The legends of successful startups have become the stuff of Hollywood storylines: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak hacking together the first Apple computers in Mr. Jobs’s garage; Mark Zuckerberg building Facebook in his dorm room; and Jeff Bezos launching Amazon out of his – you guessed it – garage.
But not all entrepreneurs are brilliant misfits toiling away over stale pizza and cold coffee in makeshift spaces. Many are researchers whose insight is to translate a scientific discovery into a product or service that meets a market need. And while academic laboratories may be ideal for hatching new ideas, they are often ill-equipped to nurture the resulting business through to maturity.
As a key driver of the innovation economy, entrepreneurship is increasingly important for Canada’s prosperity. Small businesses with fewer than 99 paid workers employed more than 8.2 million Canadians in 2015 – that’s more than 70 per cent of the total private labour force. And the latest figures from Industry Canada reflect that small employer-owned businesses contributed 30 per cent on average to the GDP of the province where they started up.
I have seen this spirit myself in the student teams at the Entrepreneurship Hatchery, one of two campus-linked accelerators in the University of Toronto’s faculty of applied science and engineering. The U of T is among the leaders in North America for research-based startups, and companies launched out of our program have collectively secured very early stage seed funding in excess of $10-million in the past five years alone.
By 2060, over 98 million Americans will be over 65 years old — that’s 24% of the population. No doubt a large number of these folk will also be in jobs – around 27% of men over 65 years old are predicted to be working in 2022. That shows an obvious need for companies that cater to an aging population, addressing everything from healthcare to entertainment.
“Thousands of startups are working on a wide range of opportunities in aging,” said Katy Fike at the Aging 2.0 conference in San Francisco this November. But with that opportunity comes confusion. “There’s been a significant increase in the [startup] space, but it has also led to an increase in the noise,” she explained; with so many companies offering high-tech solutions, how do you know where to start? Fike, a partner at Generator Ventures cofounded the Aging 2.0 network to help address this challenge and separate the wheat from the chaff. Over two days, numerous companies spoke about their products and what they’re hoping to address.
The road to manufacturing a first product leads many startups to China – but figuring out where to go once there can be daunting.
That’s what Bin Liu, the CEO and co-founder of mobility device startup iMerciv, discovered when he first sought out a Chinese supplier to make the plastic casing for his company’s BuzzClip, a wearable sensor for blind and partially sighted people.
“It’s pretty easy to find a [Chinese] manufacturer, but it takes awhile to find a reliable one,” says Liu, a University of Toronto engineering alumnus.
Now, U of T’s Impact Centre accelerator is hoping to make it easier for startups following in iMerciv’s footsteps to forge business connections in the country of nearly 1.4 billion.
The entrepreneurship hub, one of nine on campus, recently announced their intent to create a “soft landing program” in partnership with Chinese investment firm Diantou.net. The program, based in Nanjing, will provide technology, legal, marketing and other services to technology startups eager to gain a foothold in the huge Chinese market.
ImmunoBiochem Corporation completes a new round of financing led by angel investors and the company’s founding investor. The corporation has expanded its operations and is now located at Johnson & Johnson, JLABS, in the heart of Toronto.
The company is focused on solving tumour heterogeneity by targeting a class of proteins in the tumour microenvironment with antibody drug conjugates (ADCs). This is an anticancer therapeutics class that combines the selectivity of targeted biologics with the potency of highly cytotoxic small-molecule drugs. One of the highest priorities of ImmunoBiochem is to transform the lives of patients who have triple-negative breast cancer – an extremely aggressive disease that has poor survival rates and does not respond well to major therapies.
“We have now validated our approach in vivo in xenograft animal models of aggressive triple-negative breast cancer,” says Dr. Anton Neschadim, CEO of ImmunoBiochem. “With strong preclinical data demonstrating exceptional efficacy and safety, we are now seeking to complete preclinical development and accelerate these new therapies into the clinic.”
ImmunoBiochem in partnership with the Centre for the Commercialization of Antibodies and Biologics (CCAB) and the University of Toronto, developed fully-human antibodies for the treatment of breast cancer and solid tumours.
When it came time to develop his legal startup’s sophomore product, Benjamin Alarie did exactly what successful entrepreneurs are supposed to do: He listened to his customers.
The University of Toronto law professor co-founded Blue J Legal in 2015, using machine learning algorithms to predict the likely outcomes of future tax law cases. He focused on tax law because it was his area of research expertise and represented a potentially huge market.
Then something unexpected happened.
“We would be talking to lawyers at big law firms about employee classification from a tax law perspective, and someone would ask if we could come and show the labour and employment law group,” recalls Alarie, who is the company’s CEO.
“We would say, ‘Yeah, sure we’re happy to do that. But you should know [the AI algorithms are] being trained on all the tax case law, not employment law.’”
Paul Santerre recently flew to Boston to help launch a cerebral catheter that incorporates an anti-clotting polymer additive created by Interface Biologics, the company he co-founded nearly two decades ago based on his University of Toronto lab work.
It was the sort of business trip that should be routine for the U of T biomaterials professor, given that Interface, by his count, has previously made five such announcements.
But that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of one of the university’s most prolific entrepreneurs.
“For Interface Biologics to be entering the neural area is big,” says Santerre, who has appointments in U of T’s Faculty of Dentistry and the Institute for Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering. “A lot of imaging tools are starting to rely on catheter technologies to peer into spots where they can’t get the resolution they need with an MRI.
“This is an innovative product in an area that’s going to be a game-changer. It sets the stage for the next phase of growth for this local company of ours.”