Waterloo Region’s tech community had much to celebrate in 2017. We saw big steps forward in efforts to boost women in tech, build smarter cities, attract talent and solve meaningful problems. At the same time, 2017 was an undoubtedly tough year for the broader industry’s perceived role in the world. From the involvement of internet giants in spreading fake news, to sexual harassment scandals in Silicon Valley, to fears that artificial intelligence will take our jobs (if not our lives), a slow drip of negative headlines early in the year had become a deluge by year’s end. In December alone, we saw Apple taken to task for slowing down the performance of older iPhones, a piece from Wired on Silicon Valley’s apparent ignorance of the tech backlash, and a blog post by Y Combinator’s Sam Altman decrying political correctness in San Francisco, which ignited a backlash of its own. Even former U.S. president Barack Obama weighed in with a warning about social media’s role in fostering extremism.
It all points to the need for tech to talk – and that’s precisely the point of True North Waterloo, a new international conference Communitech will host this May 29-31. Thought-provoking speakers from a diverse set of perspectives will discuss and debate the most important challenges facing tech today, and help inspire us all to reaffirm tech as a force for good. Stay tuned as further speakers are announced.

In the meantime, let’s take a month-by-month look back at the highlights of another action-packed year.

In response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s attempted ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries, Canadian tech leaders signed an open letter affirming their support for diversity and global labour mobility, and swiftly issued a call for our own government to welcome any tech workers affected by the order.

Atomic Labs, a San Francisco-based venture capital firm that builds startups in-house, unveiled  its new Waterloo Region engineering office, giving local developers a way to connect with California without having to move there.

Canada’s leadership role in artificial intelligence was affirmed again as Microsoft acquired Maluuba, a homegrown Waterloo Region startup with operations in Montreal, for an undisclosed sum. Wired explained why Microsoft was especially interested in Maluuba’s capabilities around natural language understanding.

Fast-growing Dejero Labs, whose technology is used by the world’s top broadcasters to report live from just about anywhere without satellite trucks, announced the first of two major funding raises for 2017, with a CAD$14-million round from Toronto-based Wellington Financial. The second came in November when the company announced a successful $32-million Series B raise led by Kayne Partners, the Los Angeles-based private equity arm of Kayne Anderson Capital Advisors LP.

Corporate software giant OpenText, which began as a University of Waterloo project to digitize the Oxford English Dictionary in 1991, continued to grow through acquisitions, reaching a market cap of US$8.7 billion in February, a figure that would reach $9.3 billion by year’s end.

It was a big month for acquisitions, as ETAS Embedded Systems Canada, a division of German engineering giant Bosch, acquired TrustPoint Innovation, whose technology secures IoT communications; Deluxe Corp. of Minnesota acquired RDM Corp. and its cheque-scanning technology; and Google acquired FameBit, a startup that connects content creators and brands.

The federal government released a budget that earmarked $1.18 billion in investment for innovation and training, including a $300-million Smart Cities Challenge that prompted Miovision CEO Kurtis McBride to assemble a local team to compete.

The budget was quickly followed by the announcement of the Vector Institute, a Toronto-based centre for AI research. The move was hailed by Waterloo Region entrepreneurs working in the AI space as a way to attract top global talent to a fast-growing field.

Cédric Jeannot, CEO of Waterloo-grown cyber-security firm APrivacy, explained in a Globe and Mail piece why now is the time for Canadian tech entrepreneurs to pursue the Asian market. Jeannot, who has based his company’s business operations in Hong Kong, bolstered the point with a follow-up appearance on BNN.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau returned to Waterloo Region for a free-wheeling, live-streamed chat with Vidyard CEO Michael Litt, in which he vowed to support expats and immigrants who come to Canada to build tech companies.

Three former Square employees chose Waterloo as the site of a development office for Indigo Fair, a kind of Amazon for local retailers that they co-founded to supply small shops with curated inventory. Later in the year the company announced US$3.4 million in funding led by heavyweight investors Sequoia Capital and Khosla Ventures, with participation from Kirsten Green of Forerunner Ventures.

As opening day neared for the Communitech Data Hub in a former police station in uptown Waterloo, Communitech’s Craig Daniels detailed the building’s rich 137-year history, replete with connections to big data.

Waterloo-based Kik announced it would launch its own cryptocurrency, called Kin, as a way to give its messaging platform the scale to compete with social media behemoths. CEO Ted Livingston laid out his reasoning in a blog post.

Sandvine, a Waterloo success story founded in 2001 in the aftermath of Cisco’s CAD$554-million acquisition (and subsequent shutdown) of PixStream, released news of an agreement to be acquired and taken private by San Francisco-based Vector Capital in a deal worth CAD$483 million. As it turned out, that was merely the beginning of a bidding war for the network management tech company, which ultimately sold two months later, for $562 million, to rival suitor Francisco Partners.

Hundreds of attendees gathered for what would be Communitech’s last Tech Leadership Conference, as the event gives way to True North Waterloo later this year (see lead item in this Roundup). TLC featured talks by workplace culture guru Patty McCord and Moneyball subject Billy Beane, as well as a Demo Day with a $100,000 prize split by TritonWear and SSIMWave.

To mark Communitech’s 20th birthday, we launched Communitech @20, a series of stories that traces our roots from a small band of committed tech leaders to a world-leading ecosystem of 1,400 innovation companies, complete with a clubhouse and programs to serve their needs.

That success was not lost on Sam Altman, the influential president of Silicon Valley’s celebrated Y Combinator accelerator program, who visited Waterlooto accept an honorary doctorate at the University of Waterloo. Altman called this region “one of the most interesting startup hubs in the world” and urged UW grads to work for social justice as economic inequality becomes an ever-more-pressing issue in an age of tech-driven automation.

