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Wired Different

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Wired Different

By YUNG WU (CEO, MaRS Discovery District), ABDULLAH SNOBAR (Executive Director, DMZ) and DEAN HOPKINS (Chief Growth Officer, OneEleven)

Canadians are wired differently. We embrace difference differently. We assimilate differently. We approach change differently.

This difference gives us an edge in a world that is being rewired. Artificial intelligence, blockchain, and the sharing economy are changing human existence and reshaping society as we know it. While geo-economic centres are being rewired around these transformative innovations, geo-political narratives are becoming more turbulent, with the rise of nationalism and threats to free-market values.

As disconcerting as these developments are, they are giving Canada – in particular the Toronto region – an advantage on the world stage. While others are turning inward, we have doubled down on our commitment to multiculturalism and diversity, creating fast-track visas for skilled tech workers.

It seems to be working. According to CBRE, Toronto is the fastest-growing tech market in North America. At a time when tech talenti s a more valuable commodity than any natural resource, this region has built an enormous competitive advantage – attracting workers from around the world looking to live in a vibrant community that embraces difference.

This growth tells a story that goes for beyond simple job metrics. Call it our diversity dividend: More than half our ventures have at least one foreign-born founder, and a larger proportion of our ventures are led by women than in Silicon Valley. This diversity is reflected in the faces of the entrepreneurs profiled throughout this magazine.

Multinationals are also being drawn here. In September alone, more than $1.4 billion of investments in Toronto’s tech sector were announced by companies including Microsoft, Uber, and Shopify. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

How to explain this tectonic tech shift? We’d argue that it’s due to our collaborative and inclusive culture. Toronto innovation hubs like MaRs, the DMZ, and OneEleven are working together to provide a fertile environment for young companies to grow. Hubs like these and others in the surrounding region offer prime real estate where entrepreneurs, business leaders and venture capitalists can co-locate,providing a natural networking platform that engages and empowers the community.

This magazine features more than 50 tech companies to watch in Toronto and the surrounding region. Many of these ventures are focused on socially beneficial verticals such as health, cleantech an d technologies impacting the future of work and commerce.

Toronto’s attraction – and unique value proposition – is its approach to responsible disruption. This means supporting companies that cam make an impact globally. And we have no shortage of them. Take, for instance, Wealthsimple, which is helping customers make the most of their money with an easy-to-use, low-cost investment platform. Founded four years ago, it already has $2 billion under management.

Spoonity has built a client engagement platform for restaurants and retailers that is rapidly gaining traction in South America, with almost with almost 17 million processed to date.

Meanwhile, companies like Opus One are bringing the era of clean energy closer. Its powerful software lets grid operators understand and manage the massive amounts of data needed to control a system powered by thousands of individual solar panels and wind turbines.

These and other ventures profiled in this magazine are just a small sample of Toronto’s burgeoning tech sector. As our ecosystem grows, so its impact will grow, too. That is good news for our region, for Canada and the world.


Being a leader today – fast, furious and sometimes uncomfortable

In order to help your organization grow, it’s important to be uncomfortable heading the charge for change, which might make your team feel uncertain and uncomfortable.

Below are six things every leader should do to become a more agile leader.

  • Erase your comfort zone: One of the responsibilities of a leader is to try new things by creating new abilities for your team and organization. Be ready to switch gears in order to stay competitive.
  • Think fast and move quickly: Some decisions can’t wait for you to “sleep on it”. Know when to seize a moment because timing is everything.
  • Build confidence even when uncertain: in today’s world it’s about how fast you can adapt. Some of the most critical moments won’t give you all the answers before you need to make a decision – and that’s okay!
  • Lose the anxiety of failing – it helps no one: Don’t let the thought of something failing hold you back from making a necessary change in your organization. Holding back from a decision due to being scared to fail could keep you on the status quo.
  • The unpopular decision can sometimes be the right one to make: some decisions can be stressful for not only the leader, but the whole organization.
  • It’s important to go with your gut and make sure everything is done to support the direction you want to head towards.
  • Think Globally: We’re more connected than ever before – take advantage of that and understand the impact you can have on the global stage – this will only help you better create agility in your management approach.

The tech sector thrives on delving into the unknown. And some of your best opportunities and wins can come from the hardest decisions and biggest chances.

As a leader, It might make you feel uncomfortable to take a gamble with a team behind you. But with the right talent, a clear strategy and a hunger to succeed, the rewards of being an agile leader will continue to put your organization steps ahead of your competitors.

