The Entrepreneurship Hatchery: Three student startups to watch

Fifty-three student startups have been accepted into the 2016 cohort of U of T Engineering’s Entrepreneurship Hatchery accelerator program, the highest number since the program began in 2012.

The record was marked at this year’s Hatchery kickoff event on April 29, when more than 100 experienced business professionals and Hatchery team members past and present gathered for an evening of networking, mentorship and entrepreneurial evangelism. The products on offer included everything from new medical devices to lifestyle apps.

“The ideas that you are advancing here as part of this program will improve our lives and will transform our society,” said Joseph Orozco, executive director of the Hatchery, at the kick-off event. “Good luck, and keep on sharing the entrepreneurial spirit.”

Four recent U of T Engineering graduates go through business bootcamp at The Next 36

Ashis Ghosh (MechE 1T5 + PEY) and Karim Koreitem (ECE 1T5 +PEY) studied different disciplines, but when they met in U of T Engineering’s Multidisciplinary Capstone Design course, they each found a kindred spirit. “We were able to share perspectives on what excited us,” says Ghosh. “It became clear that we both had entrepreneurial ambitions, so we began meeting on a regular basis to investigate potential business ideas.”

Today Ghosh and Koreitem are business partners. Though specifics of their startup are top-secret for now — they can say only that it involves using machine learning to provide simple solutions to data-rich problems — they both credit their undergraduate education with preparing them for the world of entrepreneurship. “The variety of opportunities within the U of T Engineering community, combined with a strong culture of leadership, helped us develop the diverse set of skills and critical perspective that we needed to drive our startup idea forward,” says Ghosh.

U of T Engineering startup teaBOT expands across North America

Last week, teaBOT — a U of T Engineering startup which sells robot-blended, customized cups of loose-leaf tea — opened its newest location in the very first 365 by Whole Foods Market store in Los Angeles. There are now six teaBOTs in operation across North America, and the company has yet to celebrate its third birthday.

teaBOT was co-founded by Rehman Merali, a PhD student at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS), and his high-school friend Brian Lee. Lee’s mother owns a tea shop in Sudbury, where the line is often out the door. “His poor mom couldn’t make tea fast enough,” says Merali. “One day, Brian and I were having sushi and he said, ‘Rehman, you’re a robotics guy, can’t you just build a machine that will make a cup of tea faster?’”

Toronto-raised, world-ready: Two U of T startups receive funding to expand to international markets

The digital revolution has made it easier than ever to conduct business internationally but the internet can never fully replace face-to-face communication.

That’s why the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) have created GlobalStart, a funding program that gives young startups the opportunity to take their businesses international by removing funding barriers and setting them up with connections in host countries for up to six months.

DNAstack and iMerciv, two University of Toronto startups, are among the most recent round of successful applicants to the program and will be jetting off to the United States and India respectively this coming June.

“I think Toronto is the best entrepreneurial environment in Canada: great tax incentives, the culture is outstanding and we have some of the best machine learning and computer science experts in the world,” said Marc Fiume, founder and CEO of DNAstack. “That being said, a key market for DNAstack is in the United States. GlobalStart allows us the opportunity to grow our business in Toronto but interact with some of our partners in the US.”

DNAstack is a cloud-based software that helps researchers, clinics and pharmaceutical companies manage, search and analyze genetic information. In essence, it’s a search engine for genomic data. The platform is a solution that will facilitate diagnoses, risk analysis and treatment decisions based on genetic information.

“Imagine how much Facebook has changed the way we interact and connect with people,” said Fiume. “We think that sharing genetic information will be as impactful in changing the way medicine is practiced as social media has impacted our ability to connect with each other online. We hope to be the information highway that connects organizations and allows them to share genetic data more efficiently.”

Currently based out of U of T’s Banting Institute, DNAstack will be using GlobalStart funding to travel to either San Francisco or Boston, two locations that have strong ties to the genomics industry.

