Toronto lands on Amazon’s HQ2 short list – and that’s exactly where it belongs: U of T experts

Toronto is one of 20 North American cities – and the only one in Canada – still being considered by online retail giant Amazon for its second North American headquarters. But experts at the University of Toronto say that doesn’t mean T-dot, to borrow a dated moniker, is a long shot – far from it, in fact.

“I think we’re actually in the top five,” says University Professor Richard Florida, who is the director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at U of T’s Rotman School of Management, citing the Toronto region’s top universities, diverse local culture and an open Canadian immigration policy.

Florida adds Toronto’s biggest competitors are likely to be New York City, with its status as a global financial centre, or Washington, D.C., with its proximity to American political power. He says Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles comprise a second tier of competition.

Amazon, headquartered in Seattle, created a frenzy among local governments in September when it said it was taking proposals for its second North American headquarters, which it dubbed HQ2. The company promised the successful city would see some US$5 billion worth of investment and 50,000 high-paying jobs in fields ranging from accounting to technology.

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.

It’s time to bring entrepreneurs out of the garage

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.

The Top Seven Startups For Souped-Up Senior Care

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.