U of T startup wants to take pain out of parking

Grid Parking co-founder on finding the right spot

U of T startup wants to take pain out of parking

“The dynamic nature of parking does not allow you to be sure that you’re going to find the right spot at the right time.” Substitute ‘parking’ for ‘entrepreneurship’ and Grid Parking co-founder Ahsan Malik’s statement would still ring true; both require a significant degree of patience, sufficient time, and a bit of luck.

Fortunately, Malik and his startup’s team have the extra ingredients needed to start taking the pain out of parking: market research, pilot testing, and $20,000 in seed funding.

Co-founded by current U of T student Birinder Lobana and recent alumni Muhammad Sheikh and Malik, Grid aims to provide users with real-time data of available parking spaces through an app. The ultimate goal is to make parking — especially in major downtown hubs like Toronto — faster and more convenient.

On September 5, Grid won the $20,000 Hatchery Prize at the sixth annual Demo Day. Demo Day 2018 was the culmination of the four-month Hatchery Nest accelerator program. Out of a cohort of over 30 groups, 13 finalists were given the chance to pitch their startups to a panel of judges. For Malik and his team, the prize represented both the end of a journey that they had started from the 2017 Hatchery Nest cohort, and the transition of the project from a concept to reality.

Looking for a spot

The inspiration to begin work on the startup stemmed from Lobana and Malik’s personal frustrations with finding parking in downtown Toronto. The two met while playing soccer and frequently had to find parking at different venues to continue playing sports. This frustration led them to pursue a solution. Malik’s experience as a mechanical engineering student and Lobana’s computer science background made the collaboration straightforward. The system they wanted to design, however, required hardware, which is where electrical and computer engineering student Sheikh would come in.

“I’d say that we all came from cities that are not as mesmerizing as we found Toronto,” said Malik. “[The] interest in diversified fields… combined together into one space… Fueled our imagination to what we can do and putting in the efficiency that we see is still needed in the system.”

Together, the three applied to the Hatchery Nest program at U of T in 2017. According to Joseph Orozco, the Entrepreneurship Hatchery’s executive director and co-founder, close to $40 million has been raised collectively by startups that have participated in the program in the last five to six years. The Nest opens applications in September, and holds interviews for admission in February. The program runs from May to August, providing groups with advisory boards consisting of mentors from numerous different fields that provide groups with detailed feedback and resources to develop their businesses.

“[This] expanded collaborative network… [allows] us to keep on creating startups and generating a dealflow that is certainly transforming Canada and allowing our students to think big,” said Orozco.

Grid was not among the four teams to secure funding during Demo Day 2017, and Malik attributes this to his team’s failure to identify all the stakeholders that would be affected by their business.

“It took us time to realize that establishing a proper business has to find a very sweet spot within the existing chain of stakeholders involved in the market which you are going into,” said Malik. “The first time when we were presenting to investors, we were presenting the very, very positive feedback that we had received from the users, the driver’s side. So that market was not the right fit for the business model.”

Circling around

Still, failure to secure funding did not mean that involvement in the Hatchery Nest program was a failure for Grid. With the feedback they received, the team returned to the clients they had interviewed and sought new clients in different markets in order to refine their pitch.

Equipped with a richer diversity of feedback and responses, Grid reapplied to the Hatchery Nest in 2018. The team continued to fine-tune their ideas, and Malik notes that a meeting with Airbus Chief Technology Officer Grazia Vittadini and mentorship from John Phyper were particularly valuable.

Malik also added that Orozco connects groups with industry leaders and U of T students in the business stream in order to provide groups with more business-oriented input.

“[Orozco’s] feedback during your presentations is something that really combines everything that he has seen from the previous successful startups to help you know that what you’re trying to do is even viable or not in the long run,” said Malik.

The involvement of other student-led startup groups also helped Malik and his team develop their idea. “Those people are also going into their ventures, into the world of unknowns, trying to build something right from the beginning, lay the foundations. So they’re going through the same phases as [we] are.”

Finding a fit

In October, Grid began pilot testing using portions of their seed funding. This currently consists of additional market research and networking to adapt the team’s design.

