ISARA CEO Scott Totzke

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

Hard problem, huge market, big bet

Startup entrepreneurs are often told the first step to success is to solve a big problem. Few problems come bigger than the one Waterloo’s ISARA Corporation is tackling: The need to protect the world’s data from cyber-attacks launched using quantum computers. ISARA, backed by Mike Lazaridis’Quantum Valley Investments, has just gone to market with an algorithmic toolkit that “quantum-proofs” sensitive data held by governments, corporations and other institutions. It’s a big bet – no one is sure exactly when quantum computers, with their exponentially greater power to break encryption than current computers, will become a widespread reality – but ISARA’s deeply experienced team of former BlackBerry security experts, bolstered by Lazaridis’ support and vision, are well-positioned to make it.

Go North

Lazaridis laid out some of that vision – to build a “Quantum Valley” for the world in Waterloo – during Google Canada’s Go North summit in Toronto on Oct. 28. The summit brought together Canadian tech leaders, investors and policy makers to talk about the challenges and opportunities facing Canada’s tech community.

That same day, Google Canada Engineering Director Steve Woods wrote in the Globe and Mail about these issues, and highlighted Canada’s key differentiator – that it has a true tech community, not just an ecosystem – as an advantage it can exploit.

Among the more dynamic speakers at Go North was Harley Finkelstein, Chief Operating Officer for Ottawa-based e-commerce giant Shopify, who was the subject of an insightful profile by Jon Kay of the Walrus.

Buy local

Speaking of Shopify, its fast-growing Shopify Plus division in Waterloo made an interesting acquisition in October when it bought Boltmade, a local product development and design shop. We sat down with Shopify Plus General Manager Loren Padelford and Boltmade founder Jim Murphy to get the story behind the transaction.

The Shopify Plus news came during a busy month for news for scaling companies in the region. Thalmic Labs, which Roundup readers will recall announced a US$120-million investment round in September, followed up with word that it will manufacture its next product in a Waterloo factory it has secured.

Clearpath Robotics, meanwhile, announced it had raised US$30 million to ramp up development of its self-driving vehicles for hauling materials inside manufacturing facilities. The company expects to double its workforce as it ventures farther into industrial applications.

Vidyard released ViewedIt, a Chrome browser extension that allows users to record what’s happening on their computer screen, then share it and gather viewer analytics.

CEO Michael Litt of Vidyard, which has recently hired several senior executives from outside Ontario and Canada, addressed the topic of the talent gap for scale-stage companies during a talk at the FuzeNation conference in Kitchener. In a move reminiscent of Vidyard’s, Waterloo-based Axonify hired Joe Wagner, formerly of Boston-based GT Nexus, as its new Chief Operating Officer. We’ll have more news from Axonify, which makes employee-learning software, in our November roundup.

Neil Desai, Director of Corporate Affairs at crime-fighting software firm Magnet Forensics, weighed in on the importance of corporate responsibilitywhen growing a global business, in a Globe and Mail opinion piece.

Dave Kroetsch, CEO of drone-maker Aeryon Labs, was honoured with the Technology Award at the 2016 EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards in Toronto.

And three companies with ties to the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor are among the first cohort of 10 companies accepted into Scale-Up, a new program offered by the Lazaridis Institute, which operates out of Waterloo’s Wilfrid Laurier University.

Something fierce

On the topic of first cohorts, Communitech’s Fierce Founders Accelerator welcomed nine female-led startups into its inaugural group, out of 56 who applied. They include BridesMade, a company aiming to ease the headache of obtaining bridesmaid dresses, who were featured on BNN’s The Disruptors.

Diversity, particularly as it pertains to women in tech, was a prominent topicduring Techtoberfest, Communitech’s annual startup festival, where several speakers touched on the topic.

Insured against disruption?

Financial technology, aka. fintech, continued to draw media attention during October. Canadian Business profiled the many ways in which fintech startups are disrupting the way we invest our money and insure our belongings, including a nod to Encircle, a Communitech Hub-based company working to improve the experience around making home insurance claims. Encircle was also the subject of a Waterloo Region Record feature.

Meanwhile, Michael Katchen of Wealth Simple, which makes investing easier, shared his wisdom as a fintech disruptor on Nimble Hippo Radio, hosted by Craig Haney, Communitech’s Director of Corporate Innovation (who, incidentally, penned a piece for VentureBeat last month to advise startups about selling to big enterprises).

Haney also delivered a thoughtful podcast interview with Scott Bedbury, the branding guru behind successes at Nike, Starbucks and Airbnb, among others, who stressed the importance of transparency and accountability within corporations.

Doubling down on the Corridor

Among corporate innovation partners of Communitech making news in October was global information giant Thomson Reuters, which announced a new tech centre for Toronto, along with news that its CEO and Chief Financial Officer would relocate to that city from New York. The company, which opened an innovation lab at Communitech a year ago, is thus increasing its presence in the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor, which was not lost on the crowdthat gathered in Toronto for announcement.

With declining print advertising revenue continuing to roil the media industry, Postmedia is opening an innovation lab at the Communitech Hub to engage with corridor-based startups and look for new growth models.

One of its new neighbours will be PerkinElmer, a U.S.-based multinational focused on human and environmental health, which is opening a “LeanLab,” a smaller version of the corporate innovation outposts dotted throughout the Hub.

If the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor is to flourish as a global tech super-region, it must boost physical and digital connectivity, the annual CityAge conference heard in Toronto early in the month. In the meantime, attention on the burgeoning corridor continued to grow, as Toronto Life – which usually focuses exclusively on that city – devoted several pages to highlighting the broader region’s entrepreneurial and cultural scenes.

In other news

  • The University of Waterloo Velocity Garage officially launched its newly expanded space, making it the world’s largest incubator that’s free of charge to startups.
  • Development of Catalyst137, a massive hub for companies producing software-enabled devices for the Internet of Things, is steaming along in a sprawling former warehouse in Kitchener.
  • OpenText Chairman Tom Jenkins delivered some innovation policy adviceto the federal government at the Canadian Growth Summit in Ottawa.
  • Bartesian, maker of a Keurig-like machine that mixes cocktails, entered an investment and licensing arrangement with Beam Suntory Inc., the world’s third-largest premium spirits company.

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About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy

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.