid, remember that holding regular meetings provides them with the valuable opportunity to regularly socialize and network with the other board members, many of whom will likely be in similar industries.

Photo: Advice Key by GotCredit is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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eleven-x expands IoT network to cities across Canada http://news.communitech.ca/news/eleven-x-expands-iot-network-to-cities-across-canada/ Wed, 14 Jun 2017 18:35:29 +0000 http://news.communitech.ca/?p=15374 Six months after launching its purpose-built Internet of Things network in southwestern Ontario, Waterloo-based eleven-x has announced a major cross-Canada expansion, setting the table for growth in smart-cities initiatives and industrial IoT applications. The company, founded by former BlackBerry employees with deep expertise in wireless technology, can now lay claim to Canada’s first and only […]

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Six months after launching its purpose-built Internet of Things network in southwestern Ontario, Waterloo-based eleven-x has announced a major cross-Canada expansion, setting the table for growth in smart-cities initiatives and industrial IoT applications.

The company, founded by former BlackBerry employees with deep expertise in wireless technology, can now lay claim to Canada’s first and only coast-to-coast network built specifically for IoT communications.

In practical terms, this means remote devices connected to the eleven-x network can operate far more efficiently, consuming less battery power and at lower cost than those connected to traditional cellular networks built for voice and data.

Last December, eleven-x launched its network in and around Waterloo Region. With today’s expansion announcement, the company has extended connectivity to Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax, Toronto and Greater Toronto Area cities including Mississauga, Brampton, Oakville and Burlington, and now reaches more than 60 per cent of Canada’s population. Further Canadian expansion is planned for this year, the company said.

The expansion comes as cities ramp up their use of low-energy, battery-powered devices to automate municipal systems – such as street lighting, water monitoring and vehicle tracking – and industries tap into IoT to increase productivity and save money.

“The timing of this expansion couldn’t be better, enabling the rapidly growing Canadian IoT market,” said Nigel Wallis, Vice-President of IoT and Industry Research at International Data Corporation (IDC), an agency that monitors IT and telecom market trends. “This network expansion by eleven-x can serve as a catalyst for innovation across the country for both public and private sector organizations.”

IDC has predicted the global IoT market to be worth US$1.7 trillion by 2020, with an estimated 30 billion connected devices in use.

For eleven-x, which employs close to 25 people out of its office at Waterloo’s Accelerator Centre, expansion of the network will mean growth for the company. It will be hiring software developers specializing in back-end and embedded systems, along with business development and product-related talent, company spokesman Mark Hall said.

Photo: Global Rainbow (2014) by Saku Takakusaki is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

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Communitech @20: When Bridgit cold-called the Hub, great things ensued http://news.communitech.ca/news/communitech/communitech-20-when-bridgit-cold-called-the-hub-great-things-ensued/ Mon, 12 Jun 2017 11:30:03 +0000 http://news.communitech.ca/?p=15351 When you show up at someone’s door unannounced, you can’t always be guaranteed a heartfelt welcome. But Mallorie Brodie and Lauren Lake were so sure Communitech would be the home base from which to grow Bridgit, their construction efficiency business, that the tech hub was their first stop when they moved to Waterloo Region in […]

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communitech @20 boxWhen you show up at someone’s door unannounced, you can’t always be guaranteed a heartfelt welcome. But Mallorie Brodie and Lauren Lake were so sure Communitech would be the home base from which to grow Bridgit, their construction efficiency business, that the tech hub was their first stop when they moved to Waterloo Region in fall of 2013, knowing barely a soul in the community.

“We basically just showed up on their doorstep,” says Brodie, Bridgit’s CEO.

It was one of the better cold calls in the history of Communitech: Since leaving the Hub, Bridgit has boasted 13x revenue growth, landed a clutch of international innovation awards, a CAD$2.2-million seed investment and more than 150 customers across the United States and Canada paying between $1,000 and $3,000 a month for their product (this year, construction giant Lendlease is using Bridgit’s services to manage the renovation of more than 2,400 KFC restaurants across the U.S.).

They’ve also secured a strong reputation as disruptors of the construction business – their technology making a foreman’s job a breeze and revolutionizing the way information is shared in an industry that’s still more clipboards than coding.

Of course, Lake and Brodie were welcomed with open arms at a time when Communitech was helping to cultivate a growing roster of startups. Bridgit was different from other fledgling companies – while many were taking the “build it and they will come” approach, they’d done the market research to validate their product before a line of code was written. The two women filled out a Communitech application, registered their company and were given desk space in the Hub.

“We felt like we were in the lap of luxury,” Brodie says, and they loved showing co-op students around the buzzing space.