“So the challenge is to incorporate the feedback of our actual customers, the clients, into the design we are building, and [determining the] trade-off between cost, performance, quality, scalability, and those kinds of things,” said Malik.

In the long term, the team hopes to expand their market to other major city hubs, including Calgary, Montréal, and Vancouver. For now, their go-to market is companies that sell tickets and already collect user information that can incorporate Grid’s interface of reservation links into their own. This would include stadiums for concerts or sports events and hotels. From there, the team will look to expand to more public spaces.

“It’s hard to put a timeline to it because so many factors are involved, but by the end of next year, we hope to be at [places like] Pearson airport, Yorkdale Mall, Rogers Centre,” said Malik.

The team is also looking into receiving further support from accelerators such as NEXT Canada and the Creative Destruction Lab.

Grid has received investment offers from friends and investors who attended Demo Day. Malik noted, “The point right now is that we, being engineers, lead with technology and its performance. So our focus right now is pilot testing and we know that we can raise much higher funds once we have proven that our concept is driving the future of mobility.”

From scraps to plastic

Luna Yu founded Genecis to repurpose food waste into products

From scraps to plastic

In 2016, Luna Yu started Genecis Bioindustries with a team of like-minded individuals, including U of T students and graduates. Genecis uses food waste to make high-quality products using a multi-step process.

The company uses polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) — products of bacterial fermentation — from waste to create useful materials. The process uses a bacterial culture to break down food waste into fatty acids, which are then induced to another bacterial culture to produce PHAs in their cells. The cells from the bacterial culture are then lysed to collect the plastic. 

The plastic created from this process can then be used in flexible packaging, compostable coffee pods, and 3D printing filaments, to name a few. 

Yu first realized the potential of food waste after completing her studies at UTSC in Environmental Science.

“What appealed the most to me was the ability to integrate advancements in artificial intelligence, big data, automation, and genetic engineering together to build the platform for the next generation of industrial chemical manufacturing,” writes Yu in an email.

At first, Genecis aimed to repurpose and sell processed food waste  from local restaurants that companies could use to make into biodegradable plastics, biofuels, and pharmaceuticals. 

A year later, Yu and her team won second prize in the early-stage category of the RBC Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. But that accolade wasn’t the end of their growth.

Genecis continues to grow for the better, following months of market research and planning. 

Yu says that it was the discussion with professors, PhD students, and her potential customer base that led them to redefine Genecis’ operations.

“[The ensuing market research] has led us to also change our business model to be one of technology licensing and production distribution, dramatically reducing our own capital expansion costs.”

Genecis uses organic waste and reprograms microorganisms to “buy low, sell high.”

Yu also stresses the importance of corporate partnerships, be it for business development, scale-up, research and development, or commercialization.

In the last two years, Genecis has amassed 15 partners, which include waste processing companies and manufactured bioplastics buyers. Many of these partners are also locally based firms.

With a team comprised of award-winning scientists and engineers experienced in biotechnology and programming brought together by a common goal and a bit of serendipity, Yu has big dreams for her company in the next five to 10 years.

The company is in the process of developing synthetic biology platforms to reprogram bacteria to produce the highest quality product. 

“We aim to grow into the Industry Leader for Industrial Chemical/Materials Production using our Synthetic Biology platform. Our main value proposition is to make chemicals [or] materials currently too expensive [or] difficult to produce traditionally more economical,” writes Yu.

Yu advises aspiring entrepreneurs to “move fast, be firm in objective but flexible on details, and never give up.”

RealAtoms reinvents the molecular model kit

Founders Ulrich Fekl and Joshua Moscattini aspire to create a new standard for chemistry model kits

RealAtoms reinvents the molecular model kit

Around this time of year, students purchase molecular model kits from the bookstore. These kits come with parts to create ball-and-stick models, but they are rigid and rather unreflective of the dynamic reactions taught in courses like organic chemistry.

“You have a visual picture of atoms shuffling around, and it’s very hard to communicate it in undergraduate classes,” says Professor Ulrich Fekl of UTM’s Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences. 

