A million reasons to step up

If there was a resounding takeaway from Communitech’s inaugural True North conference last May, it was this: People want technology to solve meaningful problems, not create new ones. With that in mind, Communitech announced the Leaders Prize at True North last month, which will award $1 million to a team that uses artificial intelligence to tackle problem of global significance. That problem will be laid out in detail at True North 2019 in June, and the prize – a partnership involving Communitech, the Schulich Foundation, the Leaders Fund and the University of Waterloo – will be awarded to the winning team a year later, at True North 2020.

With its core theme of “tech for good,” True North 2019 will advance the lively and multi-layered conversation it started with the first sold-out event, which drew more than 2,200 attendees to two days of talks and an accompanying urban festival. Among early True North 2019 speakers announced so far is Kara Swisher, the Recode Executive Editor and New York Times contributor who has reported extensively – and outspokenly – on Silicon Valley culture and ethics.

AI, for better or worse

The tech-for-good theme was on many minds during November, specifically with respect to artificial intelligence and its perceived potential to both improve and destroy lives. Yoshua Bengio, the University of Montreal professor dubbed “one of the fathers of AI,” shared some concerns about the field in an interview with the MIT Technology Review.

In a Communitech-sponsored Data Hub Session at Waterloo’s Centre for International Governance Innovation, meanwhile, a panel spoke to the urgency facing governments, educators and companies in ensuring AI is applied ethically and responsibly.

And Ryan Gariepy, co-founder of Waterloo Region-based Clearpath Robotics, addressed a Project Ploughshares gathering in Waterloo about his company’s public stance against killer robots, and the need for governments to develop policy to counteract the rise of autonomous weapons systems.

At the same time, Canada needs to be more welcoming of robots in the workplace or risk falling behind its global manufacturing competitors, according to a study released by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-state based think tank.

For its part, TD outlined its investments in tech for good in a video highlighting how it is using AI in healthcare and sustainability applications, including in Waterloo Region. This month, it will launch the region’s first cleantech accelerator in the TD Sustainable Future Lab in Waterloo’s David Johnston Research + Technology Park.

The lab will be housed inside evolv1, a first-of-its-kind building in Canada that produces more energy than it consumes, which held its grand opening late in the month. Communitech News went inside evolv1 for a look at how TextNow, a scaling mobile telecom provider, hopes to leverage the building’s green credentials to attract talent and enhance company culture.

Hitting the Accelerator

Speaking of the R+T Park, one of its anchor facilities, the Accelerator Centre, received a $5.5-million boost from FedDev Ontario late in the month, which will extend its AC JumpStart program for startups for more than two years. The Accelerator Centre was also named Accelerator of the Year by the Digital Finance Institute at the Canadian FinTech and AI Awards. The same organization named Interac, which opened an innovation lab at Communitech earlier this year, as Fintech of the Year.

Meanwhile, an Accelerator Centre graduate company, Intellijoint Surgical, won the 2018 Growing Strong Award from Futurpreneur Canada. The company’s technology has helped surgeons around the world perform more than 7,000 total hip replacements with greater accuracy, leading to better patient outcomes.

Still with awards, Waterloo-based Dejero bagged an Emmy for “excellence in engineering creativity,” the Waterloo Region Record reported. Dejero’s technology makes it easier for news outlets to broadcast live on the move or from remote locations. It joins SSIMWAVE, which won an Emmy in 2015 for its video quality measurement technology. SSIMWAVE moved into a larger space in the R+T Park last month (formerly occupied by the aforementioned TextNow) to accommodate its rapid growth.

Several area tech companies landed on a list of the region’s top employers, including D2L, ON Semiconductor, eSentire, Northern Digital, OCAS, OpenText and Vidyard. OpenText, the University of Waterloo and Toyota also made the national list. And the latest Deloitte Technology Fast 50 ranking of Canada’s fastest-growing tech companies included Vidyard, Sortable and Axonify.