Moving even further away from home is iMerciv, a startup that produces small wearable devices which help the blind and partially sighted navigate daily life. Through a series of vibrations, their product, the BuzzClip, alerts users when obstacles are approaching, providing a more responsive and comprehensive approach compared to traditional solutions such as guide dogs or canes.

“With the help of GlobalStart, we will be travelling to Gurjarat where we’ve made a connection with a consultant who’s interested in getting an agreement going to distribute in three states in India,” said Arjun Mali, co-founder of iMerciv. “The population there is huge and there are lots of people living with vision loss so we’ll really be able to make an impact with this project.”

There’s been a big change in India recently, Mali explains. The government is currently working on changing the word “disability” into “specially-abled” and is now releasing large amounts of funding under this policy to help people with disabilities.

“Our plan is to get corporate social responsibility and state budgets on board to support us so we can distribute our product to local NGOs who need it the most,” said Mali. “It’s a win for multiple different stakeholders so we’re excited to work with our partners out there and help make a direct impact on the lives of people that really need it in India and eventually world-wide.”

The GlobalStart funding provides a match of up to $15,000 to youth-led startups who demonstrate the potential to achieve sales, investment and/or partnerships internationally. This program is one of many from the OCE which aims to foster the development of the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs in Ontario.

“We encourage all our startups to look at their markets with a global perspective,” said professor Cynthia Goh, academic director of the Banting & Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship. “This award is a great recognition of the global potential of both DNAstack and iMerciv.”

While both DNAstack and iMerciv are looking forward to the opportunity to expand their markets, a strong Canadian presence will remain a priority for the U of T startups.

“We have an amazing network in Toronto and I see this as an opportunity to broaden that network,” said Fiume. “Being able to forge new interactions with leaders in an international market will allow us to bring that intelligence back to Canada and augment what we’re already building here.”

Unpacking entrepreneurship with U of T alumna and startup co-founder Christina Cai

Cai_1For Christina Cai, being an entrepreneur is like constantly shedding a layer of skin: it’s painstaking, it’s gruesome and it’s deliberate.

“Innovation is not accidental, it doesn’t matter how many stories say it is,” said Cai.

“Billion dollar unicorn companies don’t just happen because someone needed help paying the rent then boom: instant success. It doesn’t happen like that. There are iterations and iterations of painful and deliberate innovation.”

Cai and Anthony Lee are co-founders of Knowtions, a cloud-based platform that uses machine augmented human translation to translate highly complicated technical documents. The duo built their startup while completing their undergraduate degrees at U of T.

(Read more about Knowtions)

“We didn’t start out saying that we were going to innovate, or start with this great big idea,” recalls Cai. “We started out with a problem–technical translation–and slowly, every step that we took was a process of addressing different pain points for our clients.”

Cai spoke with writer Olivia Tomic and shared some insights about her entrepreneurial journey so far.

Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

There was no point where I decided to be a founder, or I decided to be an entrepreneur. It just kind of happened. But the analogy I like to make is entrepreneurship is like a muscle. When you’re in the startup game it’s like P90x 365 days a year. P90x is an intensive workout training program where in 90 days you’re supposed to become super fit. It’s incredibly intense and gruelling, and that’s what entrepreneurship is like except for your mind. It’s un-predictable and you’re always learning new things and changing. Our newest employee Alex Tomberg will tell you that since he started in December Knowtions has evolved so much in such a short span of time, and that’s what keeps me going. I know that I might not have the answers now, but in retrospect I will, and that’s what excites me about being an entrepreneur.

How did you balance completing your undergrad degree while running a startup?

If there’s one thing I’d like to emphasize it’s this: entrepreneurship is not a journey taken alone.

My co-founder Anthony and I were classmates during undergrad and throughout the process we were very open and collaborative when it came to balancing school and our startup. He understood when I needed to focus on one aspect of the equation, and vice-versa. You have to trust your co-founder with your life because essentially you’re trusting them with your career. Without Anthony, and now the rest of my team, I would not have been able to run a startup while finishing my undergrad. The team around you is why it’s all possible, there is nothing unless you have the right team.

What has been the greatest challenge you’ve faced as the co-founder of a startup?