For instance, in existing model kits, the carbon atom can only form four bonds, and the models are unable to show chemical reactions and intermediates. 

As such, teaching reactions and mechanisms becomes difficult for instructors, who could resort to animations and videos, but this approach lacks a tactile experience. 

This lack of flexibility is what inspired Fekl and U of T alum Joshua Moscattini to found RealAtoms

“I always have this mental picture of atoms rearranging and it’s really, really smooth, and there is something enjoyable and memorable about touching models,” says Fekl. But “rearranging and the tactile experience don’t mesh with the existing kits.”

RealAtoms is a dynamic molecular model kit developed with the goal of being able to model and visualize organic and inorganic chemistry reactions, including their intermediates. 

The kit comes with 12 hydrogens, six carbons, one nitrogen, and two oxygens. The carbons, nitrogen, and oxygens all have the same composition and can be used interchangeably. 

“We call it the molecular reaction kit,” says Fekl.

Fekl developed prototypes of the molecular kit with support from his department, its Chair Claudiu Gradinaru, as well as the Impact Centre.

Moscattini, who is a sessional instructor at U of T and Professor at Seneca College, used his ten years of design experience to help develop RealAtoms using 3D Design. 

With RealAtoms there are more possibilities. SN2 reactions can be observed in the hands of the user. The atoms of this kit are capable of showing the entire process from a nucleophilic attack, a five-coordinate carbon representing the intermediate, and finally the exit of the leaving group. 

The Walden inversion — the conversion of a molecule from one enantiomer to another — cannot be demonstrated using current model kits, but can be done with RealAtoms with ease. 

The kit can also be used for inorganic studies. The atoms in the kit are also able to form transition metal complexes and show square planar and octahedral geometries, and can be used to create lattice structures, and organic and inorganic molecules. 

Unlike typical ball-and-stick models, parts in the RealAtoms kit contain magnets enclosed in ABS plastic. According to Fekl, magnetic model kits can already be purchased, but the magnets in the kits don’t contribute to their function.  

The magnets used in RealAtoms are functional and allow users to quickly assemble and change a molecule’s geometry. 

The model kit also allows users to feel the resistance when rotating bonds. 

The model clearly shows that the single bonds of sp3 hybridized carbons can freely rotate, while the double bonds of sp2 hybridized carbons, which cannot rotate. 

To form molecules with double or triple bonds, traditional ball-and-stick models would require completely different sticks to form them. The molecule must also be taken apart in order to transition between the different geometries. 

However, the atoms in the RealAtoms model kit contain plane surfaces along with concave and convex surfaces. These surfaces, contributed by Moscattini, lock in the orientation of a molecule to prevent rotation around the double bond. 

Fekl and Moscattini hope to create a new standard for organic and inorganic model kits. 

The model kit became commercially available for the first time at the 2018 Canadian National Exhibition. Moscattini delivered a pitch that won the Kids Technology Pitch Competition. It is also currently being used in a study at Seneca College to investigate the benefits of model kits in chemistry education. 

“The overall goal, I think, is for this to be the new standard in terms of organic model kits and inorganic kits,” says Moscattini. “We’re aiming for that, to have it in classrooms across Canada and the rest of North America.”

Coming to a podcast near you

A theatre company from the Distillery District is transforming their plays into podcasts

Coming to a podcast near you

When searching for theatre in Toronto, the Distillery District can be one of the best places to look. The neighbourhood is buzzing with artists and actors, and is home go some of the best production companies in the city. In the digital age, however, going out to see live theatre is far less common than going out to a movie or simply watching something at home.

One particular theatre company from the district has found a workaround they hope will get people back into stage drama. Expect Theatre, formed in 1996 by YorkU graduates Laura Mullins and Chris Tolley, is adapting to the tech driven times by creating PlayME, a series of podcasts intended to broadcast contemporary Canadian plays.

