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U of T’s Entrepreneurship Hatchery hosts virtual Demo Day 2020

Legal AI, 3D-printed soil, smart chewing gum, and crop watching win funding
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3D-printed soil was one idea that won big at Demo Day 2020.COURTESY OF PATRICK DIEP
3D-printed soil was one idea that won big at Demo Day 2020.COURTESY OF PATRICK DIEP

From September 9–18, U of T’s Entrepreneurship Hatchery hosted its 10th annual Demo Day — the culmination of The Hatchery NEST, a four-month mentorship program to help students develop their businesses. The event included over 1,800 registered attendees, with the audience watching pre-recorded pitches virtually for the duration of the event.

“There were a total of 138 students participating in the NEST program, together with 49 Mentors and 16 of our ‘connectors,’ ” Joseph Orozco, co-founder and Executive Director of the Entrepreneurship Hatchery, wrote in an email interview with The Varsity. However, only 16 promising startups made it to Demo Day 2020 and were able to compete for a total prize pool of $42,500.

The winning ideas varied drastically this year. First place — and the $20,000 grand prize — went to Themis for a pitch applying artificial intelligence to make the legal contract drafting process more efficient. Runners-up INDUS and Toothpod each received $10,000 for innovations in hydroponics and dental care, respectively. The $2,500 Orozco prize, also known as the ‘people’s choice award,’ was awarded to ID Green for the use of user-friendly drones in agriculture.

The Varsity interviewed the winning teams to understand how they developed their ventures and what their next steps are.

Legal machine learning

Themis’ team pitched the audience a simplified process of contract drafting for lawyers. They created a Microsoft Word add-in that sifts through a library of clauses from lawyers’ own precedents without the need to reference elsewhere. The innovation would save time from a notoriously time-consuming process and allow lawyers to gather more information about precedents.

“We plan to use the prize money largely to fund development costs to increase the number of clauses and definitions Themis can identify, and support infrastructure costs,” the team wrote. “We currently have a functioning prototype that validates our idea. Our next step is to attain our first beta customers.”

In pursuit of that goal, the team is currently looking to build a network with small Canadian law firms to receive a critique of its prototype.

Grow anything, anywhere

INDUS pitched a “smart soil.” The startup implemented procedures to study optimal soil conditions for plants. Based on the results, INDUS is able to design pellets to mimic crop-specific soil properties, which can then be 3D-printed using a production pipeline.

“We plan to use this money to start crucial research and development necessary before releasing our first product within next year,” the INDUS team wrote. The team wrote that any remaining funds would go toward purchasing 3D printers and materials necessary to start a 3D printing production facility.

Brush your teeth on the go

Toothpod introduced a chewing gum that helps people with their oral hygiene when brushing their teeth is inconvenient or impossible. According to the team’s pitch, there are three ways in which this gum boosts people’s oral hygiene: abrasive nanoparticles remove bacteria from the tongue and teeth, natural antibacterial agents break down the plaque on and in between teeth, and enzymes break down food in between teeth.

“The next steps will be refining our prototype and conducting various tests to ensure ToothPod works as well as we say it does,” Alton Rego, who is responsible for Toothpod’s business development and research and development, wrote. “Simultaneously we will work with experts to protect our [intellectual property], secure regulation approval and scale up our manufacturing process.”

Keeping an eye on agriculture

Beyond the main winners, ID Green’s solution to revenue loss in agriculture ultimately won the audience’s vote. The startup developed a patentable camera technology capable of detecting nutrient deficiency, plant counting, predicting the yield, and discerning crop diseases on farms. The technology collects data from drone-mounted cameras, weather stations, and farm inputs from the mobile app; then the technology processes the data using an artificial intelligence algorithm to generate a report.

ID Green is currently searching for investors who can help fund their pilot projects. “We have decided to use the money for purchasing some equipment to build our second prototype, such as a suitable drone that is an essential component of our solution,” Ehsan Vaziri, who is responsible for ID Green’s data analytics, wrote.

Hatching in the NEST

Both the Entrepreneurship Hatchery and its NEST program were founded in 2012 under the umbrella of the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering. Despite the affiliation, NEST is open to applications from U of T students in all programs and has helped launch 94 startups from a variety of industries over the past five years.

The program runs from May to August annually and culminates in each year’s Demo Day. This year’s winners have positive reviews for the experience.

“We have a robust team with a great knowledge of the marketplace, skills necessary to pitch our ideas, and ample funding to conduct our work all thanks to the Hatchery and the Faculty of Engineering,” INDUS’ Sharif wrote.

“We would all like to thank the Hatchery for giving us the opportunity to grow as a team, and as a company,” Lucy Chen, who is responsible for Toothpod’s outreach, operations, and research and development, wrote. “We would like to personally give a special thank you to Joseph [Orozco] for leading the hatchery and believing in Toothpod for the past 2 years!”

A nine-day, virtual ‘day’

Unprecedented times required extraordinary actions, and the Entrepreneurship Hatchery team did a lot to ensure that startups were prepared and trained for the virtual event. “Covid was a great opportunity to test the Hatchery online delivery,” Orozco wrote.

According to Orozco, the process comprised “having weekly synchronous meetings with their advisory, biweekly pitching sessions and permanent support in the process of developing a startup company.”

Demo Day is normally held in person, and this year was the first time the event was administered via PheedLoop — an event platform developed by Hatchery graduates from 2014’s cohort. The winners were announced on September 18 through the same platform.

While all startups expressed that virtual Demo Day was an enriching and pleasant experience, there were some challenges that the teams faced as the event moved online.

“The biggest challenge of online pitching is definitely getting the excitement about the product across to the audience,” Vishar Yaghhoubian, founder and CEO of Toothpod, wrote. A similar sentiment was expressed by the Themis team, who mentioned that it was hard not to see the reactions while they were pitching.

ID Green mentioned that it was challenging dealing with the incidents of technical issues, while INDUS emphasized that it was hard to manage schedules and hold meetings due to time zone differences.

Life goes on at the NEST

Despite the event being online, the judging criteria remained the same as previous years. Teams were judged based on the quality of the problem statements, value propositions, feasibility of the startups, overall perception of their pitches and teams, and potential investment decision. The Orozco prize, ultimately won by ID Green, was awarded to the startup with the most audience votes out of the 2,900 collected.

Looking forward, the Hatchery is currently accepting applications for the 2021 cohort of the NEST program. “Moving forward we shall leverage the best of the face to face and on-line experiences,” Orozco wrote, regarding the delivery of the program and how it will be impacted by COVID-19.

He also mentioned that remote delivery opens doors for great opportunities. “We might be able to have a more global presence,” Orozco continued. “The Hatchery creates tech-startup companies and develops the entrepreneurial human capital, we bring a whole community together to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs to… transform Canada.”