As a leading research institution with nine accelerators, it should come as no surprise the University of Toronto is a hotbed of startup activity.
Over the past five years, more than 150 companies have been created. In total, they’ve generated more than $500 million in investment.
So, with Entrepreneurship Week under way, here are 10 exciting U of T startups to keep your eye on:
Steadiwear is the creator of a stabilizing smartglove designed to minimize the impact of hand tremors. Although the glove is not yet available for purchase, the team has demoed their product at a variety of venues and was recently chosen to participate in the 2018 MassChallenge TX.
We talked to Emile Maamary, co-founder and CEO, about Steadiwear and the opportunity they see in the 50+ market.
Point 37 was born late at night in a pizza shop.
It was there that first-year students Tanvir Shahriar, Sadman Hasan and Mubtaseem Zaman, all from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, and actuarial science student Farhad Siddique started tossing around ideas for how big data can improve daily life.
The team decided to pursue a startup aimed at leveraging business intelligence techniques for educational institutions.
“Business intelligence, including data analysis and prediction, is already widely used to make companies more resourceful and productive,” says Shahriar, director of communications for point 37. “We want to make business intelligence into something that is truly for everyone.”
There was a time when building a successful Toronto startup meant eventually decamping to Silicon Valley – if for no other reason than to boost credibility in the eyes of deep-pocketed American investors.
“When you talk to people in the U.S., they’re increasingly familiar with Toronto,” says Liam Kaufman, co-founder and CEO of WinterLight Labs, a University of Toronto health-care startup using artificial intelligence, or AI, and speech analysis to detect cognitive decline.
“I think there’s now a clear understanding that Toronto has benefits, whether it’s talent, immigration policies or all the different hospitals.”
Add in nearby Waterloo, another innovation hotspot, and the region comprises the second-biggest tech cluster in North America and one of North America’s biggest life sciences clusters outside of Boston.
Whether preventing passport fraud or currency counterfeiting, smart nano-materials invented by Toronto-based Opalux have locked in a new level of security.
Born in Professor Geoffrey Ozin’s chemistry lab at the University of Toronto (U of T), Opalux’s interactive security features are designed to manipulate light (photons) to prevent counterfeiting from fraudsters. Supported by loyal investors and nurtured onto the market by the Government of Canada’s Concierge service and National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP), the one-of-a-kind technology is virtually impossible to duplicate.
“The features are driven by ‘tunable’ photonic crystals whose appearance changes in response to a range of stimuli including laser energy, pressure, electric current and chemicals,” says Opalux CEO Andrew Binkley. For example, genuine banknotes embedded with the crystals change colour when users squeeze or scratch them, whereas counterfeit money will not. On passports, the feature protects the document holder’s portrait by adding an identical colour-shifting portrait that makes tampering very tough.
“We are the only people in the world who make this material,” he adds. “It is so advanced that counterfeiters and competitors simply don’t have the knowledge and resources to copy it.” Binkley points out that the company’s team of world-class scientists has spent 10 years perfecting the materials.
ModiFace, ROSS Intelligence and WinterLight Labs were just a few of the University of Toronto startups on campus last week, alongside established tech names including Autodesk, IBM and Ubisoft Toronto, pitching their applied research projects to the cohort of master’s students in applied computing.
Nearly 60 startups and companies took part in the program’s internship fair over three days. Students in the master’s program must complete an eight-month, industry-based applied research project before graduating.
“To see the program this big, and have all these awesome companies come in and be part of a great event, is really exciting to see,” said Jyotheeswar Arvind Manickavasagar, a software developer for DNAstack, a genomics software startup founded by Marc Fiume, who completed a doctorate in the department of computer science.
“One thing that the MScAC program puts an emphasis on is entrepreneurship, and working at a startup, you really see that [knowledge] being applied in your day to day,” said Manickavasagar, an applied computing alumnus who was named to Canada’s Developer 30 Under 30 list in 2017.
Huda Idrees thought she entered the male-dominated tech industry with her eyes wide open. But the University of Toronto engineering alumna says she was totally unprepared for what she found.
“I’ve actually been in situations where my employer has tried to pay a male subordinate of mine more money than me,” says Idrees, who has worked for several Toronto startups before launching one of her own.
“It’s really shocking.”
Yet, while tech’s frat-boy reputation has been well-documented, including at giants like Facebook and Uber, Idrees doesn’t believe there’s anything particularly unique about her chosen industry.
Rather, she says tech’s gender diversity problems have more to do with the sector’s rising social and economic clout since all powerful industries tend “to be dominated by people who are already in power – and for the last thousand or so years, it’s been men.”
Toronto is proving to be a hot spot for boosting businesses, with three local incubators and accelerators now ranked among the world’s top university-backed launchpads for startup companies.
The DMZ at Ryerson University, known for supporting Canadian tech startups like marketing company #paid, credit education company Borrowell, and photography website 500PX, has been ranked the top university-managed tech incubator in the world, tying with an incubator from the U.K.
“[It’s] a huge accomplishment not only for us and Toronto, but more importantly, for the country — for Canada — as a whole,” said Abdullah Snobar, executive director of the DMZ.
“As Canada, we’re obviously doing something right… this gives us a chance to get on the international stage,” he added.
Another local business launchpad — University of Toronto Entrepreneurship — took fourth place in the rankings, which were announced in Toronto on Friday by Stockholm-based research and advisory firm UBI Global.
The University of Toronto is among the top five best global universities for fostering startups, says UBI Global, a Stockholm-based research and advisory firm that ranks top business incubators and accelerators.
“This is amazing news and an important recognition of the growing international status of our entrepreneurship community at U of T,” said Vivek Goel, vice-president of research and innovation.
“The breadth and depth of U of T’s research expertise coupled with the entrepreneurial talent, ideas and drive of our students and faculty has created a rich, dynamic environment to grow the next great global startups,” he said.
“We’d also like to thank the Province of Ontario for their strong support of student entrepreneurship opportunities across the province, which is why Ontario incubators had a very strong showing across the board.”