But Brodie and her co-founder Lake were also relative lone wolves – both from the University of Western Ontario, Ottawa-born Brodie studied business and Lake, who hails from Stratford, Ont., a graduate of the structural engineering program. Both had grandparents in the construction industry. And both knew that the industry, which had long relied on hard-copy paper trails to track progress on a project, could benefit from technology.   

Bridgit_Founders_App

Bridgit co-founders Mallorie Brodie (left) and Lauren Lake are making inroads in the construction industry with software to better manage on-site tasks. (Photo courtesy of Bridgit)

From the moment they stepped foot in the Tannery building, Lake and Brodie knew where they wanted to be next: in the Velocity Garage, the largest free tech entrepreneurship incubator in the world, powered by the University of Waterloo.

Thalmic Labs CEO Stephen Lake, a fellow alumnus of Next 36, a startup mentoring program where the pair met and got their first startup capital, spoke glowingly of the Velocity lab to Brodie and Lake (whom he later married). They loved the idea of growing a business in an environment buzzing with entrepreneurial spirit.

“He sold it as a place we couldn’t miss out on,” Lake says.

They breezed through the interview process before encountering one small hitch: the Bridgit founders weren’t University of Waterloo students or graduates, a requirement for entry into the Velocity program at the time (it is now available to all).

“It was not that fun. We were kind of homeless without Velocity,” Lake says. “That program was the way to meet other people and become part of the community.”

“[There was] a whole lot of begging, basically.” – Mallorie Brodie

They tried everything: offered to take part-time classes, even give a 10-per-cent share of their company to a Waterloo student. “[There was] a whole lot of begging, basically,” Brodie says.

After working from Brodie’s basement apartment for the better part of a year, the pair had a stroke of luck befitting the Bridgit brand: Velocity promised them some space in a new area of the Tannery building, but construction delays meant they’d get to work in the actual lab while they waited.

“That was a big win for us,” Brodie says.

bridgit g4e trophy

Bridgit co-founders Lauren Lake (centre) and Mallorie Brodie (right) took top prize at a Google for Entrepreneurs Demo Day in California in 2015. (Photo: YouTube)

Before long, they were immersed in the highly competitive, information-sharing world of their dreams. It lit a fire in the Bridgit bosses. “It’s just that environment where you’re working with 30 other companies in the same room and you’re all sharing information and you’re all at the same stage,” she says. “So if one company had $5,000 of revenue that month, it’s like ‘OK, we should be doing the same things too.’”

They also set about shaping the culture: Once there, Brodie and Lake implemented a sales competition, bringing a little more entrepreneurial verve to an engineering-focused scene. They even brought in a bell – “just one of those silly silver bells you hit if you’re waiting for someone to take your order,” Brodie says – and rang it every time they made a sale. Within a month, bells started popping up on other desks around them, and the “cha-ching” of new revenue rang throughout the space.

After getting some solid financial traction, Brodie and Lake migrated to the Communitech Rev program. The six-month program, designed to help startups scale into full-fledged money-making ventures, appealed to Bridgit: They needed to grow their sales team.

Towards the end of their time at Rev, that little bell started to chime more often. It was soon joined by a gong the pair bought on Amazon, meant to celebrate the larger deals. Struck for the first time in 2015, after one of their sales associates scored a deal with high-rise giant Brookfield Multiplex in downtown Toronto, its reverberations signalled an important moment for Bridgit, Brodie says.

“I think moreso than the actual deal size, it validated that everything we were doing to improve the product was actually working,” she says. That’s huge for a startup – and the Communitech environment made it possible.

“Communitech creates a level of comfort and security to operate within, and I think that’s really important when you’re starting a company . . .” – Mallorie Brodie

“Communitech creates a level of comfort and security to operate within, and I think that’s really important when you’re starting a company and everything feels like it can change at any moment and every day is different,” says Brodie. “You feel like you have this place you can go to and you have other companies going through the same challenges and successes as you, and that relieves a lot of stress.”

Adds Lake, “They’re the village behind your idea.” Its network of experts and its influence in the political space and on the global stage, Lake says, keeps companies like theirs invested in the Waterloo Region tech community.

Last year, Bridgit moved into an office of their own, their company of 30 having outgrown the Tannery. Rather than mourn the loss, Communitech celebrated. “I think they’re really happy and proud to see companies outgrow their space,” Brodie says. All their Communitech friends attended Bridgit’s office warming. And while Bridgit has a growing presence in the U.S. (and has managed to draw top-tier Canadian talent back from Silicon Valley), they’ve stayed in Waterloo Region, in the “startup Mecca” Brodie attributes to Communitech.

“They make everything simple. I think that’s the best thing they can do and it absolutely is what they deliver on.”

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