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Waterloo Region Tech Roundup for April

Mallorie Brodie and Lauren Lake

Photo:Bridgit co-founders Mallorie Brodie (left) and Lauren Lake (Photo courtesy of Bridgit)

Bridgit: Built on diversity

Roundup regulars will recognize Bridgit as one of the brightest – and least conventional – stars in Waterloo Region’s current startup constellation. In April, the light shone a bit brighter with news of a US$1.7 million seed round, led by Chicago-based Hyde Park Venture Partners, that will help the construction software company grow revenue and its headcount over the next year. When we caught up with CEO Mallorie Brodie, she told us how a commitment to diversity is helping that growth along. Founders, take note.

The expat welcome mat

Bridgit, of course, is among many Waterloo Region tech companies on the hunt for top talent, a key source of which lies south of the border. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians work in Silicon Valley and other U.S. tech hubs, and their experience could help greatly as Toronto and Waterloo Region work together to build a globally significant innovation corridor.

To that end, mayors from both regions travelled to California in April to tout the corridor to potential investors, global tech companies and expat Canadians who might be considering moving home. Toronto Mayor John Tory drew sustained applause when he touched on Canadian social values during a speech in San Francisco, and co-authored a Globe and Mail op-ed, with Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic, calling for action to make the corridor more attractive to tech workers.

Playing the Trump card

It didn’t hurt that the U.S. is staring down the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency, a fact seized upon in enterprising fashion by Sortable, a talent-hungry Waterloo Region adtech startup, and picked up on by Reuters in their coverage of the mayors’ mission.

None of that is to say the Bay Area is any less crucial to the growth strategies of Canadian startups, as illustrated in this video, titled Get There. The point was also made powerfully during the mayors’ visit by Waterloo’s TextNow. The bargain mobile telecom company, featured as our lead story in the March Roundup, opened a satellite office in San Francisco, and released new figures to underscore its recent success: $20 million in 2015 revenue (a 75 per cent increase from 2014), and two million new users signing up each month.

Escape Velocity                          

When it comes to connecting with Silicon Valley, Mike Kirkup, Director of the University of Waterloo’s acclaimed Velocity program, has been a consistent advocate for local entrepreneurs. Now, after more than four years during which he built Velocity into North America’s largest free incubator, Kirkup is leaving Velocity to join Encircle, an insurance-tech startup based in the same Tannery complex where the Velocity Garage is housed, as its Chief Technology Officer.

Encircle’s backers include FairVentures, a new initiative of Prem Watsa’s Fairfax Holdings, which opened an innovation lab in the Communitech Hub earlier this year. Fairfax has significant insurance-related investments.

As insurance’s close cousin, Canada’s financial services industry is also ramping up its involvement with startups – specifically in Waterloo Region and Toronto – in a bid to stave off disruption and become more technologically nimble. The Globe and Mail’s David Berman took a deep dive into these efforts in April, while Ray Sharma of Extreme Venture Partners suggested Canadian banks need to step up their fintech game even more.

Smartest in the world?

By docking in Waterloo Region, large companies have made a shrewd choice, given it is among the “brain belts” that have emerged from traditional manufacturing centres. That according to a new book, The Smartest Places on Earth, whose authors visited the region this week. We sat down with one of them, Antoine van Agtmael, who coined the term “emerging markets” in the early 1980s, but now sees momentum swinging back to the former “rust belt” cities of North America and Europe.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, making his second appearance in the region in less than three months, shared his own high opinions of its innovative capacity during a $50 million funding announcement at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. He also created a much-dissected viral sensation when he shared his knowledge of quantum computing with reporters at the PI visit, a video of which has been viewed more than a million and a half times.

Innovation agenda

The Trudeau government, meanwhile, continued to move towards a comprehensive innovation agenda, and Waterloo Region will be “instrumental” to its success, Finance Minister Bill Morneau said during a visit to Communitech. A couple of weeks later, Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, named tech entrepreneur Nathon Gunn as his top innovation adviser.

The Economist, riffing on Trudeau’s performance at PI, offered an insightful look at the challenges and opportunities facing Canada – citing Waterloo Region as emblematic – as the country works to build a more robust innovation strategy.

As it does so, the government is getting no shortage of advice from outside. Dan Breznitz, author and academic with the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, warned against the “overplanning and thumb-twiddling” of past federal efforts to foster innovation, and called for measures that better enable innovative companies and entrepreneurs to do business. Bilal Khan of Toronto’s One Eleven accelerator, meanwhile, issued similar warnings about over-consultation and made the case for a “flexible, malleable” innovation policy.

Whatever innovation agenda Ottawa comes up with, companies like Waterloo-based Intellijoint, whose device improves the quality of hip surgeries, should serve as examples to guide policymakers.

Automotive innovation is one area that has attracted early support from the government, and Kitchener-based Pravala Car, whose software enables continuous connection to the Internet for vehicles, is among the beneficiaries.


Connected cars are but one component of the smart cities of the future, an area in which Kitchener-based Miovision is making big bets on intersection technology to better manage road traffic. Last month the 10-year-old company teamed up with Swift Labs, a startup founded by a husband-and-wife team in 2014 that arose from the ashes of BlackBerry’s downsizing, on a partnership to test new hardware.

The ascent of hardware – especially robotics – within Waterloo Region’s tech community was the focus of an in-depth story in the Globe and Mail Report on Business Magazine (subscription only), a trend that bodes well, but highlights the need for Canada to double down on innovation lest it lose opportunities to other global hubs.

On the topic of robots, Kitchener’s Clearpath Robotics snagged silver at the prestigious Edison Awards for innovation in New York, for its autonomous OTTO warehouse vehicle. The accolade followed news that GE Healthcare had selected OTTO to work in its Wisconsin-based repair centre.

Looking skyward, Waterloo-based Aeryon Labs deployed a drone to Ecuador to map the zone of destruction from a deadly earthquake on April 16.

And Stephen Lake, CEO of Kitchener’s Thalmic Labs, had some fun demonstrating the company’s Myo gesture-control armband on Fox News earlier in the month.


Waterloo-based OpenText signed a deal with HP Inc. to acquire US$170 million worth of the American company’s customer experience software and services assets. Also in April, OpenText CEO Mark Barrenechea spoke with the Financial Post about the open government movement and the company’s role in making public data more accessible.

BlackBerry CEO John Chen wrote a blog post explaining the company’s longstanding policy of “doing what’s right” by co-operating with law enforcement agencies in investigations, while balancing that co-operation against the privacy rights of its clients.

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The Communitech News team uses Canon equipment for photography and video.