The idea for PlayME came a decade ago while writing a radio play for the CBC, explains Tolley. “We were present for the recording and found the whole process of creating an audio play really fascinating. With the rising popularity of podcasts, it made sense to us to pair our audio knowledge with our theatre skills.” This realization combined with the financial challenges that come with funding a production, forced Tolley and Mullins to develop a new way of achieving their goals; they did so by creating their own work and showcasing original, Canadian content.

As series’ like Serial have proven, podcasts are becoming an increasingly popular medium for listeners to absorb information and entertainment. Tolley and Mullins explain that their goal for PlayME is to publicize performances and make them available to podcast users. Needless to say, the visuals of a performance don’t matter in this context, as long as the actors’ voices are of a high calibre, the performance will allow for an enjoyable podcast. The two pledge to include both established playwrights and up-and-comers looking to find their voice.

With lack of diversity such a prominent subject in visual arts, Expect Theatre have made it their priority to represent Toronto’s diverse population. Tolley says that this has been their goal since the formation of Expect Theatre.

“From day one we realized we couldn’t engage our audience unless we reflected our audience… Since the very beginning, we’ve been dedicated to producing work that helps tell the stories of diverse cultural communities,” he says, citing their second play, Better Angels, which tells the story of a Ghanaian woman who moves to Toronto to become a nanny.

Tolley admits that the number of people attending theatre on a regular basis has been declining, as has theatre coverage from radio and TV news outlets. With the rise of podcasts and other new media formats, however, he hopes that more listeners from Canada and other parts of the world will rediscover the theatre industry, albeit in a different format. “In just our first two weeks, we’ve seen a massive number of people subscribing to PlayME, and we’ve had listeners from as far as Cyprus, Germany, and Ireland,” he says.

As this new venture grows, the entrepreneurs hope that it will increase interest in attending the actual shows. “They believe that the Internet can help Canadian theatre reach a global audience, letting people enjoy art in a more contemporary, ‘on demand’ way.”

Hatchery brings Y Combinator to campus and creates student entrepreneurs

The annual Accelerator Weekend helps 23 teams create sustainable startups

Hatchery brings Y Combinator to campus and creates student entrepreneurs

The U of T Hatchery hosted its annual Accelerator Weekend on January 22 and 23. The event, which featured leaders in entrepreunership from the famed Y Combinator — a top Silicon Valley incubator responsible in part for launching successful ventures such as Dropbox -— was geared towards providing students with advice and mentroship in their own start-up projects. Under the guidance of seasonsed veterans, 23 student teams developed their ideas into viable business models, with the top two taking home $2000, and $1000, respectively.

“The floor is completely open. If you (…) want to stay over night, we’re going to stay over night. If you get tired, we have fifteen gallons of coffee available. We’re going to use every single minute of your energy to create those startups,” said Hatchery founder and Executive Director Joseph Orozco in his opening remarks. “There is lots of food, and places to nap… just don’t go home,” he joked.

The following day was devoted to brainstorming and refining pitches and business models to impress the judges.

“[Some of our] [s]ucessful startups include crowd funding startups, patents being filed, some startups [that] have received grants of over $200,000, we have companies (…) funded by investors [for] over $2 million,” says Orozco.

“Our mission is to see how we can take startups to the next level. That is why we are hosting Y-Combinator here.“

After the preliminary judging on Saturday evening by two panels of experts, six teams were chosen as finalists. After one more round of presentations, the judges convened and declared Touch Down Parking as the winner, while Aurum finished second place.

Students participate in the Accelerator Weekend startup competition at the U of T Hatchery. Courtesy Haman.

Students participate in the Accelerator Weekend startup competition at the U of T Hatchery. Courtesy Haman.

Touch Down Parking’s winning idea was a parking management system that is peer-to-peer and effortless to use.

“Initially, what you would see happening is people who have vacant parking spaces in Toronto renting those spaces out to other people who are commuting into Toronto for a given time period.” says Bryan de Bourbon, one of the members of Touch Down. “In general we would want the parking spaces to be able to be booked so that you can plan your route ahead of time, but in a way that you don’t have to deal with frustratingly trying to find parking spaces — and probably using your phone while you’re driving (…) what we’re trying to reach in the long run is more like an integrated parking system —like the Internet of parking.”

