Do the right thing – not the other thing
If there was a meme for the past year in tech, surely it was the call for ethics, accountability and integrity as a response to behaviour that, in the previous 18 months, was too often found to be beyond the pale: Bots and trolls using Internet giants to spread fake news; all manner of scandal in Silicon Valley; growing concern about the future of work and built-in bias as artificial intelligence grows ever more powerful.
And the call to arms was no louder than here in Waterloo Region, where Communitech hosted more than 2,200 people last May at the inaugural True North Conference, the theme of which was “tech for good.”
There will be more “tech for good” in the months to come: Plans for True North 2019 are already well under way.
The year ahead has all the makings of a big one. Hard work at many scaling companies is bearing fruit. The demand for talent continues to be ravenous. Investment is flowing. Construction in the region continues at a breakneck pace. Light rail transit is slated, after many delays, to finally be on track for a spring launch.
In short, be sure you’re strapped in for another momentous year in Waterloo Region.
But first, before we hit launch, we’ll pause and look back at the past 12 months, which featured some big raises, big announcements, eye-popping developments in technology and, yes, a modest, little gathering of friends known as True North.
Communitech News started the new year with a magazine-length feature story about Dave Caputo, co-founder of Sandvine, and his court fight against a patent troll based in East Texas, with millions of dollars at stake.
Caputo and Sandvine emerged victorious. The upshot: Sometimes, doing the right thing, which was Sandvine’s motto from its inception, is also the winning thing.
Kitchener-based Igloo Software, meanwhile, got out of the gate with the first of a number of acquisitions and investments made in the region throughout the year, announcing a US$47-million investment from Frontier Capital, a Charlotte, N.C.-based equity firm.
And Communitech News brought you the story of Shore Centre, formerly Planned Parenthood, and how its participation in the Fierce Founders Bootcamp led to local companies stepping up to help it retool its website and launch an app that proved to be “a game changer” in its ability to deliver reproductive health services to women in Waterloo Region.
The federal government unveiled its 2018 budget and tech was a big winner, with hundreds of millions in funding for women entrepreneurs, cyber security and intellectual property initiatives.
Not long afterward, a bid coalition from the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor learned it was one of five “superclusters” chosen to share in $950 million in federal funding for innovation and growth.
Private, as well as public, money continued to flow through the ecosystem. Waterloo-based Indigo Fair (since renamed Faire) announced a US$12-million venture capital raise, and SkyWatch, housed at the Communitech Data Hub in Waterloo, announced CDN$4 million in VC funding.
Meanwhile Waterloo-based Descartes Systems Group, the maker of logistics and freight tech, spent US$32.4 million to acquire a New Jersey software firm called Aljex.
And the most interesting story of the month might have been the one about Ali Asaria, CEO and founder of Tulip Retail, who announced to his employees that, on exit, he plans to give away 80 per cent of his shares in the company to a charitable trust controlled by the employees. The story had the highest number of readers of any published by Communitech News in 2018.
The tech community worldwide was left gobsmacked in March by news that a U.K. data analytics company, Cambridge Analytica, had violated its terms of service with Facebook by collecting and sharing the personal information of up to 50 million users without their consent.
The news further fuelled an examination of our ambivalent relationship with technology. Communitech Editorial Director Anthony Reinhart described the work being done in that vein by University of Waterloo English prof Marcel O’Gorman at the Critical Media Lab and O’Gorman followed up with a compelling op-ed in the Globe and Mail that explored themes of “digital abstinence” and digital “contrition.”
The determination to use tech for good pushed ahead. Tulip Retail, whose CEO, you’ll recall, pledged his Tulip shares to charity, launched a free, 11-week program for women, agender and non-binary people who are keen to build technical and software skills. And the Waterloo Region Record published a story about Dana Fox, who described how data mining can help solve the opioid crisis; Fox started the Institute for Smarter Government at the Communitech Data Hub in Waterloo.
Finally, on International Women’s Day, five women tech leaders took to the stage at CIGI in Waterloo to discuss the growing role women are playing in the technology sector.
As winter gave way to spring, talent emerged as a dominant theme, with a number of stories exploring the virtuous conditions driving tech workers into welcoming Canadian arms. Bloomberg reported on the immigrants giving up on the U.S. in a post-Trump America and heading north; the CEO of the MaRS Discovery District, Yung Wu, penned a Globe and Mail op-ed about the migration of talent and “Canada’s brain gain;” and Terry Pender wrote in the Record about the impact of the Global Skills fast-track visa program in helping fast-growing Thalmic Labs (since rebranded as North, Inc.) land employees from foreign shores.