Your greatest challenge is essentially yourself. You don’t really know what you’re doing and there’s no training manual for your job. On a day-to-day basis you give it your all and then some. There is no day where you can do the same thing you did a week ago and think that it’s good enough; it’s not. If you keep doing what you did last week, you’re not going fast enough.

What kind of support network do you have?

In terms of the business strategy, some of our best learning moments were the times that were also the most difficult. Advisors and investors pose really painful questions that sometimes you just don’t have the answer to. But those are the moments that make you look the hardest at yourself and your business. It’s a support network in the sense that they ask you the hard questions you need to advance your business.

But if you look in terms of the other support networks, U of T’s Banting & Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (BBCIE) is a great support network, the Department of Computer Science Innovation Lab (DCSIL) is another one, as well as the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE). The Toronto and Ontario innovation systems are able to connect you with resources so you have a bigger opportunity to innovate.

What advice do you have for fellow female entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurs face 100 times more challenges than average and odds are stacked against us by definition. For me, being a woman means sometimes we have to be 10 times more insistent when asking and 10 times more forceful when pitching. It’s not easy, but you have to believe you are just as capable as your male counterparts and you have to do what it takes to get it done. Awareness and change is happening, slowly but surely. At the end of the day, if you get the job done, then nobody will talk. You are being part of the change not just by saying, but by doing.

London’s calling for U of T startup that’s changing the way students write essays

EssayJack - LedohowskiThe ominous black line blinks steadily against a white backdrop. The words aren’t flowing and the clock keeps ticking towards the due date.

We’ve all been there. Writer’s block affects everyone at some point in their lives. Now thanks to EssayJack, a start up founded by University of Toronto alumni, there’s a web-based platform that pre-structures essays, allowing the writing to be done quickly and painlessly.

“Using split-screen composing and text boxes with interactive tips and prompts, students can develop their essay drafts in real time,” said Lindy Ledohowski, co-founder and CEO of EssayJack. “This reduces the student’s writing stress and anxiety and helps to boost their confidence while achieving their writing goals.”

Since its launch in September 2015, EssayJack has secured pilots with tutoring services and a number of secondary and post-secondary institutions – including U of T’s International Foundation Program – a partnership made possible by the Banting & Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship’s Buy Blue program (Read more about Buy Blue).

Now, only months after launching their education software platform, EssayJack has gone through two separate rounds of judging by experts and is a finalist for an ELTon Award by the British Council.

Sponsored by Cambridge English, the ELTon is the only international award which recognizes and celebrates innovation in English language teaching (ELT). EssayJack is one of six products who are shortlisted in the Digital Innovation category, and the only one representing Canada. The Awards ceremony is set for June 2 in London, UK.

“Education – especially in English – isn’t something that’s immediately associated with innovation, but there are so many ways that technology can empower students,” said Ledohowski. “10 years ago, I helped create a writing course at UTSC , and now we have poured decades of experience into creating EssayJack, and we are so honoured to be representing not only U of T but also Canada with this nomination.”

Ledohowski and co-founder Rueban Balasubramaniam built EssayJack from their combined experience as students and professors. The EssayJack platform is customizable by educators who want to tailor it for their own students.

“Because of our backgrounds, we have been able to make EssayJack directly applicable for students writing argumentative essays,” said Balasubramaniam. “It’s built on the idea that form influences content.”

Between the two of them, Ledohowski and Balasubramaniam hold a total of seven degrees and two post doctorates—more than half of which were completed at U of T—and have won multiple teaching awards as well as academic grants and scholarships.

The results from these close ties to the academic community are clear as EssayJack’s software continues to be adopted by students, parents, and educators alike.

EssayJack has also attracted the interest of media and has been named one of three game-changing apps for students in University Affairs, and featured in an interview on CBC radio.

In the summer of 2014 Ledohowski and Balasubramaniam first showed their rough prototype to writing instructors at the St. George and Scarborough campuses, receiving feedback and input from educators and students before building the current product.

“We’ve come a long way since then,” said Ledohowski as they plan to head to England to celebrate their success and the successes of other ELT innovations.

