Five standout U of T startups to watch

Annual True Blue Expo showcase features travel, health and wellness startups

Five standout U of T startups to watch

On March 21, U of T held the True Blue Expo, the capstone event of Entrepreneurship Week. Hosted in the MaRS Discovery District, over 60 startups had the opportunity to showcase their work, while businesses and the public were given the opportunity to network with some great startups.

Empower Health

Ever gotten sick and found yourself in need of a walk-in appointment? Empower Health, formerly known as iamsick.ca, aims to reduce the hassle of phoning numerous clinics with inquiries for walk-in hours by aggregating a database. The app hosting the database will help patients see wait times for clinics, as waiting for an available slot at some clinics can take hours.

Founder Ryan Doherty said, “We now have enterprise clients, national coverage, government relationships, and a significant number of users and clinics using [the app].” The idea blossomed with the help of U of T’s Impact Centre, which “provided mentorship advice as well as office space to help iterate and test out the business model.”

AYTHA MAQSOOD/THE VARSITY

Weav

Weav takes a new approach to ride-sharing applications by allowing users to open their car doors for carpooling with strangers. Founder Peter Meng said that since drivers are already travelling with “three empty seats” and spending money on gas, why not “open up your receipt and charge each passenger $10–20 to cover up the cost of the ride? This way, the driver can cover the costs, and the rider can travel affordably.”

Weav uses automated logistic payments and other systems to facilitate the carpooling process.

AYTHA MAQSOOD/THE VARSITY

Health-Bridge

With a growing immigrant population within Toronto, some may find it difficult to communicate their symptoms to their doctors, which could lead to negative outcomes or inadequate health care provisioning. This is where Health-Bridge comes in. Its mission is to bridge the language barriers between health care professionals and their patients.

Despite numerous successes and accolades, especially for founder Haman Mamdouhi, who won the Young Entrepreneur Pitch Competition last summer and was subsequently selected for the prestigious NEXT Canada program as one of the top 36 entrepreneurs across Canada, the team is most proud of its start in the U of T entrepreneurship community. “We really learned first that we could be entrepreneurs here at [the] University of Toronto. Creating sustainable impact is more accessible than ever,” said Mamdouhi. With the support of U of T, the team has developed digital image-based methods in several languages to help patients describe their symptoms accurately.

One of Health-Bridge’s main values is impact. “The people who started this startup had family members who suffered from this exact problem,” said Mamdouhi. “Before we do anything, we make sure to eliminate that suffering.”

AYTHA MAQSOOD/THE VARSITY

Just Vertical

As an urban dweller, it might seem like a struggle to get your hands on fresh, affordable, and pesticide-free produce year-round. Just Vertical helps address that problem by introducing the concept of indoor hydroponic farming.

Co-founder Kevin Jakiela said that Just Vertical’s value is in helping “people integrate growing plants in their homes and appreciate the global food supply chain.”

In the future, they plan to integrate hydroponic growing in other pieces of furniture, such as tabletops and even couches, as well as to develop an app that will let users — who may have not-so-green thumbs — know when to water their plants.

AYTHA MAQSOOD/THE VARSITY

Cohesys

Craniomaxillofacial fracture surgeries — which relate to fractures around the face and head area — rely on plate and screw methods that tend to result in complications over 40 per cent of the time. Cohesys hopes to reduce complications, lessen surgery hours, and reduce operating room costs through an adhesive tape.

Founded by Michael Floros, Cohesys oversees the management of BoneTape, a “non-toxic and resorbable polymer with a biodegradable adhesive on it.” The resorbable aspect of the adhesive will reduce the amount of recurring future problems that patients may have with conventional titanium bone and screw methods, such as facial sensitivities.

Support from U of T incubators UTEST and the Creative Destruction Lab has helped Cohesys reach the product stage.

AYTHA MAQSOOD/THE VARSITY

Shana Kelley on founding, developing life science startups

U of T professor discusses life cycle of startups

Shana Kelley on founding, developing life science startups

U of T professor, scientist, and entrepreneur Shana Kelley shared her experiences in launching three medical diagnostics startups during her Entrepreneurship Week talk “From concept to acquisition and back again.” 

Kelley, who is cross-appointed to several departments including Biochemistry and Pharmaceutical Sciences, presented two guiding principles for starting a successful life science startup. 

The first is to let your initial ideas in research and business interact to form new ideas for opportunities. She quoted John Steinbeck, who wrote, “ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”

The second guiding principle is to accept that you don’t need to figure out all aspects of running a startup company before its launch. “You’ve got to jump off the cliff, and then you’ve got to work like heck to build your wings before you get to the ground,” Kelley said, quoting Ray Bradbury. 

She noted that even if you think you have your startup figured out, conditions and assumptions often change over the course of its development.

Preparation, perseverance, and patience

Kelley advised perseverance and patience during the initial stages of launch, reflecting on how she received 83 rejections by investors for her startup Xagenic.

“You have to go through that process,” she said. “You have to get the answer that’s no, and reflect a little bit on why they said no; maybe adjust your strategy going forward and then just keep going and keep going and keep going.”

Furthermore, while there is space to learn on the job, Kelley noted that startup ideas should be based on research that is reproducible, robust, and that essentially “works every time.”

“Do that before you even near the idea of starting a company,” she said. She advised against trying to figure out the fundamental science at a later stage when “venture capital investors [are] kind of breathing down your neck.” She also suggested ensuring that the discovery is patentable, so it can serve as an asset around which to base the company.

Kelley further recommended that entrepreneurs start companies staffed by people with whom they already work well. A clear business plan and potential applications of the technology to better secure funding are also essential. Part of the initial research involves speaking with potential clients of the technology, such as clinicians or patients for many products in the life sciences.

Kelley’s concept to acquisition and back

Kelley launched her first startup in the late 1990s as a PhD student at the California Institute of Technology. Studying the electrical conductivity of human DNA molecules, she found that double-stranded DNA is normally a semiconductor. However, minor mutations in these strands could stop a DNA molecule from conducting electricity.

Without a clear idea of how to turn the discovery into a marketable technology, Kelley and her graduate advisor filed a patent and went to the institute’s technology transfer office. It was the time of the dot-com bubble, which meant the office was easily able to find them an investor who offered $5 million in funding to develop an application for the discovery.

Kelley and her advisor used the funding to start a company named GeneOhm Sciences, which used Kelley’s discovery to create a diagnostic test for antibiotic-resistant MRSA bacteria. These ‘superbugs,’ which can be deadly to patients with compromised immune systems, are easily introduced into hospitals by visitors who unknowingly carry the pathogen. The firm developed a convenient test for visitors that used a nasal sample, and it was later acquired by the diagnostics company Becton, Dickinson and Company in 2006.

Kelley’s next startup was Xagenic. She co-founded the firm around 2009 with the goal of developing a faster, more convenient test for doctors to diagnose sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in patients. She noted that the idea was promising, as clinicians had wanted to perform on-the-spot STI testing to better limit the spread of infections.

STI testing is also around a billion-dollar market, noted Kelley, with a straightforward regulatory path to developing the product. The firm benefitted from developing a product for an existing high-value market with little regulatory risk, and with an existing demand among clinicians. This made Xagenic attractive to investors, who are often skeptical of startups that develop products without existing demand. The firm was ultimately acquired by defence contractor General Atomics in 2018.

The final startup Kelley mentioned is Cellular Analytics, which she recently incorporated as a partnership between U of T and the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research. The firm plans to develop microfluidic technology to analyze tumour cells from blood samples of patients with cancer, which may be less invasive than analyzing cells from tissue samples.

Five U of T startups to watch

This year’s Entrepreneurship Week showcased startups from AI to health sciences to clean technology

Five U of T startups to watch

Entrepreneurship Week took place last week at the MaRS Discovery District and showcased the thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem at U of T. Attendees were treated to the Startup Showcase, which highlighted emerging companies; a talk by Arlene Dickinson of Dragons’ Den; and the RBC Pitch Competition.

“Our vision for Entrepreneurship@UofT Week was to amplify and accelerate the impact of entrepreneurship at U of T,” said Keri Damen, the Managing Director of University of Toronto Entrepreneurship. “By bringing together the greater community of students, startups, incubators, and the partner organizations who support them, we are creating connections across the community that are needed to accelerate our startups’ growth and create the game-changing ventures of the future.”

