Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau at Vidyard in Kitchener

Photo: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in conversation with Vidyard CEO Michael Litt (Communitech photo: Phil Froklage)

Softwood, software and selling Canada abroad

A month after his government’s budget won praise from Canada’s tech community, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Waterloo Region to reiterate his commitment to supporting this country’s innovators in taking on the world. In a free-wheeling chat at Vidyard with CEO Michael Litt, Trudeau vowed to back Canadian business abroad “whether it’s softwood or software,” a reference to the recent wave of protectionist talk coming from south of the border. Citing the interconnectedness of the Canadian and American economies, Trudeau also vowed to support returning expats and immigrant entrepreneurs who choose to build tech companies in Canada.

The PM’s local appearance followed by one day a visit from Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, who said Canada will stay on course in its efforts to attract skilled tech talent from other countries. And, on the same day as the Trudeau visit, Governor General David Johnston visited Communitech to discuss his new book, co-authored with OpenText Chair Tom Jenkins, about Canada’s long history of innovation.

In its latest budget, the Ontario government also announced significant investments in innovation, including, among other measures, $50 million for artificial intelligence, $130 million for 5G wireless technology, $20 million for quantum computing, $75 million for advanced computing and $80 million for autonomous vehicle technology.

While all of these efforts were aimed at raising Canada’s innovation profile, one visiting American expert, business guru and author Geoffrey Moore of Crossing the Chasm fame, suggested Canada’s “cloak of invisibility” gives its earlier-stage companies an advantage over U.S. competitors.

AI

Another oft-cited Canadian advantage is its concentration of expertise in machine learning and artificial intelligence, an edge policymakers have been working to maintain with recent public investments. They include the recently announced Vector Institute, to be housed at Toronto’s MaRS facility, which BetaKit featured in early April.

Among the many companies throwing their support behind the new institute is Waterloo Region’s Thalmic Labs, whose co-founders were named to Inc.’s 30 Under 30 list of most brilliant young entrepreneurs. CEO Stephen Lake was also named a game-changer by the Financial Post Magazine. And FP took a broader look at Waterloo Region companies working in the AI space, including Thalmic, Aeryon Labs and Clearpath Robotics.

Another AI-based company sure to land on lists of ones to watch is Indigo Fair, an e-commerce startup that aims to be a kind of Amazon for local retailers. Co-founded by three former Square employees, one of them from Square’s Waterloo Region office, the company uses machine learning to recommend inventory items to small retailers based on their likelihood of selling, and offers hassle-free returns. The company, fresh out of Y Combinator’s winter cohort, will build its engineering team in Waterloo Region.

Meanwhile, another local startup is using AI to tackle the all-too-common problem of inbox overload. Caspy, the Waterloo Region Record reports, is a Chrome extension that reads your email, figures out which messages and contacts are most important to you and prompts you to delete messages you don’t need.

Data, of course, is the new gold as entrepreneurs deploy AI and sensor technology to build businesses. It’s also the focus of the Communitech Data Hub in uptown Waterloo, which, as it turns out, is housed in a building whose 137-year history is rich with data-related activity.

Get smart

Smart homes are safe homes, whether the threat is a human intruder or a mechanical malfunction. Alert Labs, a Communitech Rev accelerator graduate whose Internet of Things technology monitors homes for water leaks and flooding, landed a key strategic investor: Intact Ventures, an arm of Canada’s largest property and casualty insurer. The funding round will help the companyto more than double the size of its team, to about 50 people, over the next 24 months.

Cognitive Systems Corp. is another Waterloo Region startup pushing into the smart-home space. The company, incubated out of Quantum Valley Investments, the fund launched by BlackBerry co-founders Mike Lazaridis and Doug Fregin, has started shipping Aura, an easy-to-use system that detects unexpected motion by reading the wireless signals in your home.

From smart homes to smart cities, connection is key. Miovision, a stalwart Waterloo Region company whose traffic-management solution has been deployed by municipalities around the world, believes human connection between employees is just as important to a successful business as its technology. The company, with a headcount of 150 and counting, has developed software to enhance internal transparency and re-inject that startup feel into its work culture.

Get around

When it comes to smart cities, autonomous and connected vehicles will no doubt play a key role, and automakers are understandably keen to get a leg (or a wheel) up on the competition. To that end, University of Waterloo students have been selected to take part in the General Motors AutoDrive Challenge, a three-year competition to develop a fully operational driverless car. Ford, meanwhile, has hired 400 of BlackBerry’s mobile engineers to work on connected-car technology.

Away from the roads and on the factory floor, Waterloo Region’s Clearpath Robotics released a video of its self-driving OTTO vehicle at work inside a GE Healthcare facility in Milwaukee, Wis., showing OTTO delivering materials and even returning to its charging station to refuel between trips.

Until the age of autonomy arrives, commuters in the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor will continue to face the challenge of getting from one place to the other reliably and in reasonable time. While the federal government recently pledged more than $752 million to help Ontario improve the Kitchener GO train line, two-way all-day rail service won’t be in place until 2024.

Meanwhile, Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic threw his support behind a transit hub proposed for Toronto’s Pearson Airport, which could include a high-speed rail link to Waterloo Region.

Do good

As better rail links and electric vehicles promise to improve the health of the planet, a startup that excelled at Communitech’s Fierce Founders Bootcamp last year, Borealis Wind, is helping to keep wind turbines spinning with its de-icing technology, as our We Built This video feature explains.

As part of the same video series, we looked at how ed-tech juggernaut D2L has gone from two-person startup to global leader in learning management software, changing lives in the process.

Aiming for a somewhat higher altitude, the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing is leading the Quantum Encryption and Science Satellite initiative, with the goal of demonstrating ultra-secure quantum communication via global satellites. New federal funding will help to advance the project.

Back on the ground, University of Waterloo researchers are developing technology to help Internet users access restricted websites in countries where censorship is exercised, by disguising their connections to make it appear they are browsing allowed sites.

Love for her grandmother inspired a young entrepreneur named Rachel Thompson to launch a startup to produce customized books for people with dementia. Thompson’s pitch was among four that won $25,000 at the University of Waterloo’s Velocity Fund Finals.

In other news

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About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy
Google+

Anthony Reinhart is a veteran journalist who left the Globe and Mail to join Communitech in 2011. Tony has covered everything from crime, politics and courts to business, the arts and sports, and his writing has won numerous journalism awards. He is Communitech's Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer.