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CanHack: Why young innovators should consider a future in cybersecurity


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CanHack: Why young innovators should consider a future in cybersecurity

COVID-19 and the talent shortage in cybersecurity skills

If changes in technology, growing risks of data overload, and increased usage of Cloud platforms have not already overwhelmed organizations’ IT and cybersecurity teams, they certainly will now. 

COVID-19 has forced a large portion of Canadian employers, from government departments to private sector companies, to make a sudden switch to a remote working model (and for some, a permanent switch). The transition to operating in a remote format has brought about new implications for how organizations will maintain cyber safety since employees are now working in absence of companies’ usual security measures (firewalls, safe IT systems, etc.)

Furthermore, it has highlighted the greater need for more cybersecurity skills in the workforce. Talent shortages have long existed in the cybersecurity landscape, and we can only expect these skills gaps to widen even further as the new reality of remote working sets in. 

CanHack 2019
Our solution: CanHack

At the DMZ, it’s our job to not only help startup founders accelerate their business growth but to also empower Canada’s next generation of innovators who aspire to make a real difference. We develop and execute initiatives like CanHack, our student cybersecurity competition organized in partnership with RBC, to promote cyber literacy and to also address digital skills gaps in the labour market.

DMZ is launching CanHack for a third year. Thanks to continued support from RBC, the program will continue to redefine how secondary education engages with cybersecurity skills and will introduce a brand new cohort of high school students to the challenge. As both partners leverage their strengths to break new ground together, the overarching goal will be to encourage more students to think about pursuing a future career in cybersecurity and computer science. This year, instead of the fall of 2020, the program will begin in Spring 2021 to give teachers more time to onboard their students. (continue reading for more details regarding the new 2021 program date).

How CanHack works

CanHack leverages PicoCTF technology, an online open-source computer security platform established by the Carnegie Mellon University Cylab Security & Privacy Institute. This game-based learning experience creates an interactive and engaging experience where students are tasked with addressing cybersecurity challenges faced by Canadian financial institutions.

The competition and program format allow young innovators to be immersed in a fun and stimulating environment where they gain critical computer security skills, work with experts in the cyber field and compete for cash prizes. Best of all? The program is completely virtual and no prior experience in cybersecurity is required to participate. 

CanHack’s accomplishments to date

Since launching in 2018, CanHack has already:

  • Helped over 4000 high school student participants gain valuable knowledge and experience in cybersecurity
  • Worked with 91 schools in 2019, and 76 schools in 2018
  • Distributed $6500 in competition cash prizes to students and $9500 to schools to help integrate more technology into student lives

CanHack 2019 winners of cybersecurity skills competition
What’s to come? CanHack 2021

As partners, DMZ and RBC have forged a number of firsts in the Toronto tech community over the course of this relationship. CanHack 2021 will be a natural next step for this partnership in empowering a stronger, more vibrant cybersecurity landscape within Canada.

“Cybersecurity has become a major and critical element for all organizations with the acceleration of cybercrime, and the evolving threat landscape.  Expansion of digital services driven by the challenges of COVID-19 and need for the mass enablement of a secure remote workforce, cyber skills have become a key resource to nurture and invest in,” said Matthew Tim, VP Cyber Technology Office at RBC. “By partnering with DMZ and sponsoring initiatives like CanHack, RBC is investing in the future of cybersecurity by encouraging greater participation and interest from the young adults in high schools across Canada. We would like to promote greater involvement and interest in cyber as a career to narrow the skills gap.”

In an effort to increase program accessibility Canada-wide (and plan around COVID-19), we’re taking CanHack virtual this year with all workshops and sessions available online for students and teachers to engage with. In coordination with proper health and safety guidelines, we anticipate running in-person and virtual info sessions and workshops in Fall 2020. The CanHack Challenge Launch Event for PicoCTF will then take place in March 2021.

Besides offering programming to students coast to coast, CanHack 2021 will also be special in that DMZ will run female-only workshops on a number of cybersecurity topics to support females in STEAM and work with organizations like Hackergal to inspire and recruit more female participants to the challenge.

Hear from CanHack participants

A student’s perspective

“CanHack 2019 was very enjoyable for me. I got to learn more about cybersecurity and the different specializations within it, and technology in general. The competition gave me a good chance to compete with my friends and it was actually fun to play the game, see the campus of Ryerson as well as the downtown area. During the cyber expo day, I learned a lot about other people’s experiences and why each company was partnered with the event. I learned that as companies move into a more digital world, they need a good cybersecurity foundation, especially since there is more and more criminal activity around the cybersecurity field. I also listened to a 16-year-old entrepreneur and how she is using technology to change the world. Overall, CanHack was a great program to play in and I hope they can continue to do what they do in the future!”

– High school student from Middlefield Collegiate Institute

An educator’s perspective

“For the last two years, Clarkson Secondary School has taken advantage of the amazing opportunity provided by the Ryerson DMZ and RBC to learn about computer securities. This program has become a mandatory component of the computer science courses for students in grades 10 and 11. Prior to taking part in this event, students in my classes would have had very minimal exposure to cybersecurity or even a linux shell; now students get a full two weeks where they are exposed to this content. There is no way that I would have been able to create anything close to the PicoCTF competition on my own, and it is only through the partnership with the Ryerson DMZ and RBC that Clarkson Secondary School students get this experience.

