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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
Most known diseases can be attributed to the structure of proteins in certain cells – a biological fact driving the research and development of protein-based therapies that can alter the behaviour of affected proteins to cure disease. A big challenge for scientists, however, is the length of time it takes to design, produce and test each protein structure in the laboratory.
“It can take months to prototype a protein structure and then test it to see if it works or if it’s faulty,” explains Tomáš Babej, founder and chief technology officer at ProteinQure, which joined Creative Destruction Lab‘s seed stage program in September 2017. “And when a structure is found faulty, you need to start all over again with a new protein design.”
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.