Many corporate accelerators are adding to ‘innovation theatre’

With this growing interest, comes a line of partnerships and spaces that have emerged over the years. Unfortunately, not all of these efforts -corporate accelerators to be exact- have lived up to their mission.

The sad reality is many corporate accelerator models are “by corporates for corporate interest”, adding to ‘innovation theatre’, otherwise known as innovation just for show.

Today, many corporate accelerators have become a place to draw up excitement by experimenting with innovation, but failing to help scale and commercialize any startups. A large part of this is because many corporate accelerators are not truly unlocking their internal resources and extensive networks to solve the problems they say they care about.

The fact is, many of these corporate accelerators haven’t found a formula that gives both startups and corporates what they want. The current state of these spaces have not established a ‘win-win’ for both parties.

So, how can corporate accelerators do better?

To become a constructive part of the global innovation ecosystem, it’s necessary to build a model that can help startups leverage corporate assets in order to scale and grow (instead of it feeling like it’s the other way around).

Stop working in silos – there are a number of great incubators and accelerators within the ecosystem. Instead of putting resources towards something new or hiring an incubator/accelerator to run an accelerator, find ways to support what’s already working within current incubator/accelerator programs that can also support your end goal.

If you’re a corporate going forward with an accelerator program, then you need to understand the playing field. Trying to add corporate bureaucracies and fixed procedures will not be conducive to an environment that should be focusing on startup growth.

In many cases, there seems to be more effort, time and money being put into launching corporate accelerator spaces than there is notable opportunities for entrepreneurs. And until these points are addressed, startups -the ones who can’t afford to waste time during a pivotal part of their growth- will feel disconnected and dissatisfied by the efforts of such spaces.

Canada: The need for more

Canadian entrepreneurs have the opportunity to create a global impact. Our startups and innovators are world-class leaders. However, if we don’t create an ecosystem where they can flourish, our prosperity is at risk. And unfortunately, that’s where we are now.

Creating a successful home-grown business benefits all stakeholders. We see this with countries that are currently leading today’s innovation economy. They do it on the back of entrepreneurs and by commercializing their ideas. However, in Canada, Blackberry (launched by RIM) is still the only company that has been listed among the world’s top innovators. And that was almost 20 years ago.

If we want more Canadian tech companies to become household names around the world, we need to stop riding waves and become market leaders. Our government pumping money into an innovation agenda isn’t enough. There needs to be a shift in our mindset and strategies. We need to be more aggressive and assertive in our approach.

It’s time to understand what role we each play in making sure critical steps are taken to help us transition from being a country with potential to one that is prosperous.

We can only do this if our country’s universities, businesses and political leaders come together to consider programs, policies and initiatives that work hand-in-hand with entrepreneurs. It’s time to boost links between our most important stakeholders and stop working in silos. Our ecosystem, and the players within it, have matured. And now, it’s time for us to make some hard decisions. We need to double down on our high potential startups and programs in order to guarantee success. Spreading our resources equally to all players is no longer an option if we want to get to the next level.

The stakes have gotten higher and it’s no longer about creating a vision to help startups grow and compete in the global innovation economy, but developing a path to make sure they win on the global stage.

We’ve picked our six for the Aviva Insurtech Accelerator program

How big is the insurtech market? A report by marketing magazine Business Insurance found the burgeoning sector secured a whopping $3 billion in new investments in 2015 and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. A few of today’s biggest players in the space, like Aviva Canada, are proving how legacy companies can adapt to digital disruption in the field and thrive in the process.

Comparable to the way fintech startups transformed the banking world, ‘insurtech’ companies have set their sights on disrupting the insurance industry. Our friends at Aviva Canada are showing their support for new-age businesses in the industry by sponsoring a new program that will help six startups at the DMZ grow through our very first insurtech accelerator.

Although many applied for a coveted spot in the program only a few were accepted. The following six startups made the cut and we’re very proud to announce our very first cohort, which will spend four months perfecting their products and improving their services with access to sales support, mentors and a chance to pitch to a £100M fund. At the end of the program each company will participate in an industry ‘Demo Day’ where they’ll have the chance to pitch their company to executives at Aviva Ventures for an investment opportunity.

EatSleepRide Motorcycle GPS

Inspired by the versatility of the Swiss Army Knife, EatSleepRIDE Motorcycle GPS app helps motorcyclists get the most out of their seat time with native social features, free motorcycle roads and telematics combined with CRASHLIGHT safety built-in to automatically detect a crash and notify contacts of the rider’s location.