Responding to years of urging from the tech community, the federal government launched a fast-track admissions process for highly skilled workers, promising a two-week turnaround on work-permit applications. The program would go on to admit 2,000 talented people in its first three and a half months, in stark contrast to the U.S., where President Donald Trump’s administration moved to tighten admission requirements.

The aforementioned federal Global Skills Strategy continued to make headlines beyond Canada’s borders, as Vanity Fair and Wired weighed in with stories on the program and its implications for the U.S. tech sector.

Thalmic Labs revealed it had already used the program to make a number of hires, and hinted at what those new hires might be working on in a CNBC story. CEO Stephen Lake said the company isn’t aiming at a Myo 2.0 – Myo being Thalmic’s gesture control armband – but is working on a wearable device that “will change the way people interact with technology.”

Communitech contributor Melanie Baker stepped up with a sharp opinion piece about the difficulties faced by women in tech, in response to sexual harassment controversies that had erupted in Silicon Valley due to its “bro culture.”

A series of big-money investment rounds put to rest any notion of a sleepy summer, as e-security firm eSentire announced an injection of funds from private equity firm Warburg Pincus said to be worth more than US$100 million; Tulip Retail announced it had raised US$40 million in a Series B round led by Silicon Valley’s Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers; and Auvik Networks shared news of a CAD$15 million Series B raise led by Boston-based OpenView.

The Ontario government launched a $25.8-million fund to help clean-tech companies get established, as well as the Ontario Digital Service Lab at Communitech, which aims to retool the way the government delivers services to Ontarians. The lab’s team reports to Ontario’s new Chief Digital Officer, Hillary Hartley, who was featured on our Nimble Hippo podcast.

Communitech News produced a story about the remarkable, 17-acre, Lot 42 Global Flex Campus near Ottawa Street and Homer Watson Boulevard. The site will be home to the much-anticipated True North Waterloo event this May.

Caitlin MacGregor, CEO of employee-screening software company Plum, offered a succinct response to hiring managers who say they can’t find qualified females, having grown weary of the excuses companies make for not hiring more women.

Waterloo Region’s MappedIn, which makes indoor wayfinding technology for large commercial clients such as shopping malls, announced it is collaborating with Apple to bring its capabilities to iPhone and iPad users via Apple Maps.

At the Communitech Hub, venerable retailer Canadian Tire and startup Alert Labs formed a relationship, resulting in two Canadian Tire stores deciding to stock, on a trial basis, Alert Labs’ devices, which measure water use and detect flooding. The case exemplified Communitech’s corporate innovation model, in which large, established clients such as Canadian Tire gain access to innovative startups – to the potential benefit of both parties.

Shopify, the Ottawa-headquartered e-commerce company, announced that it intends to add 300 to 500 new positions in Waterloo, tripling its operation here. The news came days before Shopify unveiled third-quarter results, reporting 72-per-cent growth in revenue compared to the same period last year. Meanwhile, a job survey by the website Hired found that 83 per cent of respondents wanted to work at Shopify, a figure eclipsed only by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and tech giant Google.

ETHWaterloo, billed as the world’s largest Ethereum hackathon, attracted 400 developers and some of the biggest names in the sphere, including Vitalik Buterin, the Russian-born former University of Waterloo student who wrote the original Ethereum white paper. Buterin spoke with Communitech News about the fast-evolving blockchain technology.

New Brunswick-based SomaDetect, which took part in Communitech’s Fierce Founders Bootcamp during the summer and shared in the Fierce Founders pitch competition $100,000 grand prize, earned US$1 million at the 43North business plan competition in Buffalo, N.Y. SomaDetect makes a sensor that measures milk quality and cow health.

A landmark survey identified the extent of the gender gap among 900 Canadian tech firms. The findings, detailed in the Globe and Mail and several other publications, included the eye-opening statistic that women hold only five per cent of CEO roles and only 13 per cent of executive positions. In an address to that very issue, federal Minister of Small Business and Tourism and Waterloo MP Bardish Chagger announced a $20-million increase in a BDC Capital-administered program that directs early investment to women-led Canadian companies.

The City of Kitchener launched its Digital Kitchener Innovation Lab at Communitech, which aims to both deliver and leverage technology to make the city function better and at less cost. The lab’s director, Karl Allen-Muncey, expanded on the initiative in a Q&A with Communitech News.

Real estate and investment firm CBRE reported that Waterloo Region, which added 8,400 tech jobs from 2011 to 2016, is Canada’s fastest growing region for technology talent and the second-fastest in North America. The news arrived via the CBRE’s 2017 Scoring Canadian Tech Talent Report.

Catalyst137, a sprawling maker campus and hardware accelerator near downtown Kitchener, has leased 75 per cent of its 475,000 square feet of space, and recently welcomed traffic management company Miovision Technologies as an anchor tenant. Miovision CEO Kurtis McBride, who spearheaded development of Catalyst137, is also playing a leading role in Waterloo Region’s bid to win the national Smart Cities Challenge announced in the March federal budget (see above).

The federal government opened applications to the Venture Capital Catalyst Initiative, a $400-million program that’s expected to spur $1.5 billion in tech investment from Canadian venture funds. Investors who apply to the program, administered by the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), will have to report on the gender balance of their fund managers and the businesses they support.

BlackBerry, the Waterloo smartphone pioneer whose devices dominated the mobile world before iPhone and Android came along, continues its climb back to profitability as a much smaller software company under the leadership of CEO and turnaround expert John Chen. The company’s stock was up 65 per cent for the year as of Dec. 20, on the strength of the company’s embedded systems for the automotive market.

Communitech is a partner of Startup HERE Toronto.  This article originally appeared on their site.