Written by Andrew Seale
After a few semesters, Mike Silagadze felt bored and unengaged and, like his fellow students, started ditching the dreaded lecture hall.
“Most of the time you basically just end up reading the book on your own or you'd show up to class and the prof would read it to you… it was a very outdated experience,” he says of his time studying engineering at the University of Waterloo. But the proliferation of smartphones around 2009 gave him an idea – why not transform the experience, make it more active and engaging by taking it mobile?
So in 2009, two years out of university and employed at a Waterloo tech startup, Silagadze and his roommate Mohsen Shahini, launched Top Hat – a comprehensive platform that lets professors track attendance and increase student participation through interactive content and online homework.
And at a fraction of the cost offered by textbook publishers.
“The content might cost $10 or $20 versus a traditional text which is $200,” he says. “We don't create any of the content, instead, we've got a marketplace where professors collaborate with each other to develop interactive content delivered directly to their students.”
The professors then receive a revenue share. Top Hat’s Marketplace is one of the startup’s key business niches.
Since launching, the company has grown to about 200 people, with plans to hire 150 more this year.
“We've got users at pretty much every large university in North America and millions of students on the platform,” he adds.
But it didn’t happen over night. For the first two and a half years, the startup toiled in Waterloo until Silagadze noted a deficit in the kind of talent he was looking after. They re-located to Toronto when the ecosystem was still in its infancy.
“When we first moved to Toronto there were very few companies and investors active in the ecosystem,” he says. “Now there are thousands of really great companies in the area, there are lots of active investors.”
Talent continues to be a critical part of Top Hat’s infrastructure as they look to expand.
“There are lots of startups which means more and more talent has been grown and developed,” he says.
No longer a startup, Silagadze has made it a point to stay true to his roots, participating in founder forums and sharing his experience and expertise, staying grounded through connecting with the ecosystem while building a global company.
“Pretty frequently I’ll get new startups and founders reaching out to me just for advice and to make a connection… I’m obviously always happy to do that kind of stuff,” he says. “Toronto will always be our headquarters we'll continue to invest and scale in this community.”