Tech designed for good. A conference designed to make a difference.

A big, two-day conversation at the intersection of technology and humanity convened in June: True North 2019 – the encore edition –  served up speakers like award-winning journalist and author Thomas Friedman; the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee; tech critic and journalist Kara Swisher; and Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke, among a host of others.

They spoke to an audience of more than 2,500 from all corners of the globe. They explored issues big and small at the expansive Lot42 Global Flex Campus in Kitchener. They mixed it all up with a downtown festival with plenty of music and dancing and food and … the reviews were rave.

“… from the moment its main stage programming kicked off on the first day, it was clear this wasn’t your typical gathering place for the tech industry faithful,” Darrell Etherington wrote in Tech Crunch, highlighting True North’s bravery and unique value proposition – a willingness to delve into areas most tech events don’t.

The conference additionally featured the unveiling of the problem statement for the $1-million Leaders Prize at True North. The Leaders Prize is a competition open to Canadians that aims to solve a vexing societal issue using artificial intelligence. And the issue at hand? Fake news. The team that can deploy machine learning to arrest the scourge of fake news will earn $1 million.

This year’s conference leaned in on three program tracks – the age of re-learning; living digital; and building bridges, not walls – and did so not only with top-flight speakers but with a series of workshops, such as one on the future of work, documented by Communitech News contributor Bill Bean.

There were many show-stopping speakers and sessions at True North, one of which caught the Waterloo Region Record’s eye and received front-page treatment: a packed discussion about killer drones led by startup entrepreneur Liz O’Sullivan and Branka Marijan, a senior researcher with Project Ploughshares, a Waterloo-based NGO working to advance policies that prevent war and armed violence.

Leading into the conference, Communitech CEO and President Iain Klugman laid out the rationale for the conference in a piece that appeared in Montreal-based Policy Magazine called: The True North Mission: Slow Down and Fix Things.

True North’s tech-for-good theme, meanwhile, is clearly gaining traction. A few days after the conference at Lot42 concluded, Microsoft announced it was providing US$275,000 to University of Waterloo’s Artificial Intelligence Institute for eight projects that has proposed. The money is part of Microsoft’s US$115-million “Ai for Good” initiative, which aims to tackle major world issues. The aim, says Waterloo Ai Managing Director Chris McIntyre, is to drive change by leveraging data.

All aboard

The buzz around True North had barely begun to die down when, a day later, the region woke to the sight and sound of the much-anticipated ION light rail transit system delivering its first passengers.

“This is a great day and the end of a long journey, and the beginning of a new one,” Waterloo Region councillor Tom Galloway said.

A testament to the development that the LRT line has sparked – $3.2 billion and counting – the ION launched just before news surfaced that Google plans to more than double the footprint of its local engineering office with 300,000 additional square feet in a future building across the street from its 185,000-square-foot facility near the ION line in Kitchener, where 600 employees now work.

Fast-growing cybersecurity firm eSentire had some big real-estate-related news, too, opening its 65,000-square-foot office at Factory Square in Waterloo, completing a move from Cambridge. Factory Square is also next to the new light-rail line.

Speaking of cybersecurity, the National Research Council has partnered with the University of Waterloo on an innovation hub called the Collaboration on Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things and Cybersecurity. The hub will house researchers working in AI, the internet of things and cybersecurity for intelligent logistics.

The region’s tech ecosystem was further enriched by the launch of another innovation hub, The Medical Innovation Xchange, led by the co-founder and CEO of Intellijoint, Armen Bakirtzian. The goal is to give medtech firms a leg up in a highly specialized vertical. “We made a lot of mistakes along the way and we don’t want others to make those same mistakes,” Bakirtzian told the Waterloo Region Record.

On guard for thee

Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s former privacy commissioner and a speaker at True North, was front-and-centre in a forceful piece a few days before the conference, where she said concerns about digital privacy are at an all-time high and that government watchdogs need more power to protect people. “People are getting fed up with it,” she was quoted as saying. “You cannot have freedom without privacy, privacy forms the foundation of our freedom.”

Freedom is the goal of many immigrants, and Canadian Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said in a Canadian Press story that he wants to see Canada welcome more immigrants through programs like Talent Beyond Borders, which helped Kitchener-based Bonfire Interactive land Syrian refugee and developer Mohammed Hakmi. Hakmi’s story, told at True North by Bonfire VP of Engineering Kris Braun, was the subject of an engaging tale by Communitech News Editorial Director Anthony Reinhart last April.

Newcomers to the region need affordable housing. The CBC’s spotlight found Waterloo Region again in a piece about Node, a co-living idea hatched by Canadian entrepreneur Anil Khera. Node has acquired a building in Waterloo Region, aiming to make it the beachhead for a Canada-wide rollout.

Still with CBC, the mothercorp posted a piece about the work being done by engineers at UW on food waste, where table scraps are being transformed into a clean-energy replacement for fossil fuels.

Seeing is believing

Focals by North, the smart eyewear launched by Kitchener-based North (formerly Thalmic Labs) last October, was given a thorough review and thumbs up in TechCrunch.

Transportation innovation was the focal point for an extensive Globe and Mail story about the emergence of e-scooters, and much of the story focused on the Canadian launch of Lime’s scooters along the corridor extending from the David Johnston Research and Technology Park in Waterloo to the University of Waterloo.

And a sharp focus is paying dividends for Waterloo’s Huron Digital Pathology, which announced it is part of a partnership with the University of Waterloo’s Kimia Lab on a $126-million initiative called the Industry Consortium for Image Guided Therapy, led by Sunnybrook Research Institute. The consortium aims to accelerate the use of AI to generate better health outcomes. Huron makes digital scanners that allow pathologists worldwide to access the data from a vast storehouse of glass slides.


A story in Fast Company explored the booming emergence of the Toronto tech ecosystem against that of Silicon Valley. The story surfaced just before the Raptors polished off the Bay Area’s NBA club, the Golden State Warriors. Turns out there are some parallels. Communitech News investigated.

In other news

– This edition of the Roundup compiled by Craig Daniels

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