Written by Andrew Seale

Amidst the post-Brexit vote haze, Mikele Brack was feeling the pull of Toronto’s gravity, a city she’d said goodbye to two decades earlier in favour of fostering a career in the built environment and urban innovation in places like Hong Kong and the U.K.

But it had nothing to do with Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Toronto was throwing its weight behind efforts to draw innovators – particularly smart city innovators – to the region and Brack was intrigued. After all, it was a sphere that she had already made a name for herself.

A few months prior, in January 2016, she had helped spearhead Cognicity, a smart city innovation accelerator in London’s Canary Wharf. With changes coming, now was the time to bring the concept to Toronto under the name UPPlift (urban pilot program).

“I think Toronto is a forward-thinking city in terms of wanting to attract innovators and wanting to adopt smart city solutions,” says Brack, who in addition to working with startups also led the Cities and Government sector in General Electric’s Global Growth and Operations team. “I thought that the program would be successful here… so far we’re doing pretty well with it.”

The program is still in its infancy, but has already identified a number of test-beds in Toronto, drawing sponsorship from companies like Microsoft and Intel. The tech giants will provide their base technology and Internet of Things solutions and entrepreneurs with innovative ideas to improve energy efficiency, or make cities more connected can pilot their emerging technologies in real settings.

“It also gives the innovator some scaling partners if the solution is interesting to these companies,” says Brack. “Certain innovators are going to want to stay open source and not work with one of the large technology companies… (but) this is a way to help these small companies gain access to supply chains they would not normally have access to.”

Unlike a lot of accelerators, UPPlift use an unconventional model, it’s a virtual accelerator in that it doesn't provide space, instead focusing on connecting these emerging technology companies with the resources to pilot, scale and commercialize.

“It’s not about the real estate and collecting people in one place,” says Brack. “I think innovators should stay wherever they want to be, wherever they're already established.”

Currently UPPlift is working with its Toronto test-beds to better understand their challenges and give innovators a scope to tackle.

“We hope it’s a rolling program… this is the first year,” she says. “If it's successful then we will continue on, (we’ll) work with partners to expand and be in new cities.”

Photos: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)