Bryan went on to say that his team’s business would evolve into an intuitive parking solution, seamlessly integrated with route navigation, to transform parking in the city  into a completely stress-free experience.

“It should be as simple as ‘I’m already planning my route, it already knows where I’m going, it should find a spot for me and I will deal with payment and run from my car to where I’m going.’ ”

Second place winner Aurum’s idea was to use noise cancelling technology — typically reserved for commercial aircrafts — to create an at-home system for those living in noisy urban environments.

The system would be installed in the home to cancel noise from sources like busy streets and late night parties in neighbouring apartments.

The activities hosted by The Hatchery allow Joseph to observe the learning process for young entrepreneurs on their journey towards making startup dreams a reality. He believes that now, more than ever, students with an entrepreneurial spirit have the benefit of an inclusive, supportive environment that fosters creativity while encouraging financial success. “What we’re doing is (…) giving the students a real-life alternative of what an entrepreneur does in years. (…) You come here to go through that process that takes five years – in 28 hours. The final product of those 28 hours is a pitch that represents your startup and how you plan to sell it. And, of course, make money.” says Orozco.

As an entrepreneur, Orozco’s first startup was Telequote. For 14 years, it was a financial information network meant to be a smaller competitor to Reuters and Bloomberg.

“There’s no genius in entrepreneurship and I believe that everyone has the sense that they want something of their own and they want to work hard [to make it happen].”

“Sometimes they are afraid of taking risks and [of] not having all the resources. But when you acknowledge those [fears], you are ready to take the risk and there’s no better time (…)[and there is] so much support for young entrepreneurs to give it a try.”

Correction (February 4, 2016): An earlier version of this article misidentified Joseph Orozco.

Ontario gives $18.3 million for development of JLabs incubator

U of T, Jlabs to support biotech startups

Ontario gives $18.3 million for development of JLabs incubator

The collaboration between Johnson & Johnson Innovation incubation (Jlabs) and the University of Toronto to build biotech startups, is coming to fruition. After receiving $18.3 million out of the $19.4 million that the Ontario government agreed to invest in the project, U of T has commenced the process of fitting a floor in the MaRS west tower. Jlabs primarily focuses on supporting early-stage companies by offering resources that range from core research facilities to opportunities for venture capital funding.

“Our role is sublicensing the space to Jlabs, signing the space license agreements for each company looking for space,” said Scott Mabury, vice president, university operations at U of T.

Mabury outlined the plans for construction, stating that the university plans on using the thirteenth floor leased to them by MaRS, to construct a space for Jlabs.  He also explained the conditions of the funding, mentioning that the space will consist of 40,000 square feet, to be used in creating labs, meeting rooms, offices, and other collaborative spaces. The funding will also be used for instruments and equipment.

“The agreement is for five years,” said Mabury, adding that, “after five years, there will be a peer review, like how we review divisions and departments here at U of T, led by the province that will assess the progress to date, how many companies have been created, mentored and what the potential is for the next five years.” It is Mabury’s hope that they will be able to sustain “ten years of robust activity.”

U of T students who run startups will use the space. “We currently already have nine campus-led accelerators, entities that work with students across the boards in entrepreneurships, engineering, around the creation of the companies and around mentoring and advising entrepreneurships,” Mabury said. He estimates that there are probably already around 200 companies in these accelerators, which places increased pressure on the project.

The remaining $1.1 million will support the operation of the lab. According to Mabury this money will not go to the university — instead it will go directly to MaRS innovation.

“This particular investment was made through the Strategic Partnerships Stream of the Jobs and Prosperity Fund — a stream designed to encourage open innovation technology partnerships that will allow companies, research institutions, suppliers, investors and customers to work together and establish industry-driven strategies,” said officials at the Ministry of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure, in an email to The Varsity.

Correction (February 8, 2016, 8:38 pm): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Ontario government gave $18.3 million for the development of the MaRS west tower. The funds are in support of the JLabs incubator. The Varsity regrets the error.

