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U of T Sustainability Innovation Prize showcases 10 standout projects

Circular Toys, SoluSave, STP Sports claim $15,000 prize at inaugural event

U of T Sustainability Innovation Prize showcases 10 standout projects

On June 12, U of T Entrepreneurship hosted the 10 finalists of its inaugural Sustainability Innovation Prize for a pitch competition at ONRamp, a coworking space that supports U of T accelerators. The finalists, selected from a larger pool of applicants, each had three minutes to pitch their innovations to a panel of expert judges in the hopes of being selected as one of the three $5,000 prize winners.

The 10 finalists were chosen according to the opportunity, viability and impact, growth potential, innovation, talent, and communication skills demonstrated in their proposals. In April, each of the finalists was encouraged  by U of T Entrepreneurship to work with an advisor to prepare them for the big day.

Following the 10 pitches, which ranged from energy efficiency innovations to financial services, the judges announced their verdict.

Daniel McKee and Lisa Pooley’s Circular Toys; John Russell and Leanna Smid’s SoluSave; and Paulina Szalchta, Samantha Dilorio, and Tom Chen’s STP Sports claimed top honours, each earning $5,000 to be used to support their innovations.

Circular Toys

McKee’s project aims to bring the circular economic model to the youngest members of society. Circular Toys is his answer to the short use of kids’ toys, few of which are recyclable.

Circular Toys is a subscription-based, eco-friendly toy delivery service. Consumers would pick from a range of educational toy packages, targeted according to age group, and can expect a continued delivery of five to six toys every three months to their homes.

After toys have been used to the child’s satisfaction, Circular Toys encourages its customers to send them back to the company, which they would then refurbish and incorporate them into boxes to send out to other families.

McKee told The Varsity that the $5,000 prize would be used primarily for marketing, “getting the website up, and reaching the first hundred [users].” Circular Toys will launch in August.

MICHAEL TEOH/THE VARSITY

SoluSave

Life science students John Russell and Leanna Smid’s SoluSave provides a waste reduction solution for laboratories.

SoluSave aims to develop and provide technology to recycle used solvents. The two undergraduate students were inspired to develop their startup from having first-hand experience in U of T laboratories.

They hope that, once completed, their technology will make its way into more undergraduate laboratories to minimize waste.

Russell and Smid, who were participating in their first-ever pitch competition, were surprised that they were selected as one of the winners.

“One of our biggest concerns was to make sure that [our pitch] came across as pretty clear, what we were doing, and to have a little bit more of a story,” Smid told The Varsity. “We knew we were not pitching to chemists.”

MICHAEL TEOH/THE VARSITY

STP Sports

After this year’s NBA championship, Torontonians who have attended sporting events can vouch for the wasteful mess that fills an empty stadium after a game. Paulina Szlachta and Tom Chen pitched a service to reduce the wasteful nature of sporting events through a closed-loop supply chain model that diverts waste from ending up in landfills.

The pair had conducted field research, including a trip to Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium and a meeting with its officials.

Beyond the excitement of the prize, Szlachta was particularly excited about the fierceness of the competition. “The other pitches got me thoroughly excited about what the future of U of T Entrepreneurship is, from the use of chemical waste to sustainable toys,” she told The Varsity. “[It’s] an amazing space and this competition is coming at a really, really good time.”

A good time it was — the pitch competition featured a great variety of pitches, and despite there only being three prize winners, there were no real losers. From searching for solutions to empower women in Afghanistan, to providing portable electricity to families in Western Africa, the 10 finalists truly embodied the standard that U of T is known for.

MICHAEL TEOH/THE VARSITY

Editor’s Note (July 12, 5:50 pm): This article has been updated to correct the description of ONRamp.

“One has to have a larger risk appetite”: Industry leaders discuss tech innovation at ONRamp event

Talk centres on entrepreneurship in finance, health, cannabis technology

“One has to have a larger risk appetite”: Industry leaders discuss tech innovation at ONRamp event

A panel of industry leaders convened at ONRamp, a U of T-led accelerator, on May 30 to discuss the barriers and opportunities that entrepreneurs face in the highly regulated industries of health, finance, and cannabis technologies.

Greg Pantelic, founder of AHLOT, a cannabis curation company; John Soloninka, founder of health tech company Accelerant Health Innovations; and Teri Kirk, founder of investor-entrepreneur matching program Fundingportal, described their experiences in their respective fields and how they have navigated government regulations.

The event was organized by the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in association with ONRamp. This was not the first time the two organizations had collaborated — Queen’s partnered with ONRamp in February to expand its entrepreneurs’ networking opportunities.

Breaking into the industry and changing with trends

Pantelic’s AHLOT is a cannabis circulation company that “created the world’s first multi-licensed producers’ sample pack and storage accessory product,” despite not being licensed vendors.

“Our vision was creating experience before and after consuming cannabis,” Pantelic said, citing the overwhelming choices of recreational cannabis available to consumers.

After seeing new sign-ups and subscriptions grow at 40 per cent week-over-week in 2017, Pantelic decided to run AHLOT on a full-time basis. The increasingly growing demand for recreational cannabis following the enactment of the federal Cannabis Act, coupled with the market inefficiency of cannabis sampling, led him to create the Cannabis Collection, a series of one-gram samples from different premium licensed producers.

According to Kirk, “one has to have a larger risk appetite and more capacity for innovation [when pursuing entrepreneurship] in heavily regulated space.” Kirk used Fundingportal as an example explaining the importance of measuring cost and benefit. For example, when matching entrepreneurs with investors, geographical costs and benefits differ between Canada and the US, so proximity is a useful measure for deciding which markets to become involved in.

Regulations and innovations

According to Pantelic, the highly regulated nature of the cannabis industry prompted AHLOT to work with licensed producers rather than wait to obtain its own production license. As its Cannabis Collection collects sample cannabis from different licensed partners, every regulation policy regarding the product is dealt with directly by AHLOTS’ partners.

Kirk highlighted the importance of understanding regulations before entering the marketplace, highlighting how her experience of being a lawyer helped her in this regard. She also pointed out that entering a heavily regulated industry like finance technology requires innovators to embrace larger risks than in traditional industries, especially since latent regulations create more opportunities for failure.

Soloninka seconded this perspective. He mentioned that a strong understanding of regulations would provide a competitive advantage for innovators.

“Fitting into regulation is really strategic for starting your own company,” he said. Apart from that, entrepreneurs should remember that regulatory approvals are mostly regional, which is critical when deciding where to start a business.

To solve this regional regulation issue, Soloninka provided two suggestions: first, working with a consulting company that specializes in global regulatory systems; and second, conducting research on the internet.

Data accessibility

In the cannabis industry, data can be described as necessary but nascent. AHLOT is collecting its data by launching a cannabis circulation campaign, to hire people to provide feedback on recreational cannabis quality.

Kirk added that data allows entrepreneurs to understand the world around them despite it being “massively and heavily regulated.” As such, it may be important for entrepreneurs to take the costs of accessing data into account when making market-entering choices.

Mikerah Quintyne-Collins on forging her own path to the blockchain scene

U of T dropout reflects on getting started with blockchain, formal education, and research

Mikerah Quintyne-Collins on forging her own path to the blockchain scene

Right before Christmas last year, then U of T math and statistics student Mikerah Quintyne-Collins received over $100,000 USD in cryptocurrency from Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin and promptly dropped out of U of T.

In a Twitter thread between cryptocurrency developers in December, Quintyne-Collins tweeted to Buterin, “I will quite literally drop out if we got $100k in ETH.” She asked and she received.

After dropping out, Quintyne-Collins, a programmer, researcher, and blockchain enthusiast, switched to working full-time at ChainSafe, a Toronto-based startup that works on blockchain applications, such as automatically enforced smart contracts. Blockchain is a decentralized method of securely storing data that relies on cryptography, the math behind encoding and decoding messages securely.

Ethereum is the second-largest cryptocurrency by market capital, next to Bitcoin. At the time of the transaction, the 1,000 Ether that Buterin sent Quintyne-Collins had a value of $100,630 USD. Now, that same amount is worth around $174,000 USD.

Buterin is a university dropout himself, having left the University of Waterloo in 2014 to work on Ethereum full-time after receiving $100,000 USD through the Thiel Fellowship, a grant awarded annually to people aged 22 and under to drop out of school and pursue full-time work.

These days, Quintyne-Collins is pretty busy with her job, working to develop a platform that may eventually be a part of a new version of Ethereum.

“The main thing that I miss about university [is] Goldring,” she said.

While her mother had wanted her to return to her studies, Quintyne-Collins does not see the need. “People haven’t asked me about my degree. In fact, every time I tell somebody I dropped out to work on Ethereum, they just say, ‘Congrats.’”

“I know myself well enough to know that this is better for me, rather than taking courses I’m not interested in,” she told BreakerMag.

When I asked about her ambitions and plans, Quintyne-Collins said that she was going to “go with the flow.”

Even before university, much of her efforts had been focused outside of school. She taught herself how to code when she was 13 by borrowing library books. Bitcoin then piqued her interest around 2011 when she was in high school and it first made the news; this prompted her to start reading research papers on cryptography.

She became more involved in blockchain during her second year, when Buterin came to U of T for a talk on crypto-economics. This also brought her in touch with ChainSafe, where she would eventually start working part-time as a project lead while continuing her studies.

Before dropping out, Quintyne-Collins was also President of the U of T Blockchain Group and had co-organized a number of blockchain hackathons. Even after dropping out, she helped host this year’s ETHUofT hackathon alongside the group’s current president. This is where I met Quintyne-Collins, as I was volunteering with registration on a Friday evening in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology.

She believes that universities are more useful for forming connections than learning. She added that a number of top universities have materials and resources available online for free.

“This last semester, I wasn’t doing… any schoolwork, to be honest. I might have failed some courses,” she told me.

That being said, she would not encourage just anybody to drop out and find work. “If you have nothing else going for you, then your GPA is pretty much all you have.”

Quintyne-Collins was admitted to the first-year computer science stream when she started at U of T but chose not to pursue the program of study. “I wasn’t going to pay the extra tuition… If you can get a degree for 8k a year versus 15k a year and end up with the same job, who’s the idiot? The person who paid more for it.”

She has also co-authored a study published in the STEM Fellowship Journal and is currently conducting research with a fellow U of T dropout working in blockchain. They are not sure about which journals to publish in yet, but it will at least be on arXiv, an open-access digital repository of research papers.

“For computer science, it doesn’t really matter that much,” she said, referring to the publication they will ultimately choose.

When asked how to get involved in the blockchain scene and get one’s foot in the door, Quintyne-Collins said, “Contribute to open source projects and attend events if you’re technical. And if you’re non-technical, you should organize the events.”

She emphasized the need for talent in the scene beyond just computer science, but also in communication and outreach. “If you’re good at building communities and bringing people together, that’s just as important as being able to write code.”

U of T entrepreneurs’ journey through a startup-studded economy

ExploreTO on building a useful startup, overcoming challenges, and learning along the way

U of T entrepreneurs’ journey through a startup-studded economy

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens’ timeless wisdom certainly resonates with millennials today. On the one hand, we are blessed with an unprecedented amount of possibilities to launch new projects. On the other hand, the chance to start anew often feels imposed. Inspired by successful entrepreneurs, we detest the prospect of a career of clerical drudgeries and punching clocks, but we also fret about the insecurity of our gig economy, because the more the traditional market economy prospers, the more fleeting entrepreneurship’s promise seems.

Additionally, society’s romanticization of self-made entrepreneurs can conceal the challenges involved in launching and maintaining a startup. The road to successful entrepreneurship is a lot bumpier than one might expect. Students need to be mentally and financially prepared if they are serious about having their own business ventures.

On behalf of ExploreTO, a startup led mainly by U of T alumni, here are some insights into our entrepreneurial adventure and some survival tips we’ve picked up along the way.

Getting started

ExploreTO is a phone app that helps users find what to do and where to go in Toronto. Our four founders came up with this idea when they ended up going to the same places every time they hung out. As they saw the same faces at the same spots, they knew that they weren’t the only ones feeling tired of the same routines and frustrated by the surfeit of new options that popped up on search engines. People’s continued desire to have new and exciting hangout spots easily sorted for them is a testament to the necessity of this app.

Once they were set on what they wanted to do with their app, they began their research into the events listing industry, which consists of two types of companies: technology-oriented companies like Yelp and Facebook and content-oriented ones like blogTO and Narcity.

In the first category, companies work like aggregators that glean data from nearly every event and venue — there is nothing happening in the city that you can’t find on their apps. Despite their omnipotence, they lack original content and curation. Wading through the thousands of options they proffer, users may or may not eventually find something that interests them, contributing to the conundrum that ExploreTO seeks to resolve.

