Kik CEO Ted Livingston. (Photo: Darin White for Communitech)

Photo: Vince Schiralli, Communitech’s first President, in 1997

Communitech @20

Communitech marks a milestone birthday this year, providing an opportunity to reflect on how far the Waterloo Region tech community has come since 1997. That’s when a small but determined group of local CEOsformalized an idea they’d been batting around for years: an association to help build Waterloo Region into a world-class community for tech companies. To mark the occasion, the Waterloo Region Record took a look at Communitech then and now, while we launched Communitech @20, a series that highlights the success of some of the entrepreneurs we’ve worked with through the years.

High praise

If the words of Sam Altman are an indication, the vision laid out by Communitech’s founders is coming into focus. Altman, who heads the influential accelerator Y Combinator in Silicon Valley, returned to Waterloo Region last month to receive his first post-secondary degree – an honorary doctorate from the University of Waterloo – and called this region “one of the most interesting startup hubs in the world.”

In his remarks to this year’s crop of engineering graduates, which we captured on video, Altman lauded UW as “a place of builders and doers,” and urged them to work for social justice as economic inequality becomes an ever-more-pressing issue in an age of tech-driven automation.

AI

Indeed, the future of work is an increasingly relevant topic as the development of artificial intelligence accelerates. Ali Asaria, CEO of Tulip Retail, addressed the issue in the latest instalment of Nimble Hippo Radio, our corporate innovation podcast.

While AI-induced disruption to traditional employment is inevitable, Canada has an opportunity to lead the world and capitalize on its pioneering work in AI, John Kelleher and Laura McGee argued in a Globe and Mail op-ed.

Among those making AI advances is Maluuba, the Waterloo-founded startup acquired by Microsoft and moved to Montreal earlier this year. The Maluuba team last month revealed it had developed a game-playing bot that achieved the maximum score possible on Ms. Pac-Man – a trivial-sounding achievement with much larger implications for the potential of machines to master complex tasks.

The deep expertise in AI and machine learning in the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor, meanwhile, formed the backdrop for a week-long visit from the Google for Entrepreneurs (GFE) Exchange program, in which seven startups from Canada, the U.S., Brazil and Australia came together to learn and work.

Top talent

Bringing the world’s brightest minds to work in Canada got easier in June as the federal government launched a fast-track admissions process for highly skilled workers, promising a two-week turnaround on work-permit applications. Communitech spokespeople took to the airwaves to help explain the implications for Canadian tech companies, with VP of External Relations Chris Plunkett appearing on CBC’s On The Money program, while Director of Talent Programs Andrea Gilbrook spoke with 570 News’s Mike Farwell.

Mike McDerment, CEO of Toronto-based FreshBooks, was among tech leaders to applaud the measure, while calling on Ottawa to continue with further measures to help Canadian companies attract and retain top talent.

Canada’s momentum in tech, helped along by streamlined immigration at a time when the United States has been tightening its borders, has not gone unnoticed by international media, with Bloomberg, the Guardian and CNNall weighing in with their own stories in June.

That momentum has been fuelled in part by steady growth in venture capital investment in Canada over the past few years, as detailed in a report released by BDC Capital last month. VC investments in Canada more than doubled between 2011 and 2016, and the overall number of deals rose by 19 per cent over the same period, but smaller fund sizes and a lack of corporate VC activity relative to the U.S. remain key challenges for Canada’s tech-funding landscape.

Thought leaders

June found Waterloo Region entrepreneurs in the spotlight as they contributed pieces to widely read publications. Writing in Forbes, Plasticity Labs co-founder Jennifer Moss explored the connection between creativity and workplace happiness. Moss also penned a piece for the Harvard Business Review, looking at the subject of grief in the workplace and how companies can better help employees to cope with it.

Meanwhile, Bridgit CEO Mallorie Brodie wrote for BetaKit on how mobile disruption has yet to fully play out in traditional industries such as construction, where her company’s software has made major inroads.

Corporate innovation

A month after Communitech opened its new Data Hub in uptown Waterloo, it welcomed the CIBC Data Studio to the new space. We spoke with CIBC’s Chief Data Officer, Jose Ribau, about the company’s ambitions for the initiative.

LCBO, the provincial alcohol retailer which opened an innovation lab at the Communitech Hub last year, is aiming to ramp up its recently launched e-commerce operation to $1 billion in revenue within five to seven years.

Regardless of industry vertical, small companies face significant challenges as they grow into big ones, and scaling a healthy corporate culture can be one of the most vexing. Patty McCord, who helped build Netflix’s enviable culture before leaving to launch a consultancy, sat down with Nimble Hippo Radio co-hosts Craig Haney and Phil Froklage to share some of what she has learned.

Culture is clearly a strength among Waterloo Region tech companies, which often land on annual top-employer lists. PEER Group Inc., which makes factory automation software, was recently named one of Canada’s best places to work for the fifth consecutive year, and Guelph-based executive coach Sylvia Plester-Silk set out to find out why.

A place to grow

Waterloo-based Bonfire, whose software is used by governments and large organizations to automate tenders and other procurement activities, has raised US$11 million to grow its cloud-based platform.

As connected devices proliferate, the seasoned experts at eleven-x are extending their purpose-built Internet of Things wireless network to cities across Canada, enabling energy-efficient machine-to-machine communications at lower cost.

Securing all those IoT communications is paramount, a fact underscored by the expanded new offices of ESCRYPT that opened in Waterloo last month, following the company’s acquisition of TrustPoint Innovations earlier this year.

Meanwhile, FleetCarma is expanding its footprint (and not the carbon kind) in electric-vehicle telematics, with data-gathering technology that will help public utilities prepare for expected growth in EV usage.

For vehicles that still burn fossil fuels, University of Waterloo engineers have come up with a way to capture waste energy from service vehicles as they slow down, and direct the energy to running secondary systems – think refrigeration units or air conditioning – so that the engine can be turned off instead of left idling.

Speaking of green energy, Waterloo’s David Johnston Research + Technology Park will soon be home to Canada’s first multi-tenant commercial building toproduce more energy than it consumes. The new evolv1 building already has tenants lining up, including fast-growing mobile tech company TextNow.

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.