Happy New Year and welcome to this special edition of the Tech Roundup — a recap of news highlights from Waterloo Region’s tech community for 2016.

The year past was a significant one for tech, packed with noteworthy developments. The big-ticket themes? Let’s go with big money, big government and big ideas.

For the former, look no farther than Thalmic Labs, which announced US$120 million in new financing last September, one of the biggest raises in Canadian tech history. But Thalmic’s was just one in a series of high-profile raises. Others included Vidyard, Axonify, Clearpath Robotics and eSentire, and collectively they added up to more than CDN$350M of venture capital invested into the region in 2016.

In the big idea category, the profile of the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor soared to new heights, with the mayors of Toronto, Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge journeying in April to Silicon Valley — a trip which kicked off a determined year of wooing tech talent and companies to the Corridor, culminating in the October announcement by Thomson Reuters that its CEO and CFO would relocate to Toronto and that the firm would open a new technology centre in the Ontario capital, a decision that followed on the heels of the roll-out of the Go North Canada initiative in June.

And as for government, 2016 began with a visit to Waterloo Region by then-new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who early in the first full year of his government’s mandate signalled that tech would be a prime component of the federal economic plan.

By year’s end government was still a big theme, as the reverberations continued in the wake of the early-November election of Donald Trump as U.S. president — an election that sparked a tsunami of speculation that U.S. and expat Canadian tech talent would make for the northern border.

Busy indeed.

So with no further ado, pour yourself an eggnog, put your feet up on the ottoman and cozy up to the embers of the yule logs as we revisit the big events from the past 12 months.

January

Trudeau

Photo: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau celebrates the launch of Google’s newly expanded Canadian engineering headquarters in Kitchener. (Communitech photo: Phil Froklage)

Just weeks after earning a mandate from the Canadian people, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau served notice that innovation was at the top of his government’s agenda. Several ministers made visits to Waterloo Region, including the PM himself: Trudeau helped launch Google’s new engineering headquarters in Kitchener on Jan. 14.

Not long afterward, Vidyard announced it had raised a US$35-million Series C round, as it continued its rocket-ride of growth, and machine-learning startup Maluuba announced a CDN$9 million Series A round.

Meanwhile, drone-maker Aeryon Labs opened a second Waterloo office as it ramped up growth, having raised CDN$60 million the previous autumn.

February

GM Canada

Photo: (From left to right): Brian Tossan, Director, Canadian Engineering, GM Canada; Lindsay Farlow, Activator, 2908 at Communitech; Steve Carlisle, President and Managing Director, GM Canada; Iain Klugman, CEO, Communitech; David W. Paterson, Vice President, Corporate and Environmental Affairs, GM Canada, as they cut the virtual ribbon for 2908 at Communitech. (Communitech Photo: Anthony Reinhart)

GM Canada opened “2908 at Communitech,” its innovation lab based in the Tannery, to explore the future of mobility. The same month, FairVentures, the venture arm of Fairfax Financial Holdings, opened a lab of its own, with innovation in insurance as a major focus.

Innovation was also on the minds of Toronto Mayor John Tory and Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic, who kicked off a partnership to promote the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor as Canada’s best hope to build a world-ranked innovation super-region.

On cue, Cambridge-based cybersecurity firm eSentire raised US$19.5 millionas its rapid growth continued.

March

Derek Ting TextNow

Photo: Derek Ting, co-founder and CEO of TextNow. (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)

Clearpath Robotics sparked the month by naming Tesla Motors co-founder Marc Tarpenning to its advisory board. A couple of weeks later, Clearpath unveiled its OTTO 100 autonomous warehouse vehicle.

We brought you the story of TextNow, a Waterloo startup specializing in low-cost mobile phone service, whose slow, steady growth had netted it 50-million users.

And Lars Leckie, a Canadian venture capitalist based in Silicon Valley, wrapped up the month by writing a lengthy defence of the Canadian government’s efforts to attract foreign tech companies and convince them to set up operations here.

April

Bridgit founders Mallorie Brodie and Lauren Lake

Photo: Bridgit co-founders Mallorie Brodie (left) and Lauren Lake (Photo courtesy of Bridgit)

Construction management software startup Bridgit announced a US$1.7 million seed round, and CEO Mallorie Brodie told us how a commitment to diversity is helping the company grow.

Speaking of commitments, Toronto Mayor John Tory and Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic followed up on their partnership forged earlier in the year and led a delegation to California to promote the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor to investors, tech companies and expat Canadians considering a move home.

Back at home, Miovision, a Waterloo Region maker of smart-cities technology, teamed up for a testing partnership with Swift Labs, a startup led by former BlackBerry workers.

