U of T alumni build app to crowdsource issues with bike parking in Toronto

Finding somewhere to park a bike on busy Toronto streets can be challenging – with some cyclists forced to walk for blocks or lock their bikes to trees and signposts.

The creators of a new app are hoping to find a solution to the city’s bike parking problem by crowdsourcing data on parking issues.

BikeSpace is a web-based app, funded in part by the City of Toronto, which encourages cyclists to report parking issues at their location, from a lack of parking spots to an abandoned bicycle taking up space.

“The app is meant to be a very streamlined, quick experience where, in that moment of frustration with bike parking which everyone experiences, you can pull out your phone and in approximately 30 seconds you can state the problem, the location, and provide a contextual photo or comment,” says Jake Miller, BikeSpace’s product manager. “By making these personal anecdotes something we’re capturing, we can tell a broader story about what’s happening to cyclists with regards to bike parking.”

U of T innovation centre to help form ‘new cornerstone’ of the Canadian economy

Toronto’s burgeoning innovation district – home to hundreds of researchers, entrepreneurs and innovation-minded partners – is poised to undergo a dramatic expansion.

The University of Toronto has confirmed plans to build a new innovation centre at the corner of College Street and University Avenue, directly across the street from the MaRS Discovery District and up the road from several of the country’s top research hospitals.

Part of a longer-term development plan, the first phase of the project will consist of a 14-storey tower that proposes to house U of T Entrepreneurship, the Innovations & Partnerships Office and the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

The gently sloping tower, which will replace the western portion of the Banting and Best complex, will also devote half of its 250,000 square feet of floor space to startup companies and established corporate partners who want to be closer to U of T’s cutting-edge research. It’s expected to be completed in 2021.

“The University of Toronto has played a key role in the GTA’s emergence as a global centre for innovation,” said U of T President Meric Gertler.

“In fields ranging from artificial intelligence to regenerative and precision medicine, our world-class researchers and students continue to have a profound impact on innovation and entrepreneurship in the Toronto region.”

A rendering of phase one of the innovation centre, as viewed from the southwest

U of T has emerged as a leader in creating startups in recent years, producing more than 500 companies that have collectively generated more than $1 billion in investment in the past decade. Since 2010, the university has also filed more than 400 patent applications and negotiated over 250 license agreements related to technologies developed by its researchers.

With the new innovation centre, U of T will significantly increase its capacity – and that of Toronto – to play a significant role in shaping the future of Canada’s knowledge economy.

Designed by New York-based Weiss/Manfredi Architects in collaboration with Toronto’s Teeple Architects, the new centre will encourage student entrepreneurs to rub shoulders with industry veterans, using a mix of office and instructional space, shared meeting rooms, lounges and public areas – some of which will be connected vertically between floors.

The lobby of phase one of the innovation centre 

Phase two of the project – a second, taller tower connected by a multi-storey podium – will support U of T’s innovation and commercialization activities in the biomedical and regenerative medicine space.

“If you purpose-build a building to support interaction, collaboration and the growth of spin-off companies, you get a much higher success rate,” explained Scott Mabury, U of T’s vice-president of operations.

At the same time, the centre’s soaring atrium and open, inviting street-front design will serve to better connect the public with the university, and those working inside with the people whose future they are working to transform – yet another example of how U of T is very much a part of the city in which it is located.

A rendering of a lounge area in phase one of the project

The new development comes at a time when the physical structures housing much of U of T’s commercialization apparatus are bursting at the seams. The Banting and Best buildings, built in 1930 and 1954 respectively, house an array of startups, accelerators and programs. There are over 50 U of T-affiliated startups in the Banting and Best buildings now – with a waiting list. Banting is also home to U of T’s ONRamp co-working space, which was created in partnership with RBC and is open to entrepreneurs from U of T and partner universities in southern Ontario.

“There is huge support and need for this type of building – it’s the right space in the right location,” said Mabury, adding that planning for the facility first began about eight years ago.

Mabury said the new centre will amplify the innovation and commercialization activities already underway elsewhere at U of T, MaRS and downtown Toronto’s proliferating array of research institutes, incubators and accelerators – an expanding hub that’s already winning praise for its open, urban-centric approach to encouraging innovation.

“Our aspiration is to help build a new cornerstone for the Canadian economy.”