In the second category, media companies usually provide great original content. They have staff writers and editors who understand audiences’ expectations and deliver relevant content. Their apps, by contrast, are lacking severely. Most people we know either have no clue that these popular content providers have apps, or they have tried these apps only to delete them minutes after. Few system updates have been made on their apps, and with a focus on web content, their apps are generally poorly managed — restaurants in some of the reviews don’t even exist anymore.

ExploreTO targets what both of these game players miss: an easy-to-use app with carefully curated, updated, and original content. Not only does our team manually select venues and events for our collections, but we build in features that take into account users’ preferences, weather, the day of the week, time of the year, and other relevant factors. When launching a startup, the first thing to do is conduct research that helps you understand the industry. At the same time, it’s important to consider how to address some of the shortcomings of your competitors.

As the company has continued to grow, our founders have leveraged their education and spoken to a few professors who have offered valuable advice. So for any aspiring entrepreneurs, don’t let this resource go to waste. U of T also has such a large talent pool where you can meet your future business partners who share your values. Socialize as much as you can and meet people from different schools and departments — you’ll need different talents to build a successful business.

Building a team

The four founding partners are Val Neiman from engineering, Philipp Soummer from Rotman Commerce, and Liam Kelly from computer science, all graduates from U of T, as well as Ivan Gudov, a math graduate from the University of Waterloo. Between the four of them, ExploreTO had the perfect team. With Ivan as the developer building the backend database and Liam working on the frontend user interface, Philipp and Val took charge of business operations and project management.

The lesson for aspiring U of T entrepreneurs is to never overlook the importance of choosing the right partners. You will need them to be as competent as they are trustworthy, be able to meet deadlines, and share responsibility as team players, so you know that you can count on each other at the end of the day.

Building ExploreTO from scratch, our team has learned to work on everything independently and to keep costs low because we didn’t want to get funded too early and give away an outsized portion of equity. It may sound like an exciting learning experience, but in reality, it has been very daunting given how we are self-funded, and all four founders have highly demanding jobs in hedge funds, IT consulting, and project management. We all need to be resourceful and diligent, and we need everyone to play ball when working countless extra hours. Juggling ExploreTO with demanding day jobs certainly hasn’t been easy for them, and it can sometimes feel hard to stay motivated and keep a team motivated as well. Although our founders have never seriously considered quitting, the thought did cross everyone’s mind in the first two years as they didn’t know how it would turn out. But as our team keeps hitting milestones, gaining more traffic and user recognition, we believe that there is no better way to invest our time and efforts than in this venture.

Funding

Of course we do want to seek new sources of funding. The team is looking to expand and still wants to pay future interns in more than just charismatic experiences. In fact, Neiman and Soummer just auditioned for Dragons’ Den and received very positive feedback, so you may see ExploreTO with a deal on the next season!

That said, it’s not all about the money. The motivation is creating a product that people love and, if that ends up being financially rewarding, then it’s the cherry on top. But it’s also worth mentioning that while money problems can certainly be daunting — especially when they involve potential lawsuits — they are not always difficult to resolve.

ExploreTO’s issues with larger companies in the industry surprisingly only took a few emails and short explanations to resolve. People make threats and get threatened in the business world all the time, particularly related to money, but confidence and communication dissolve more conflicts than you might think.

Continued growth

It is difficult to know when to quit. It takes some intuition, which will probably come with experience. It’s important to define some goals, metrics, or milestones to judge your progress. If the project doesn’t seem to be progressing based on that outline, perhaps it’s a good time to re-evaluate. Maybe the goals are too lofty, or maybe it’s the strategic direction that needs work.

The best way to reconfigure your ideas is to ask the people who will be using your product. ExploreTO had small focus groups in its Alpha stages that involved our founders asking friends to test the app, while telling them that they were testing an app that someone they vaguely knew had developed. That way, the team could get honest feedback without testers feeling as if they were criticizing them directly. The app is currently on its 15th iteration because we takes the feedback of our users very seriously. Had ExploreTO never asked its users what they thought, the app would still look like it did a year ago. We would have liked it personally, but our users wouldn’t have.

For aspiring entrepreneurs in the initial stage of development, it’s imperative to testify the necessity of your product, coin down your specialty, and find the right partners who specialize in these areas. As the team develops, it’s also necessary to think about building a culture.