This company helps turn internal paper-based processes into highly converting, customer-friendly experiences. “Smart forms” act as a personal assistant: creating unique paths for each customer by removing or adding questions only when they’re relevant. Once the information is captured, FormHero automatically finds, fills out and delivers an organization’s existing paperwork.


This AI-backed, on-demand insurance platform makes obtaining travel insurance quick and easy. Signing up takes less than two minutes and coverage can be turned on or off anytime, meaning users only pay for what they use.


This app redacts, compares, and automatically summarizes any text document, saving clients time.


Creating the world’s largest connected vehicle services platform, the company’s technology schedules service reminders and diagnostic alerts to encourage best practices for staying-up-to date with maintenance issues, reducing claim severity monitoring mileage, which determines warranty liability, improves risk management and reduces claim processing costs.

Sumo Insurance Brokers

An AI-powered digital platform that responds to and manages highly repetitive conversations between customers and brokers. With their trained digital assistant, Sumo automates and simplifies the process of buying and servicing personalized insurance policies.

Stepping up to an unjust order

And with a stroke of a pen, the option for many individuals to leave their homes for a better life has been blocked by an unjust executive order. Having gone through the appropriate measures to secure a visa to the United States, the opportunity that was given to my family and many other families in North America has come to a halt. Although the Trump administration maintains that the executive order is not a “Muslim Ban” there is no other way to describe it.

If you bare no empathy for refugees and immigrants, there is a core reason why you should still oppose Trump’s order. This core reason is simple. It’s about doing the right thing when a group of people are being denounced.

In order to succeed in North America, you must collaborate with talented individuals on great ideas, regardless of their religious beliefs or where they were born. And as Canadians, our commitment to fostering  an open and inclusive society has been our strength. We see and experience this every day with our diverse community at DMZ and in the Canadian tech sector. And as a result, we’ve become a more innovative country. And no matter where you stand on this argument, it’s a fact that diversity is at the core of economic growth.

#Diversity will always remain in Canada’s heritage

The open letter from the Canadian tech sector proves that you don’t need to be a refugee or an immigrant Muslim like myself to feel the impact of this radical policy. You just have to understand that the more a nation marginalizes a group of people, the more socially and economically stagnant it becomes.

Canada has a long standing tradition of being open to those who seek protection from war, violence and discrimination. In order to keep this tradition alive, we must step up and call on the federal government to issue an emergency visa to individuals affected by this executive order.

If you wish to add your support to this effort, please add your name here. However, I call on other leaders of incubators and innovation hubs to not only add their name, but to provide a tangible service to this cause.

The DMZ will be:

  • Offering free work space with access to our resources for those who have been affected by this order
  • Offering support from Goodmans LLP, our legal counsel-in-residence, to help you with business issues as they relate to the US (e.g., managing a US subsidiary, employee contracts and cross-border investment).

I will be personally reaching out to members of our esteemed advisory council, comprised of top business and tech minds in North America, to find concrete ways to support our efforts.

Every single one of us can make a difference, and together, we can make a change. I encourage other partners in the ecosystem to do the same.


The top highlights (and lessons learned) from my first year as executive director

The top highlights

During the past 12 months as the Executive Director, I’ve had the privilege of being surrounded by a community of energetic, driven, resilient individuals. This community has allowed us, the DMZ, to thrive from the momentum, to become a leading global business incubator and to focus efforts on one ultimate priority: our startups.

Muhammed Ali famously said “don’t count the days; make the days count.” As we continue to make each day count towards our mission to be Canada’s leading business incubator and a hub for startups that are having a transformative impact on the economy and society, I wanted to sha re my top highlights (and lessons learned) from my first year as ED.

  1. Focusing on our mission… fuelling startup successIn consultation with our startups, it became clear that we needed to shift our emphasis to direct startup support. With that in mind, we hired Hussam Ayyad as the Director of Startup Services. His team is focused on providing customized programming for startups that are tailored to their needs and sector, creating a strategy for startup services to be more accountable to ensure entrepreneurs are reaching their milestones, building a more robust rolodex of talent and mentors and making the Toronto-Waterloo corridor a priority.
  2. It’s who you knowWe’ve learned a lot when it comes to corporate partnerships. One of the biggest takeaways is to not have a one-size-fits-all model. With each opportunity that comes our way, we make sure to ask the question “how can this benefit our startups?” And we’ve found that when the match is right, there’s plenty to offer. Some examples:

    Our “Enterprise Innovation Space” partnership with IBM Bluemix Garage that provides them with a space at the DMZ and the opportunity to be ingrained in and collaborate with the startup community

    Our “legal counsel-in-residence” partnership with one of the top law firms in Canada – Goodmans LLP. The law firm provides 20 hours a week of free legal advice and consultation to entrepreneurs at the DMZ

    Great competitions and programs with corporate partners like our Next Big Idea in Fintech program, presented by BMO

  3. Today Canada… tomorrow, the world!As a leading Canadian incubator, we have an opportunity and a duty to contribute to creating a more prosperous economy, which echoes and supports the provincial and federal governments’ innovation agendas. We’re thrilled to have established recent partnerships with incubators throughout Canada and will continue to create a space that builds a culture around developing new ideas and sharing the DMZ model to bring more Canadian incubators to the world stage.

    Not only do we operate best by being active in emerging markets at home, we’re also building relationships across borders. This past year, the DMZ has created links to top-tier incubators and accelerators around the world by hosting international entrepreneurs from India, United Kingdom, South Africa and more. We’ve also signed strategic partnerships with the U.K.’s SETsquared, Innovation Birmingham, Taiwan’s CIIC, Australia’s ATP Innovations and ProMexico to provide entrepreneurs ‘borderless innovation’ to scale their business in key markets.

  4. The only constant is change.Change is often necessary, even if it might be frightening to some. Without change, we lack the ability to compel individuals to think in new ways. As our environment is known for its pace of change and innovation, we have to continue to make sure we’re striving to reach our goal: fuel the growth of early-stage startups. As such, we’ve had to make some adjustments to our team structure that will allow the different functions to better align, not silo, and refocus on our mission. Read more about my views on change in the workplace click to know more.
  5. What startups have taught me.There were many moments over the past year where startups taught me valuable lessons that helped push the DMZ to the next level. A few things I’ve learned are:
    • Although competition can be intimidating, it’s also a gift. Your competitors force you to sharpen your business and push your innovation agenda to the next level.
    • It’s critical to share the same vision and leadership principles as the rest of your team. While technical skills are important, it’s just as important to share common missionaries, not mercenaries, as your team grows.
    • Labour of love: passion, sacrifice and resilience are your superpowers. Without these components, it’s difficult to see through the fog during stormy times.
  6. Startup milestones.This post could easily be filled with milestones our startups have reached, but here’s a small sample of some of the accolades and achievements.
  7. Where do we go from here?I recently returned from the Incubation Summit in Sweden hosted by UBI Global, where I presented on managing corporate and talent collaboration at business incubators. This year, the group recognized the DMZ as the top-ranked university-based incubator in North America and third in the world. This accolade sets the stage for us to push to become number one globally. We’ll do that by being more accountable to our startups and ensuring they reach their goals. We’ll get there by building out our investor network, broadening corporate partnerships and leveraging our team’s full potential. We’ll also be launching our advisory council – a group of experienced leaders and entrepreneurs to help inform our way forward – that will serve as advocates for the DMZ, representing us to the public, and opening doors to their networks and an array of opportunities.

    Looking ahead, I’m beginning my second year as ED with our challenges and strengths clearly in mind. But also with the tenacious determination to see our vision come to life.

Mayor Tory launches StartUp HERE Toronto Café mentoring platform

Mayor Tory launches StartUp HERE

Mayor John Tory launched a new mentoring platform for entrepreneurs and small businesses with program partner Ten Thousand Coffees.

“This initiative will help make Toronto’s business community more accessible to those developing their businesses and careers,” said Mayor Tory. “We are pleased to help open the doors to success for future generations of entrepreneurs.”

The StartUp HERE Toronto Café, being hosted at Startup HERE Toronto, builds upon the network already established by acclaimed Toronto startup Ten Thousand Coffees, which currently has more than 60,000 users in the greater Toronto area (GTA).

“Coffee chats are the best way for young professionals, industry leaders, entrepreneurs, and students to get started – whether you have an idea, are interested in innovation, or looking to hire, go to Ten Thousand Coffees and meet with others,” said Dave Wilkin, founder of Ten Thousand Coffees. “Getting coffee with someone interesting is now just a few clicks away, it’s free and available to anyone interested in entrepreneurship and innovation in the City of Toronto.”

By encouraging people to network in person and virtually, the StartUp HERE Toronto Café will expand the networks of mentors available to entrepreneurs when they are building their businesses in the GTA, helping them to access advice and resources more quickly.

Mentors and entrepreneurs can sign up .