From anthropology to AI: Meet the U of T expert guiding the software companies of tomorrow

Helen Kontozopoulos may not be an artificial intelligence researcher, but she knows more than most about the technology – not to mention what it takes to put it to practical use.

That’s among the reasons the co-director of the University of Toronto’s Department of Computer Science Innovation Lab (DCSIL) was recently tapped to represent Canada on an AI mission to the United Kingdom organized by the U.K. Science and Innovation Network.

The three-day mission, with stops in London, Oxford and Cambridge, explored opportunities for international collaboration in AI-related research and business initiatives – with the latter falling directly within Kontozopoulos’s wheelhouse.

“Just because you’re making great technology doesn’t mean someone is going to buy it,” Kontozopoulos says, citing Google Glass as a classic example of an impressive technological hammer in desperate search of a nail.

“We need to be solving real problems for real customers and users.”

Liftoff! U of T startup’s business takes flight with satellite launch in China

A tiny, bread loaf-sized communications satellite built by a University of Toronto startup spent the weekend quietly zipping over the heads of unwitting Torontonians – and there’s likely many more to come.

Kepler Communications, founded by U of T alumni, said its first nanosatellite was successfully deployed by a rocket that launched on Jan. 19 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwestern China. At an altitude of about 552 km, the satellite’s polar orbit takes it over Kepler’s home base in Toronto twice in the morning and two more times in the evening.

The launch – touted as a first for a commercial communications satellite operating in low earth orbit on a frequency known as the Ku-band – is an important first step toward Kepler’s goal of providing low-cost data communications for connected devices on Earth and beyond. But, for now, Kepler’s founders are just revelling in their accomplishment.

“The company began two years ago with a conversation at the bar,” says Jeffrey Osborne, a co-founder of Kepler who studied aerospace engineering at U of T.  “So you get a little awe-inspired when you actually put something in orbit. That’s pretty cool.”

Story-sharing startup founded by U of T alumni raises US$51 million in funding

The crowdsourced entertainment startup Wattpad, co-founded by two University of Toronto alumni, has secured a US$51 million round of financing that it says will be used to invest in machine learning and new forms of interactive storytelling. The funding round, announced Wednesday, was led by Chinese internet giant Tencent Holdings and values the company at around US$400 million, according to TechCrunch.

Other investors in Wattpad, a platform for users to write and share stories, include the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) and investors from the Philippines and Hong Kong.

“Entertainment is in a period of disruption, and how people find and experience stories is evolving,” said CEO Allen Lau, who has a pair of engineering degrees from U of T, in a statement. “With our global community of users, hundreds of millions of stories and data-driven approach to helping people and partners find great content, Wattpad is leading both sides of this equation.

“This new funding from Tencent and our other investors shows that confidence in our vision is growing alongside our revenue, our success and our community.”

(Not) as seen on TV: Why one U of T entrepreneur balked at a Dragon’s Den deal in favour of ‘organic’ expansion

Noureddin Chahrour’s successful 2015 appearance on CBC’s Dragon’s Den was a key turning point for his research-based startup Adrenalease Posture Apparel – but not in the way you might think. Chahrour, a University of Toronto alumnus, agreed on-air to hand over 30 per cent of Adrenalease, which makes posture-enhancing garments, in exchange for $90,000 from three of the program’s panel members.

However, he later backed out of the deal after advisers at the Impact Centre, one of nine U of T entrepreneurship hubs, suggested he was selling himself short.

“They said I would be crazy to give up that kind of equity,” says Chahrour, who received a bachelor’s degree with honours in kinesiology two years ago. “That’s honestly not a lot of money. If you want to raise a real round [of funding], you’re looking at $500,000-plus.”

Fast forward two years and Chahrour is not only still in business, he’s preparing to launch Adrenalease’s latest product – a posture-enhancing sports bra – with the help of a Kickstarter campaign.

TD Bank embraces AI future with purchase of startup built by U of T alumni

One of Canada’s biggest banks has purchased a promising artificial intelligence, or AI, startup that was co-founded by two U of T alumni and a local lawyer and entrepreneur – further evidence of how big corporations are eager to scoop up the country’s top AI talent.

TD Bank said this week that it has agreed to buy Layer 6 for an undisclosed sum, although the Globe and Mail cites sources who say the price tag was in excess of $100 million when retention payments to employees are included.

The acquisition comes as the bank seeks to cut costs by using AI to automate repetitive tasks and scan large datasets in search of patterns that can help it better understand its customers.

“We’ve talked a lot in the past about disruption and what would happen to banks, and ‘Are your business models broken?’” Bharat Masrani, the bank’s CEO, said at an industry conference in Toronto, according to the Globe.

“And I say, ‘This [acquisition] is a great example of how TD’s adapting to this new reality and new expectation, and how we are remaining on the leading edge with our customers.’

How a Toronto app is helping Iranians hack internet censorship

A Toronto-app, which thwarts both firewalls and internet censorship, is reporting a 20-fold increase in users in the spans of five days, almost all of the new users hailing from Iran, where internet access has been blocked by the government. Psiphon is a decade-old app invented in the Citizen Lab, a research institution part of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

Typically, it sees 25,000 to 40,000 new installations per day across all mobile platforms (Windows, Android and iOS). But since Dec. 30 — the day Iranian authorities reportedly began to cut off access to the internet, including to social media apps like Telegram and Instagram — to Jan. 3, the average number of installations increased to over 700,000 per day.

Data shared from Iran over the app’s network increased almost 5-fold over the same period, with mobile usage increased ten-fold over the same five-day period.

Psiphon estimates that, according to the information presently available to them, there are now approximately eight to ten million daily users from Iran.

Garages are for cars, not startups: U of T’s Joseph Orozco in the Globe and Mail

The mythology of the successful tech startup usually involves a novel idea, a brilliant dropout and a grubby garage.

But Joseph Orozco, executive director of The Entrepreneurship Hatchery at the University of Toronto, says the reality is often much different.

“Not all entrepreneurs are brilliant misfits toiling away over stale pizza and cold coffee in makeshift spaces,” Orozco writes in a recent Globe and Mail op-ed.

“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.”

That’s why U of T – among the North American leaders in producing research-based startups –  is brimming with incubators and accelerators catering to different types of startups at various stages in their development.

They include the Hatchery, which this spring will move into the new Centre for Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship building on U of T’s downtown Toronto campus.

Tiny condo, no storage space? Valet service will store your stuff

Mark Ang is too young to have many skeletons in his closet, but he’s super keen on carting away whatever extra stuff you can’t fit into yours.

The 22-year-old Toronto entrepreneur came up with the idea for an online storage solution called Second Closet when he and his older brother David, 23, moved into a tiny condo in Liberty Village with very little closet space.

They quickly found out that not only was storage expensive, but the process of getting space was rigid. They had to deal with standard space sizes and minimum monthly rental fees — and there was no seamless delivery service between storage and home without the added cost of renting a moving truck.

“We were in a small, 500-square-foot condo with our Golden Retriever Riley, and the condo lockers were small, dirty and expensive,” he recalls. His brother “had the bedroom that had one small closet because he was paying the rent, so I needed a place to store my things,” Ang says. So the idea, and the name of the company, came to him quite naturally. And the concept is simple: they pick up your stuff, store it and return it to you whenever you want for as little as $3 a month.