Whether he likes it or not, Dr. Hossein Rahnama has written himself into the history books as a key architect of Toronto’s startup ecosystem. Between launching the DMZ at Ryerson University at his alma mater Ryerson University and turning his own research project around context-aware devices and data collection into one of the incubators guinea pig startups under the name Flybits, Hossein has become a quintessential voice of the innovation that can be accomplished in the city.
Since the DMZ at Ryerson University's launch in 2010, the space has spun off hundreds of companies ranging from platforms like SoapBox a community crowdsourcing tool integrated into existing online communities at Indigo Books and Music, Coca-Cola and Canada’s newest Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to social networking sites like 500px, Canada’s homegrown answer to Flickr.
“We give them equipment, we give them the space, the free Wi-Fi and then we kind of bring them to the industry,” he says. “We started with three groups and over five years we now have close to 100 startups active in the DMZ across five floors.”
Flybits itself has earned accolades including the Paris Metro system, TD Bank, Vodafone, Rogers and City of Ottawa. Their context-as-a-service platform enables marketers, brand managers, and app developers to harness personalization and deliver targeted information to users on mobile phones, tablets, wearables and even Internet of Things devices. “We are working on some ground breaking use cases with TD that will change the paradigm of how people do mobile banking around the world,” he says.
While Flybits has seen success abroad, raising major rounds of funding from Germany-based Bosch and Vodafone in the U.K., Hossein has seen an outpouring of support at home. Which is likely why Hossein has no plans of abandoning the startup community he helped build in the early days.
“I think Toronto first and foremost has a very good ICT (Information and Communications Technology) infrastructure,” says the entrepreneur. “We’re sitting on one of the highest bandwidth networks in the world, we have very good universities outputting talent – Ryerson, U of T, OCADu, York and Waterloo – and believe it or not we are a G8 financial center.”
He points out that when it comes to seed investment and risk capital, Toronto is stronger than many of its East Coast and European competitors.
“The innovation center is built in Toronto close to where the capital is, there is a lot that can be done especially in the ICT sector,” he says adding that proximity played a role in the success of Flybits. “We leverage that ecosystem very well and we got some good grants that helped us to do our project.”
The city has also proven to be a good hub for running global operations, a core component of Flybits business.
“I can run both a European and West Coast operation very effectively from Toronto,” he says. “And having access to one of, if not the most, multicultural cities in the world, I can access all sorts of talents that can tell me how to do business in other countries, that can translate my documents and tell me about cultural things to be careful of – it’s a living lab.”
Hossein’s hope is that the groundwork he laid via the DMZ and Flybits will continue to proliferate and inspire the next generation of startups.
“The DNA of the company is always in Toronto,” he says. “I think we would like to be recognized down the road as a successful global Canadian company rooted in this city.”