CanHack allows students to develop a set of skills that goes behind technical know-how: teamwork, collaboration and leadership skills. Additionally, students have become significantly more aware of the impact that cybersecurity has on their daily lives. While the obvious benefit is to students who will study computer science and computer engineering once they leave high school, even students who will major in social sciences are now looking at laws and ethics around computer technology and cybersecurity. I want to personally thank the Ryerson DMZ, RBC, and their sponsors for allowing the students at Clarkson Secondary School to take part in this event over the last two years. Students now come into my classes asking when the competition will start every September.”

– Matthew Arduini, Curriculum Head – Mathematics, Computer Science, and Business, Clarkson Secondary School

CanHack 2019 helping youth get cybersecurity skills
With RBC’s diverse support and DMZ’s relevant programming, combined with the growing demand to bolster digital literacy in cybersecurity among Canadian youth, CanHack 2021 will be positioned to be a top challenge in Canada.

For high school educators across Canada who are interested in bringing more cybersecurity education and opportunities for students into their schools, you can learn more about the format of the program by reaching out to us at

For high school students looking to gain knowledge and experience in the areas of cybersecurity and computer science, stay tuned for more information on CanHack 2021!

Ashu and Andrew met in DMZ’s first Sandbox cohort in 2018. Now, they’re revolutionizing the mortgage industry.

Ashu and Andrew's headshots

Andrew Wells (Pinch, CEO and Founder, pictured left) and Ashu Syal (Pinch, Director of Product, pictured right) met in the DMZ’s first-ever Sandbox cohort in 2018.

Andrew was an enthusiastic new DMZ founder and Ashu was a newly hired DMZ Program Lead. This duo is now working together at Pinch Financial (Pinch), a DMZ startup that is utilizing AI to revolutionize the mortgage application process. Pinch is a digital platform that makes applying for a mortgage fast, easy, and secure. The platform connects people directly with lenders, taking brokers out of the equation to empower users to make their own decisions. Pinch’s blog makes real-estate insider knowledge accessible for everyone.

We sat down with Andrew and Ashu to learn more about Pinch and the journey that led them to develop the partnership of a lifetime. 

Pinch company logoWhy did you start Pinch?

Andrew: I had just graduated and was working at a bank as an account manager. I hated it. I saw first-hand how awful and inaccessible mortgage applications are, the process is a disservice to hard-working people. I knew there had to be a better way, so I started Pinch.

Broker’s wages have gone up by 400% in the past 12-15 years, but the everyday person’s income has not. I’m not saying all brokers are bad, but the system is broken. I started Pinch to shine a light on the toxicity of the whole process.

Pinch advertisingCan you tell me more about Pinch’s time at the DMZ?

Andrew: We joined the DMZ’s Sandbox program in 2018 with two staff members. Ashu was our Programs Lead and together we created Pinch’s first prototype, raised our first seed round, developed our MVP and then graduated to the Incubator program. We demoed at the 2019 Collision Conference in Toronto (Pinch team pictured on the left with Collision Conference’s Pinch feature TTC ad) and that really sparked important investor relationships at major banks.

We hired our first engineer, then two more engineers and then a designer, currently half of our current staff came directly from relationships we made while part of the DMZ community.

No one has ever done what Pinch is doing. The DMZ understood the gravity of that and gave us all the space, knowledge, and resources we needed to build our business, the right way.

Banking and real estate are both highly regulated industries. How did Pinch break in?

Andrew: It’s true, the mortgage process has not changed since 1997…This makes pitching new tech to banks uniquely hard. Our EiRs (Entrepreneurs in Residence) taught us how to find the right bank executives, stakeholders, and investors and speak their language… we needed that insider knowledge available to founders at the DMZ to successfully break in.

Andrew, what led you to approach Ashu to join your team full time?

Andrew: Everything was going well, but there was this disconnect growing among our marketing, financial and tech development teams. We needed someone who spoke each of our languages and could bring us together. Our best work always happened at the DMZ with Ashu. We knew he was our guy. 

Ashu, why did you want to join the Pinch team?

Ashu: My wife and I had just started applying for a house when Andrew approached me. It took us more than a month to get a mortgage. We went to open houses and people were outbidding us before we even walked through the door. The whole process felt impossible. It was so stressful. I have a lot of empathy for what mortgage applicants go through.

Pinch is creating new startup practices and utilizing old ones where necessary. They are setting people-centred standards not just for the homeownership industry, but for how we build technology in general. Pinch’s mission really aligns with my own values, I’m really excited to be here.

Team working togetherWhat’s next for Pinch?

Andrew: We are launching our product in a new and big way, with big bank partners. It is going to change the way people approach homeownership. It is a fundamental shift in how someone can get a property.

This (buying a house) can be the most important decision of someone’s life. Our team does not take that lightly. I started Pinch to make sure buying a house was accessible and secure for people. That human-centred mission will continue to always drive every decision we make. 

Whether our company is successful in 10 years or not…what we have done is pushed bank executives and mortgage brokers to truly grapple with this topic for the first time ever, and we are really proud of that.

Team chatting over coffeeAshu, what are you most looking forward to in the future?

Ashu: I wouldn’t be where I am today without the right people telling me to stop building my ideas in a basement and come into an incubator space… Making sure that pathway is open to others, particularly for those who historically have a hard time coming into this industry will always be important to me, will forever excite me, especially because of my time at the DMZ. 

DMZ startups like Pinch not only get the tailored support they need to become world-leading businesses but get access to the DMZ’s thriving talent pool of driven industry innovators. 

Learn more about DMZ Sandbox here.