A rendering of U of T’s new innovation centre (white buildings, at left) on the corner of College Street and University Avenue, once both phases are complete

Rotman School of Management fuels financial innovation

As the second-largest financial centre in North America, Toronto is headquarters of the Canadian financial sector. Many large finance companies are based here; and the region is also home to a burgeoning number of financial start-up companies, particularly those focused on artificial intelligence (AI), digital payments and robo-advising.

And while our competitive economy and early government investments in innovation continue to fuel Toronto’s financial services leadership on the world stage, it’s the province of Ontario’s leading universities and incubators that are helping to develop the practical experience of skilled talent that enter the marketplace each year. Among them: The University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

In 2014–15 alone, the numerous incubators and accelerators at the University of Toronto (U of T) worked with 226 student-led start-up teams and produced 79 registered companies, the most of any institution across Canada.

With the introduction of the Rotman School of Management’s Financial Innovation Hub in Advanced Analytics (“FinHub”) in November 2017, U of T has been making even greater strides to spur financial innovation and entrepreneurship in the Ontario market and beyond.

U of T grad’s AI startup raises US$1.5 million to accelerate cancer drug discovery

Oren Kraus took up coding because, by his own admission, he was not cut out for doing experiments in the lab. Now his artificial intelligence-powered startup has raised US$1.5 million to transform biomedical research and drug discovery.

Called Phenomic AI, the startup develops computer vision tools for a faster and more accurate analysis of microscopy data. Its name comes from the word “phenotype,” which biologists use to describe how a cell – and its inner parts – look. The tools developed will help researchers spot subtle differences between cells that could be early signs of disease and identify promising drugs.

“We’re able to apply deep learning to microscopy datasets,” says Kraus, who will receive his PhD on Tuesday. His graduate research was co-supervised by University Professor Brenda Andrews, the director of the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research and a pioneer in large-scale cell microscopy research, and Professor Brendan Frey, of the department of electrical and computer engineering. Frey is also a founder of Deep Genomics, a startup using AI for interpretation of genome data.

Education in innovation: U of T grad’s startup experience gives him leg up during job hunt

Anston Emmanuel is about to start a coveted job as an active safety controls development engineer at automotive giant General Motors – a position he secured, strange as it sounds, thanks in part to an unsuccessful effort to launch a biomedical startup at the University of Toronto.

Though the startup in question – based around a drill attachment to improve knee surgery outcomes – would seem to have little relevance to one of the world’s biggest automakers, Emmanuel says the experience gave him a clear edge when first applying for an internship at GM’s Canadian Technical Centre in Markham, Ont.

“I was told one of the main reasons I was brought on was because they saw I could take initiative within GM,” says Emmanuel, who is graduating Tuesday with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

“They saw that during the interview process – that I was someone who was a self-starter and could bring a sense of entrepreneurship within the company.”

University of Toronto accelerator affiliate shoots for the starry-eyed entrepreneurs

For a Toronto-based innovation accelerator, the final frontier is the next frontier.

The Creative Destruction Lab, an accelerator affiliated with the University of Toronto, is now calling for applications specifically from starry-eyed entrepreneurs with space-focused startup ideas. And the new stream already has some star power behind it ― they’ve enlisted Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield to serve as the founding fellow.

“Space is obviously something that most people have a lot of passion about, because it’s primarily unknown,” said CDL’s Sheret Ross, who’s leading the accelerator’s new space stream. The “unknown” is ripe territory for entrepreneurs, who he says are in constant search of problems to solve. They’re looking to recruit around 25 new ventures.

Mr. Ross believes there’s a substantial talent pool in Toronto’s aerospace realm, but no clear path to entrepreneurship. “It’s really going to be about public-private collaboration, and creating an ecosystem where ventures can go through,” he told The Globe and Mail.

This Canadian tech company is revolutionizing the way we buy beauty products

As the beauty industry experiments with new ways to incorporate technology into a very tactile product, one Canadian company is leading the charge.

ModiFace is an augmented reality outfit that creates tech specifically for beauty companies. Primarily, they’ve developed the ability to simulate trying on beauty products over live video. This technology is so in demand that, in March, cosmetics giant L’Oréal fully acquired ModiFace as part of its Digital Services Factory, which designs and develops new digital initiatives for L’Oréal’s 39 brands.