A successful startup needs to be people-oriented. Take into account the opinions, criticism, and concerns of your users, interns, and employees — those are the contributions that every startup needs.

— With files from Philipp Soummer

April Jin is a Content Writer at ExploreTO.

The Explainer: U of T’s new real estate strategy

Four Corners aims to increase housing, generate $50 million annually by 2033

The Explainer: U of T’s new real estate strategy

U of T recently approved the Four Corners Strategy framework to guide the university in new real estate investments. Four Corners replaces the previous real estate strategy, which was implemented in 2007.

Four Corners Strategy goals

According to the Four Corners Strategy Report, one of the two main goals of Four Corners is to “facilitate amenity uses that support the [university’s] academic mission.” The key tenet of this goal is to expand available housing for faculty, staff, and students.

In an interview with The Varsity, Vice-President Operations and Real Estate Partnerships Scott Mabury said that a detailed housing survey of employees and graduate students had been conducted. With over 1,000 graduate students on waiting lists for housing each year, Mabury believes that there is a need to expand the available residences owned and operated by U of T.

“The solid outcome of that survey is that there is significant demand from faculty and senior staff for wanting to live near or at the University of Toronto,” said Mabury. “[We] have the confidence of building residential units that our faculty and staff will want to live in.”

Other objectives of the amenity use goal include providing space that “supports the university’s research and commercialization efforts,” creating “gathering and meetings spaces” for the campuses and broader community, and facilitating “retail uses serving the campus community’s needs.”

Another main goal of Four Corners is to “grow ‘other’ revenue while maintaining long-term real estate interests.” Given that U of T is heavily dependent on student fees and government and donor funding, the report suggests that diversifying U of T’s revenue streams with new sources will create “increased financial visibility, flexibility, and security.”

“Almost the entire university budget — 87 per cent — comes from students paying tuition fees or government operating grants,” said Mabury. “That’s not financially sustainable. We need to grow the remaining 13 per cent, to increase the resilience and sustainability of the institutional budget.”

The Four Corners Strategy aims to generate $50 million in operational funding per year by 2033 through its two cornerstone developments: a 23-storey residence at Spadina and Sussex Avenues and a 14-storey innovation centre at College Street and University Avenue.

Cornerstone developments

Revenue from the buildings will “be focused on a University of Toronto strategic fund to be invested into institutional priorities to advance the research and teaching mission of the university,” explained Mabury.

The residence at Spadina and Sussex will be the first new residence built at U of T in nearly two decades. First proposed in 2013, the building design has undergone many years of public consultations and workshops. It is expected to house 511 students and is scheduled to be built by 2021.

The innovation centre plans to house student, office, and retail spaces. According to Mabury, one quarter of the centre will be assigned for offices and academic support, while a second quarter will accommodate U of T Entrepreneurship, the Innovations & Partnerships Office, and the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence. The third quarter has been set aside specifically for student startups. The final quarter is slated for scaling and successfully expanding companies.

Explaining the decision to devote half of its 250,000 square feet of floor space to startup companies and established corporate partners, Mabury said that the innovation centre is “designed to be a landing pad and a starting place for our students start-ups.”

“As they grow, [students] could move out of the startup part of the building into the scaling company… portion of the building,” Mabury said. “At some point they will grow large enough that [students] need to vacate both to make room for other companies coming along, but also because they’ve grown large enough that they need to be out and fully fledged and on their own.”

Mabury said that the building will also meet and exceed current provincial energy efficiency standards.

The Four Corners strategy will prioritize “building non-academic spaces we need today in a way that supports the University of Toronto’s academic and strategic priorities tomorrow.”

Regarding its longevity, Mabury says that if successful, “Four Corners will continue indefinitely into the future,” but that “from a planning perspective… we felt that a 15-year horizon was appropriate.”

U of T receives $100 million donation for innovation advancement

Largest-ever donation to fund 750,000-square-foot innovation complex for AI, biotechnology research

U of T receives $100 million donation for innovation advancement

U of T has received a $100 million donation to fund a new innovation research complex that will support artificial intelligence (AI) and biomedical research. The donation, from the Gerald Schwartz and Heather Reisman Foundation, is the largest that the university has ever received. U of T President Meric Gertler, Toronto Mayor John Tory, and Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains were among the speakers who lauded the donation at U of T’s March 25 press conference.