Pearl Sullivan, the dean of engineering at University of Waterloo, took advantage of the pages of the Globe and Mail to talk about government and business forming partnerships to maintain advances in AI. In that vein, UW earlier in the month launched the Waterloo Artificial Intelligence Institute, designed as a place to give businesses a place to send their employees in order to gain expertise in AI.
Finally, the Record closed out the month with a mini-feature on Kiite, the fast-growing Data Hub-based startup led by Joseph Fung and Donna Litt.
The flowers bloomed and so did Communitech’s inaugural and much-anticipated True North event: a colourful, vibrant and size-large gathering that burst to life over two days at the enormous, reclaimed industrial space called Lot42 and spilled into the evenings with a free community festival. Big-name speakers took to two stages and called for tech to be used to build a better future and to challenge the status quo. Participants wrote a lasting Tech for Good Declaration, to be used as a set of guiding principles for the tech industry, and delegates left feeling that an important conversation had begun – one that will continue with True North 2019, slated for June 19-20.
As show-stopping as True North was, there was no stopping the business of starting and growing tech companies.
On Day 2 of True North, nearly 50 startups from Waterloo and Toronto pitched to 180 investors at the Tannery Event Centre during Corridor Demo Day, thought to be the largest event of its kind to date in Canada.
Auvik, the Waterloo-based network-management SaaS firm, announced a Series C raise of CDN$20 million. And Kitchener IoT company Miovision, housed in Catalyst137, delivered on CDN$15 million in investment, as it continues a mission centred on smart traffic tech.
Miovision followed up on its $15-million raise with an announcement about its part in something billed as “the world’s smartest intersection” – a trial system of sensors and connected traffic signals in Detroit capable of being remotely monitored with the goal of improving traffic safety and flow.
Closer to home, the City of Stratford launched a smart parking pilot project in partnership with Waterloo Region firms FoxNet and eleven-x.
Dalhousie University President Richard Florizone was named the new head of the Quantum Valley Ideas Lab in Waterloo and Tom Jenkins, Chair of the Board at OpenText, stepped down as University of Waterloo chancellor, a position that was filled by Dominic Barton of McKinsey & Company.
Waterloo Region startup ApplyBoard announced it had landed a US$13-million Series A round, as it continues its break-neck-paced growth, helping international students navigate visas and school applications.
Communitech News rolled out a story and video featuring Miovision CEO Kurtis McBride and the project he championed, Catalyst137, the unique and enormous facility for IoT companies that emerged from an old tire and footwear warehouse in Kitchener.
Maluuba co-founder Sam Pasupalak updated Communitech readers on his plans to do some travelling and study at the London School of Economics in the wake of his AI company’s exit to Microsoft for an estimated CDN$200 million in early 2017.
And Carol Leaman spoke to a Communitech audience about how she transformed Axonify into one of the region’s scaling companies – and about lessons she learned along the way.
Waterloo’s Dejero provided technology and connectivity expertise to a team taking part in the Tour de France and then had a big payoff when a rider from that team, Britain’s Geraint Thomas of Team Sky, emerged as the race winner. A spike in sales soon followed.
The Record’s Terry Pender produced a story that served as a potential harbinger of the future as the impact of climate change comes home to roost: Encircle, the Kitchener firm that has developed a mobile app to help with the processing of insurance claims, had its bottom line boosteddue to an increase in claims resulting from a corresponding increase in extreme weather events, a phenomenon attributed to climate change.
Fierce Founders, a Communitech-led program for women-led companies, and BridesMade, a graduate of both the Fierce Founders Bootcamp and Accelerator, were the subjects of an engaging We Built This video by Communitech videographer Sara Jalali, one in a continuing series that spotlights local tech talent and companies.
Kitchener startup Bonfire Interactive sparked a blaze of interest as it announced a US$108-million merger with five other govtech startups. Communitech’s Anthony Reinhart followed up on the news with an interview with Bonfire CEO Corry Flatt, who talked about the firm’s plan to use the money to fuel aggressive expansion, including a doubling of its 87-member team within nine to 12 months.