May

Ray Kurzweil at Tech Leadership Conference

Photo: Futurist Ray Kurzweil spoke at Communitech’s Tech Leadership Conference on May 12. (Communitech photo: Meghan Thompson)

Renowned futurist, inventor and author Ray Kurzweil shared an array of bold predictions at Communitech’s annual Tech Leadership Conference, which addressed such key issues as robot ethics, artificial intelligence and the so-called sharing economy.

The second Demo Day for companies in Communitech’s Rev accelerator program coincided with the report of a welcome surge in venture capital investment in Canada, to the tune of a record-breaking CDN$838 million on 118 deals in the first quarter of 2016, almost double that of the previous year.

But Micheál Kelly, the dean of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Lazaridis School of Business and Economics, had pointed words for policymakers over Canada’s failure to produce world-leading tech companies despite an abundance of startups.

June

Barshish Chagger at Fierce Founders Accelerator launch

Photo: Bardish Chagger, Canada’s Minister of Small Business and Tourism, announces funding for Communitech’s Fierce Founders Accelerator. (Communitech photo: Phil Froklage)

In a bid to boost women’s involvement in the tech sector, Communitech unveiled its Fierce Founders Accelerator for female-led startups.

Boosting growth, meanwhile, was on the mind of Adam Belsher, CEO of Waterloo’s Magnet Forensics, who sat down for an interview about the challenges of scaling a successful tech company in Canada.

And speaking of scaling, Kurtis McBride, CEO of smart-cities tech firm Miovision, announced he was spearheading Catalyst137, a sprawling, 475,000-square-foot accelerator in a former warehouse in central Kitchener. The plan: to turn it into the world’s largest Internet of Things hardware development centre.

July

Jay Shah University of Waterloo Velocity

Photo: Jay Shah brings his experience as BufferBox co-founder and Google product manager to his new role at Velocity. (Photo courtesy of Jay Shah)

While much has been made of the so-called “brain drain” of Canadian tech talent to global tech firms abroad, Waterloo Region celebrated a brain gain as University of Waterloo graduate Jay Shah left Google to return to UW and head up its successful Velocity program for student entrepreneurs.

Brain gain was a theme for the month. Canada began a push to repatriate citizens working in Silicon Valley through the Go North program. We went to a Canada Day picnic in the Valley to gather expats’ thoughts in a video.

P&P Optica of Waterloo also had reason to celebrate as a SpaceX rocket delivered one of its spectrometers to the International Space Station. Later in the year, P&P CEO Olga Pawluczyk was invited to California to pitch at Google Demo Day: Women’s Edition.

From outer space to indoor space, MappedIn, based in Kitchener, relaunched its indoor mapping and navigation platform, which helps keep visitors informed as they move throughout shopping malls.

And Waterloo politicians successfully navigated the approval of $680,000 to help fund the soon-to-open Communitech Data Hub in the former Waterloo Regional Police station on Erb Street. Its 19,000 square feet of space will house ODX, Open Data Exchange, Canada’s data commercialization marketplace.

August

Alexa and Daniela Roeper Fierce Founders

Borealis Wind founder Daniela Roeper (right) embraces her sister Alexa after placing first at this year’s Fierce Founders Bootcamp Pitch Competition (Communitech Photo: Phil Froklage)

Eight female-led startups took to the stage for the Fierce Founders Bootcamp Pitch Competition, which came with a $40,000 first prize, won by Daniela Roeper, a mechanical engineer who founded Borealis Wind.

Tech entrepreneurs Sarah Prevette and Stephen Lake, who are members of Communitech’s board, made a pitch of a different kind, laying out four ways Canada can address its shortage of technical talent in a Globe and Mail op-ed.

September

Thalmic Labs cofounders

(Left to right) Thalmic Labs co-founders Stephen Lake, Matthew Bailey and Aaron Grant. (Photo: Peter Power for Communitech)

Money mattered in September.

Thalmic Labs announced it had raised a US$120 million round, one of the biggest ever for a Canadian tech company. We talked to CEO Stephen Lake about it.

In an illustration of Communitech’s corporate innovation program at work, Dozr, a Rev startup with a platform for heavy-equipment rentals, raised CDN$2.5 million from FairVentures, which operates a corporate innovation outpost one floor below them in the Communitech Hub.

OpenText, which spun out of a University of Waterloo project to digitize the Oxford English Dictionary 25 years ago and became Canada’s largest software company, grew even larger with the US$1.62-billion acquisition of Dell-EMC’s enterprise content division.

While money matters, so do people. With global political winds shifting towards protectionism and populism, Communitech CEO Iain Klugman and BMO Vice-Chair Kevin Lynch argued in a Globe and Mail op-ed that it’s time for Canada to go prospecting for top tech talent in other countries and bring back expats. Talent was also a key theme at the Waterloo Innovation Summit.