University of Toronto graduate receives $90,000 from three dragons

Noureddin Chahrour wins big on TV show Dragons’ Den

University of Toronto graduate receives $90,000 from three dragons

U of T graduate Noureddin Chahrour has received $90,000 from the popular Canadian reality show Dragons’ Den. On the show, entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to a panel of venture capitalists — the “dragons” — in the hope of securing their investment. Chahrour will put the money towards his company, Adrenalease.

Chahrour, a kinesiology student, spent much of his time at U of T hunched over while studying. Like many other students, he subsequently developed bad posture and back pain. Any effort that he made to relieve the pain was of no use; he found that stretching exercises didn’t offer much relief. After consulting with physicians, Chahrour learned that back braces would actually worsen the situation as the retractive position would force his muscles into relying on the brace, which would ultimately weaken his back. This led Chahrour to a ‘eureka’ moment, and Adrenalease was born.

According to Chahrour, Adrenalease is where “fashion meets ergonomics” in the form of an adjustable line of fitness clothing that holds the wearer in an optimal posture position. By pulling back on the shoulders, the shirt aims to also improve patterns of breathing while exercising. After developing the idea, Chahrour consulted with kinesiology professors Margaret MacNeill and Jack Goodman, who supported his idea and encouraged him to develop a business.

Goodman, Chahrour’s former professor and supervisor during his research project, said that Chahrour is “really the author of his own success.” Goodman emphasized the importance of not selling faulty ideas of merchandise, and ensured that Chahrour’s design was built on accurate research findings.

MacNeil agreed with Goodman’s sentiments and expressed her excitement at seeing Chahrour’s project come to fruition. “[Noureddin Chahrour] roared into my health com class in FKPE two years ago and used assignments to get students to improve their posture with a mobile phone-based health campaign (while showcasing a shirt he thought might also pull their posture up),” MacNeill said, calling him the “posture whisperer.” MacNeill further remarked that Chahrour was an excellent health science student, “one who embraced all areas of science to solve a problem in a complex manner linking cell to society.”

“His inventor’s intuition, entrepreneurial spirit and health educator soul has coalesced into a wearable technology helping both Olympic athletes and aging [professors] curled over their computers.”

Following the development of Adrenalease, Chahrour auditioned for Dragons’ Den in an attempt to gain attention and snowball the product. He was accepted to appear on the show on April 13, just one day before one of his final exams at U of T, where he graduated in 2015 with an honours degree in kinesiology.

The episode featuring Chahrour aired on November 18 and showed Chahrour receiving three offers from four dragons, valuing the company as high as $500,000. Chahrour accepted bids from dragons Mangit Minhas, Michelle Romanow, and Jim Treliving amounting to $90,000 for 30 per cent of the company. Chahrour said he landed on the decision because of Treliving’s connections with the NHL and his enthusiasm following missing out on a bid for compression shorts which later were sold to Under Armour for $10 million.

Today, Chahrour works with the Impact Centre at the University of Toronto, where he receives guidance on leading his company and guiding its growth, learning about everything from mentors to business advisors and marketing plans. The Impact Centre also provides an office space for Adrenalease to conduct its work at the moment. Together with three interns, Adrenalease soon plans to release a sports bra that is the first of its kind with adjustable straps and patented ergonomic technology.

When asked about advice for other entrepreneurial-minded students, Chahrour recommended that students who are interested in entrepreneurship start with a topic that they are passionate about and get involved with an accelerator program when they develop a good idea.

Instead of reinventing the wheel, Chahrour advised that students find something that exists and perfect it, as niche markets can offer room for significant growth. Chahrour also suggested developing a canvas model and business plan as well as a sales strategy when embarking on an entrepreneurial venture.

When asked about what the future has in store, Chahrour said, “I was born and raised as an entrepreneur. I love what I’m doing, I don’t have a boss telling me what to do and where to go. I can make my own decisions and own hours, I love that about my job and I love everything that has to do with it… even if I get a multi-million dollar offer and sell this, I will stay in the field of entrepreneurship.”