Velocity, the University of Waterloo’s startup accelerator based out of the Lang Tannery building, celebrated its 10th anniversary. Three hundred companies, including some of the region’s most successful scale-ups, have been given a start under the Velocity umbrella.
Toronto-based Fable Tech Labs and Waterloo Region’s PolyGone Technologies shared in the $100,000 Fierce Founders Bootcamp pitch competition prize, with $75,000 going to Fable Tech, which helps businesses test the accessibility of their online products for people with disabilities. PolyGone, a startup working on a filtering solution to keep the environment free of plastic microfibres, earned $25,000.
Several stories emerged about how Canada, and Waterloo Region, are benefiting from an exodus of companies and talent from Silicon Valley due to issues related to high real estate prices in the Bay Area. Prime among them are UW grad and ex-Apple and Facebook exec Alan Cannistraro, who explained why he is moving his startup Rheo to Waterloo Region.
High-profile University of Waterloo alumnus Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook top executive, current CEO of the venture capital firm Social Capital and a part owner of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, was in town to kick off UW’s fifth annual Hack the North event.
The Kitchener-based scale-up formerly known as Thalmic Labs made eyes pop with the long-awaited unveiling of its newest consumer product: smart eyewear called Focals. Simultaneously, the firm rebranded from Thalmic to North, Inc., and launched storefronts in Toronto and New York. The move was a big bet for the maker of the Myo gesture-control armband, which more than two years ago raised US$120 million to fund the pivot to eyewear and the building of a manufacturing facility for its new product in Waterloo.
On the day of the launch, North CTO Aaron Grant met with Communitech News and talked about the reasons behind the decision.
The federal government delivered on its promise to make marijuana legal on Oct. 17, and to mark the day Communitech rolled out a story and video about Grobo, a Velocity-based startup that builds automated home-growing devices.
University of Waterloo professor Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize in Physics for her work with pulsed lasers. She is the university’s first Nobel laureate and the third woman in history to win the prize.
Communitech, in partnership with Schulich Foundation, the Leaders Fund and the University of Waterloo, created a stir in AI circles, announcing the Leaders Prize at True North: a $1-million award for a Canadian team that uses artificial intelligence to tackle a problem of global significance. The problem will be unveiled in June at True North 2019 and the prize will be awarded the following year at True North 2020.
Navdeep Bains, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, dropped by the Kitchener offices of North, Inc., to announce the company was in line to receive $24 million from the federal government’s Strategic Innovation Fund. Days later, shortly after the government unveiled its fall economic update, Bains stopped in at Communitech, where he took part in a chat with Communitech CEO Iain Klugman and dropped broad hints that the government would extend the Global Skills Strategy program – a fast-track visa process for foreign talent – beyond its two-year mandate, which ends in June.
BlackBerry continued its evolution from smartphone maker to enterprise software firm with a US$1.4-billion cash acquisition of cyber security firm Cylance, the largest acquisition in the company’s 34-year history.
Faire, formerly Indigo Fair, closed out the local year in tech with a bang, announcing Series B and Series C fundraising rounds totalling US$100 million. The company, which uses AI to help local retailers stock inventory items that are most likely to sell, has raised a total of US$115.9 million in less than two years of existence.
British telematics company Trak Global Group acquired Waterloo’s Intelligent Mechatronic Systems, taking the company out of receivership – good news for the 65 current employees at IMS. Track Global said it plans to aggressively hire in the coming year.
Kurtis McBride, CEO of Miovision, the anchor tenant of Catalyst137, sounded the alarm in a Financial Post story about Toronto’s controversial Sidewalk Labs smart city project. McBride said planning needs to slow down to ensure that the project unfolds in a way that doesn’t lock it into technology that can’t be easily changed.
“The architecture that we’re going to set here is going to leave the 12 acres the minute it’s done, and it’s going to spread nationally, or even globally,” McBride said. “And I think it’s exciting if we get it right, but terrifying if we get it wrong.”
CIBC tripled its corporate innovation lab footprint at the Communitech Data Hub, and talked with Communitech News about how the lab has become “an incredible success story” as it works to change the way it delivers banking for its customers.
The year closed with word from the Record that an intellectual property dispute between University of Waterloo and Salient Energy, a UW Velocity startup, has been settled. Salient’s technology promises to improve the rechargeability of zinc-ion batteries.
– this edition of the Year in Review Tech Roundup compiled by Craig Daniels
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