“Our U of T community and support has been an amazing part of this journey. We are very proud of what we’ve created, and are really looking forward to continuing to grow EssayJack this year.”





Student entrepreneurs talk shop with Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor

It’s not every day that eager student entrepreneurs get to sit down and talk with a representative of Her Majesty the Queen about the challenges of growing their fledgling businesses.

But current and former University of Toronto students Dikshant Batra (Nova Sentio); Christina Cai (Knowtions); Ryan Doherty (; Bin Liu (iMerciv); and Rhea Puri (SoCity) were more than up to the challenge.

“What is most exciting? What are you optimistic about and what keeps you at it?” Ontario Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, a former university lecturer and executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, asked the students during their roundtable discussion.

The event was part of her May 17 visit to the St. George campus, which was focused on innovation and how the university is a world leader in producing important research, attracting top talent and instilling and supporting an entrepreneurial spirit in its students and faculty.

Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs (ONE) Partners in Peel collaborates to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurs from the GTA and beyond met at the Innovation Complex at the University of Toronto Mississauga as The Unlock Your Big Idea Pitch Competition took place on Thursday, May 5, 2016. Fourteen finalists, including three from ICUBE UTM were chosen from over 160 applications to pitch their innovative ideas to win over $60,000 in prizes across five categories.

12Five winners and five runners-up were announced by a judging panel composed of Dan Sinai from IBM Canada, Heather Arthur from Rogers Communications, Karen Grant from Angel One Investor Network, Matt Schnarr from Awake Chocolates, Michael List from Ormston List Frawley LLP, Sean Stanleigh from The Globe and Mail and Stephen Beney from Bereskin & Parr.

The Unlock Your Big Idea Pitch Competition was created to give startups the opportunity to compete with entrepreneurs across the Western GTA, pitch to an esteemed panel of judges, and win cash prizes as well as mentorship through the Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs. This competition reflects the community commitment to support innovation and entrepreneurship for economic prosperity.

The competition was delivered in partnership with the Peel members of the Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs, including ICUBE UTM, HumberLaunch, the Brampton Entrepreneur Centre, the Mississauga Business Enterprise Centre, and the RIC Centre. The program is supported by the Campus Linked Accelerator program through the Ontario Centres of Excellence.

The winners in each of the five categories were as follows:

  1. Best Innovation for Tech Business
    • Winner: ParticipAid (ICUBE)
    • Runner up: Dash MD (Impact Centre)
  2. Best Disruptive Innovation
    • Winner: Medella Health
    • Runner up: insTecBio
  3. Best Innovation for Small Business
    • Winner: Oneiric Hockey
    • Runner up: BridesMade
  4. Best “Investment Ready” Company
  5. Audience Choice
    • Winner: Dash MD (Impact Centre)
    • Runner up: Oneiric Hockey


Printem revolutionizes the printed circuit board

From alarm clocks, to smartphones, to complex satellites: Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs) lie at the core of all electronic devices.

While crucial to electronics, PCBs are expensive, time-consuming and require the use of specialized equipment. That’s no longer the case thanks to the University of Toronto startup Printem. With just two items – Printem’s custom designed film and any home or office printer – anyone can create a fully functional printed circuit board.

On May 17, Printem was among four products recognized as U of T Inventions of the Year. The awards, which recognize their uniqueness, potential for global impact and commercial appeal, were presented at the university’s third annual U of T Celebrates Innovation (link to story) event in front of an estimated 200 guests, including Ontario Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell.

Could C-M-P-F make diabetes G-O-N-E?

With more than 420 million people globally diagnosed with diabetes and rising, the demand has never been greater to predict, prevent and better treat this chronic disease.

Tracking – and blocking – an obscure, naturally occurring substance known as CMPF from creating havoc on pancreatic beta cells could be the key.

Already, Kacey Prentice, a U of T PhD graduate, and her partners, Professor Michael Wheeler and research associate Feihan Fay Dai of the department of physiology, have developed tests using CMPF to more quickly predict people at risk of developing diabetes.