ModiFace was founded in 2007 by Parham Aarabi, an associate professor in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering at the University of Toronto. Aarabi was originally working on an application that could read lips when one of his colleagues suggested the technology could could have applications in the beauty world. “We created a website where you could replace your lips with Angelina Jolie’s, so you could get a sense of what different lips or different eyes might look like on you,” says Aarabi.

The website caught the attention of pharmaceutical company Allergan, which makes the dermal filler Juvederm, often used to plump lips. In the years to follow, ModiFace’s technology was employed by more than 80 brands, including Sephora, to give customers the ability to virtually try on makeup, skin care and hair care through websites, apps and in-store mirrors.

U of T accelerator launches stream for space startups with Chris Hadfield at the controls

The Creative Destruction Lab has helped build dozens of futuristic companies over the years – now it’s seeking entrepreneurs whose ideas are literally out of this world.

Working closely with former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, the seed-stage accelerator affiliated with the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management is launching a dedicated stream for space startups working on everything from interplanetary transportation to asteroid mining.

The new stream seeks to attract space-focused entrepreneurs from around the world while providing entrepreneurial minded Canadian researchers at places like the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies, or UTIAS, with another way to get their innovative ideas off the ground.

“We see a next-generation of space entrepreneurship on the rise,” says Sheret Ross, a Rotman MBA alumnus who is leading the new CDL stream. “Yet, despite amazing talent in Canada, relatively few of those companies are being created here – we want to change that.”

With a goal of launching 60 successful space startups over the next five years, Ross says CDL plans to build a network of corporate partners, space agencies, astronauts, investors and seasoned entrepreneurs who can support these “really amazing PhD or master’s level students who want to commercialize their research” in the space realm.

Toronto Startup Blue J Legal Uses AI to Help Predict How Courts will Rule on Employment Law Cases

Employment Foresight, a software developed by Blue J Legal in Toronto, uses machine learning to identify hidden patterns in judicial rulings of past cases, which then helps human resources professionals, crown counsels and other professionals to quickly find out how a court will likely rule on employment law issues. Why wait for your day in court to predict the outcome?

Does one successful startup lead to another? That’s definitely the case for Ben Alarie and his co-founders at Blue J Legal, the Toronto start-up which experienced success with the 2015 launch of Tax Foresight, a system that uses machine learning algorithms to predict the likely outcomes of tax law cases. Now they’ve applied that same winning formula to employment law.

Alarie, who’s CEO of Blue J Legal as well as the Osler Chair in Business Law at the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto, says the team didn’t originally plan to developed a version of their AI-driven tax system for employment law. It was largely prompted by feedback and requests from clients: “We’d be making presentations to lawyers at major Toronto law firms about employee classification from a tax law perspective, and invariably someone would ask if we had time to make the same presentation to their labour and employment law group.”  Alarie, along with his co-founders Albert Yoon and Anthony Niblett, who are also law professors, would always emphasize to the client that the algorithms were based on tax case law, not employment law. “But our clients were still keen,” says the law professor-cum-entrepreneur.

“It was a fairly organic progression after that,” says Alarie. In 2017 Blue J Legal launched Employment Foresight. “It’s been a game-changer for our clients because it takes into account all of the important factors that courts consider in employment law cases, and then makes a prediction based on how those factors have interacted in court in the past,”

Students from UoT develop wearable device to help mobility impaired walk

For Indian students, Manmeet Maggu and Rahul Udasi–both 27–of the University of Toronto, the inspiration for Trexo Robotics, a wearable robotic device for children with disabilities, came from Magu’s nephew Praneit who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. “We tested the prototype on Praneit who lives in Delhi. When we watched him taking his first steps using our device, it was an incredibly proud moment. This summer we will bring him a more refined version,” says Maggu, CEO of Trexo Robotics who co-founded the company with Udasi, the startup’s CTO in 2016.

The duo first met when they were studying mechatronics engineering at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. While Maggu went on to do a Master’s of Business Administration at the University of Toronto (UoT), Rahul did a Master’s of Engineering from the same university. It was through Trexo Robotics, the duo set on a mission to redefine mobility solutions. “Our current version is the product that children will use with some add-on features we hope to design in the future,” Udasi says.

Trexo Robotics has been recognised among the top five innovative startups by the Canadian Innovation Awards and receives regular support from Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in the US.