Damen also emphasized the importance of featuring startups by students from non-traditional backgrounds and encouraging these students to pursue social entrepreneurship.

The showcase featured 70 startups working in artificial intelligence, regenerative medicine, health sciences, clean technology, and advanced manufacturing. Below are some notable ventures, many of which offer opportunities for students.

Health-Bridge

Health-Bridge aims to break down the language barrier in healthcare. STEFAN KOLLENBERG/THE VARSITY

Imagine if your grandmother, who doesn’t speak a word of English, fell down and broke her hip. You are able to call an ambulance to her house, but cannot make it there in time to translate for the paramedics.

Enter Health-Bridge, an image based diagnostic tool for non-English speaking patients, founded by Haman Mamdouhi and his team with the goal of eliminating the language barrier in healthcare. Originally based out of the Entrepreneurship Hatchery, they placed first at UofT’s Healthy Generation Fund and Next Canada Startup Sprint. Most recently, they were named one of 12 finalists for Enactus Canada’s student entrepreneurship competition.

They are currently looking to bring on passionate students with a background in computer science, mobile development, and graphic design.

Dash MD

DashMD is an app that helps you manage your treatment plan outside of the hospital. STEFAN KOLLENBERG/THE VARSITY

Have you ever left the hospital unclear on how to take care of yourself? You’re not alone. This happened to Dash MD co-founder Zack Fisch-Rothbart after he broke his leg in two places. He was handed a stack of pamphlets while leaving the hospital but was unclear on exactly what he needed to do to get better. Three weeks later, he was back in the ER with compartment syndrome from his cast being too tight.

Dash MD is run by Fisch-Rothbart, Cory Blumenfeld, Simon Bromberg, and Rob Iaboni. Their goal is to help other patients avoid falling through the cracks of the health-care system by providing resources to help manage their aftercare journey.

In the upcoming month, they will be partnering with a big player in the Ontario health space. The startup is also currently hiring front-end, back-end, iOS, and Android developers, as well as designers.

StageKeep

StageKeep is a tool that helps dancers visualize choreographies. STEFAN KOLLENBERG/THE VARSITY

When choreographers are creating a dance routine, they often draw up ideas on paper and then meet up with dancers for long practice sessions.

StageKeep was founded by William Mak and Axel Villamil to make this process more efficient by digitizing the planning and communication aspects of these routines. Villamil, a dancer himself, often found it difficult to meet with a full team for long hours and found it expensive to book studio hours. The app — currently available on the Google Play Store — allows dancers to come to rehearsals better prepared, helps choreographers save time, and shows directors how to save money.

Phenomic AI

Phenomic AI aids researchers in analyzing data from high-content screening. STEFAN KOLLENBERG/THE VARSITY

In the last decade, many biomedical labs have adopted high-content screening, a method that uses automated microscopes to image cells exposed to thousands of different drugs. A downside of this method, however, is that it can take months to sift through the data and analyze it. Phenomic AI automates this tedious process for researchers and professionals employing a deep-learning based platform that analyzes all the imaging data.

Phenomic AI has been featured in The Guardian, and its team members have also discussed the technology with Prime Minister Trudeau. They plan to announce pilot projects with major industry partners in the near future, and are currently looking for members to join their their data science and software teams.

Just Vertical

Just Vertical promotes sustainable indoor growing with wall-mounted hydroponic systems. STEFAN KOLLENBERG/THE VARSITY

Just Vertical founded by U of T Masters of Science graduates Conner Tid and Kevin Jakiela produces vertical hydroponic growing systems that can be easily stored, supply their own light, and are 95–99 per cent more water efficient than regular soil-based growing techniques.  

This startup is a environmentally sound and space efficient solution for those living in condos or apartments that do not have the space to grow plants. Next month, the startup plans to sell new models of the system made of bamboo composite an environmentally friendly and cost-effective alternative to plastic.

RBC Pitch Competition

Hatchery Alumnus XPAN was awarded the RBC Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and Hatchery NEST 2018 team VECO won the People’s Choice Award.

 

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