Urban intelligence

Kurtis McBride, CEO of Kitchener-based traffic-tech company Miovision, sees big potential for Canadian companies – including his own – to benefit from the data generated by the Sidewalk Labs smart-city initiative in Toronto. But McBride also wants more public discussion about how those benefits will be distributed, the Waterloo Region Record reported.

Waterloo Region, meanwhile, is taking a tech-for-good approach in its quest to win Canada’s $50-million Smart Cities Challenge. Having already made its way onto a five-city shortlist for the prize, the region is focusing its smart-city proposal on improving the lives of children and youth.

November also brought word that Kitchener-based eleven-x – which has developed a low-power, coast-to-coast network to facilitate communication between devices connected to the Internet of Things – will work with the city of Fredericton, N.B., to collect data from its smart water metering, intelligent parking and flood detection projects.

Farther afield, Waterloo Region technology made news on and off the planet last month. Deep Trekker, the Kitchener-based maker of remotely operated underwater vehicles, is sending its technology to Belize to explore the world’s largest underwater sinkhole, as the Record reported. The mission is being led by conservationist and filmmaker Fabien Cousteau and billionaire Richard Branson. Meanwhile, digital imaging technology from Waterloo’s Teledyne Dalsa has made its way to Mars for the fifth time, the Record also reported, this time aboard the NASA lander InSight.

Money matters

Naturally, it takes a fair bit of fuel to travel beyond the stratosphere. For tech companies, that means investments, of which several sizable ones were made in November.

North, the Waterloo Region wearables scale-up formerly known as Thalmic Labs, received a $24-million boost from the federal government’s Strategic Innovation Fund, as we reported at Communitech News. North recently launched Focals, a line of fashionable smart glasses.

Garage Capital, a homegrown venture fund led by a team of local startup entrepreneurs, secured a multimillion-dollar infusion from Canada’s Venture Capital Catalyst Initiative, which will allow it to increase seed investments in area companies.

Also earning further federal investment was Communitech’s Fierce Founders Accelerator for women-led tech companies, which received $264,000 from FedDev Ontario.

The 23rd iteration of the University of Waterloo’s Velocity Fund Finals saw four startups awarded $25,000 each, while another four earlier-stage companies netted $5,000 each.

Aiming to make a quantum leap forward in data security, Waterloo-based ISARA landed US$10 million in venture capital from Silicon Valley-based Shasta Ventures. Based out of BlackBerry co-founder Mike Lazaridis’s Quantum Valley Investments facility, ISARA is working to secure sensitive data in anticipation of quantum computers, which could render current forms of encryption helpless against hackers. Craig Daniels of Communitech News followed up the funding news with a Q+A with ISARA CEO and co-founder Scott Totzke, who previously led development of BlackBerry’s security technology, which set the gold standard for smartphone security.

Acquisitions

BlackBerry, incidentally, made the largest acquisition in its 34-year history last month, shelling out US$1.4 billion to buy Cylance, a cybersecurity firm that deploys machine learning to detect threats. Fortune brought us an analysis of what the acquisition means as BlackBerry continues its transformation from smartphone pioneer to enterprise software company.

Another Waterloo software giant, OpenText, continued its long string of acquisitions when it picked up Liaison, an American firm that specializes in healthcare data management, in a US$310 million deal.

In other news

  • Donna Strickland, the University of Waterloo researcher who recently won the Nobel Prize in physics, is now a full professor.
  • Navdeep Bains, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, suggested the Global Skills Visa program could be renewed during a visit to Communitech.
  • Waterloo-based SHAD, an enrichment program for promising high school students, secured $1 million from RBC to sponsor STEAM students.
  • David MacFarlane, President and General Manager of Escrypt Canada, spoke at Communitech about his small company’s absorption into global behemoth, Bosch.
  • Restaurants in downtown Kitchener say business is suffering from the trend of companies providing catered lunches in-house, and would like to see more foot traffic from tech workers.

– this edition of the Roundup compiled by Anthony Reinhart

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