October

ISARA CEO Scott Totzke

Scott Totzke, CEO and co-founder, ISARA (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)

Few problems come bigger than the one Waterloo-based ISARA is solving: how to secure data against quantum computing attacks. The company is among those backed by Mike Lazaridis’ Quantum Valley Investments.

Solving problems was also on the mind of Google’s Engineering Director for Canada, Steve Woods, who outlined the challenges and opportunities in building Canada’s innovation economy. Woods was also on stage at the Go North Summit, a Toronto gathering of tech leaders, investors and policy makers.

Clearpath Robotics took to the stage of a different kind, announcing it had raised US$30 million to accelerate development of self-driving industrial vehicles.

November

Go North Canada

A Go North Canada billboard seen on a stretch of Highway 101 in San Francisco. (Submitted photo)

The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president had a sudden and major impact, including on the North American tech landscape, sparking speculation of an exodus of tech workers north from California to Canada. The election closely followed the placement of billboards in Silicon Valley reading GoNorthCanada.ca, an initiative of agencies including Communitech and the City of Toronto.

A week before the ballots were counted, Waterloo’s Axonify announced it had raised US$27 million in growth equity and not long afterward Intellijoint Surgical celebrated raising CDN$11 million, as Canada headed for another strong year for venture investment.

BDC announced a CDN$50-million injection into women-led technology firms in the same month that members of Communitech’s first Fierce Founders cohort pitched to investors as a special feature of Rev Demo Day in Toronto. During the same event, Rev company Alert Labs won the $100,000 prize, which co-founder George Tsintzouras discussed later in an interview.

Aeryon Labs opened a $3-million drone testing facility in Waterloo and took Communitech on a tour, while University of Waterloo students demonstrated the “Waterloop,” a prototype of a levitating pod that has earned the team finalist status in Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Challenge later this month.

December

Canon Canada HQ

A first look at Canon Canada’s new headquarters in Brampton, ON. (Communitech News video: Phil Froklage)

The race to year-end brought a number of developments on the local scene. Waterloo startup TeTechS began shipping its core product, which measures the thickness of plastic bottles using terahertz light. Eleven-x announced the deployment of infrastructure throughout Waterloo Region to enable connectivity for the Internet of Things. Knowledgehook landed CDN$1.25 million in seed funding. Perk, which has an office in Waterloo and roots in the local ecosystem, was acquired by RhythmOne PLC in an all-stock transaction worth US$45.5 million. And Canon, which maintains an innovation lab in Communitech, lifted the curtain on its breathtaking new headquarters in Brampton, Ont., captured in this engaging video by Communitech’s own Phil Froklage.

Fierce Founders pitch competition veterans and sisters Alexa Roeper and Daniela Roeper were the subjects of an engaging recent feature on the front page of the Waterloo Region Record. Alexa’s startup, Penta Medical, is developing wearable tech that reflects the body’s infrared energy and speeds healing. She placed third in the Fierce Founders Pitch Competition in the summer of 2015. Daniela’s startup, Borealis Wind, is pioneering tech that prevents ice from building up on the blades of wind turbines; she is part of the Fierce Founders first cohort.

Penta Medical opened the month by winning the Velocity Fund Finals pitch competition at the University of Waterloo, earning one of four CDN$25,000 prizes and a further $10,000 for best hardware or science-based startup.

General Motors, which keeps an innovation lab at Communitech, announced that Kitchener will be the site for the Canadian roll out of its Maven car-sharing service, which is already underway in select cities in the U.S. and Germany.

Communitech’s Rev program gained an approving nod in a Globe and Mail op-ed piece by innovation author and Spyder Works CEO Ken Tencer.

And the Globe had another compelling piece featuring Communitech and the Waterloo tech ecosystem, explaining that Chinese investors appear eager to invest in Canada’s tech sector, viewing it as an overlooked opportunity.

Communitech’s own Nimble Hippo, Craig Haney, ended the year with a widely read piece on the tech news site VentureBeat. Haney listed the 10 steps organizations should be ready to make as they embark on a corporate innovation strategy.

But what was perhaps the month’s most intriguing story was the revelation in a research paper of a development that took place in September in the night skies high above Smiths Falls, Ont. We’re talking about Christopher Pugh, a PhD candidate at University of Waterloo and a researcher at Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing. Riding aboard a Twin Otter aircraft, Pugh successfully received an encrypted quantum transmission from the ground, a step toward the goal of using satellites for secure communication.

Of course, there’s a body of so-far-unproven evidence that suggests a certain sleigh and reindeer have been undertaking this kind of research for some time.

We hope you’ve enjoyed the Roundup highlight reel for 2016, and we look forward to bringing you more great tech news from Waterloo Region in 2017.

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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.