“Today we enter an incredibly exciting new chapter in this history of generosity, signalling a new era of world-leading innovation and progress at the University of Toronto,” Gertler said.

Gerald Schwartz is the founder and CEO of private equity firm Onex. Heather Reisman is the founder and CEO of book retailer Indigo.

Schwartz Reisman Innovation Centre

The new 750,000-square-foot Schwartz Reisman Innovation Centre will be located at the corner of College Street and Queen’s Park. U of T expects that the building will host thousands of researchers, investors, industry partners, and international visitors annually. The building will also house the new Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society and the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

Gertler told The Varsity after the announcement that the centre will provide opportunities for graduate and undergraduate U of T students from a variety of disciplines, including the humanities and law. “All of these disciplines are really trying to understand this incredibly tumultuous time that we’re in, both [with] the advances of technology and their applications but also what it means for society,” Gertler said. “Students will be fundamental for this.”

U of T will appoint a director to lead the new institute, who will oversee the development of programming and research initiatives, as well as the creation of new fellowships and a research fund. The institute will research digital surveillance laws and the ethical and societal implications of AI and biotechnology.

U of T Professor Emeritus, winner of the Turing Award, and leading AI researcher Geoffrey Hinton said, “My hope is that the Schwartz Reisman institute will be the place where deep learning disrupts the humanities.”

Construction will begin in the fall.

The donation

Reisman said that the donation was inspired by an article that the billionaire couple had read about U of T’s plans to further tech-driven entrepreneurship, business partnerships, and artificial intelligence leadership. She praised U of T for creating “a foundation upon which true greatness can be built.”

“At the end of the day, what stirs us most is the opportunity to supercharge the university’s ability to recruit and inspire the best,” Reisman said. “We are grateful to be part of something so pregnant with possibility.”

The gift is the largest donation ever made to the Canadian innovation sector.

“A testament to our excellence as a city”

Tory praised the donation as further evidence that Toronto is a powerhouse in international innovation. He said that continued public, private, and philanthropic investment are needed to succeed academically and commercially and that he hopes the donation will encourage further donations to Toronto’s innovation sector. “It is vital to our ability to finance the things that are very human, whether it’s education or whether it’s support for those who are struggling,” Tory said. He added that the gift will attract more researchers and academics to the city.

Bains also emphasized the importance of an “all hands on deck” approach in furthering the federal government’s long-term vision to “build a nation of innovators.

“I think it’s a great day not only for Toronto — I think it’s a great day for Canada. The investment… will make sure that Canada will leave its mark on the world,” Bains said.

Hinton added that the donation “will further cement Toronto’s leadership as a thriving industry for innovative applications of AI.”

— With files from Srivindhya Kolluru

U of T alumni discuss entrepreneurship at Female Founders panel

Leila Keshavjee, Saara Punjani, Pooja Viswanathan on challenges, failures, and future successes

U of T alumni discuss entrepreneurship at Female Founders panel

Founders, innovative thought leaders, pioneers, role models: these were just some of the terms lavished upon U of T alumni-cum-entrepreneurs Leila Keshavjee, Saara Punjani, and Pooja Viswanathan at a panel event at ONRamp on the eve of International Women’s Day. Dubbed “Female Founders,” this event was the first in an annual speaker series that leverages both the celebration of International Women’s Day and U of T’s thriving entrepreneurship culture to discuss the triumphs and challenges of being a female founder.

Christine Allen, the Interim Dean of the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, moderated the panel. She is also the co-founder of tech startup Nanovista.

Overcoming structural challenges

Punjani cited credibility as one of the main hurdles on the path to success. Punjani is the Chief Operations Officer of Structura Biotechnology, a startup founded by her brother Ali and also Marcus Brubaker. The business develops machine learning technology for structural biologists.

“We have a product that’s based on a completely new technology. The market is something that we are actively trying to create as we go along,” she said. Part of building this market is finding ways to establish credibility within existing markets, which is why Structura Biotechnology has offered its software to academic institutions for free — results published using the software are their “foot in the door,” according to Punjani.

Keshavjee, the founder of healthy, all-natural fruit ice popsicle startup Happy Pops, said that earning credibility as a young female entrepreneur has been a recurring challenge. “People often don’t trust young female entrepreneurs… but I think hopefully we’re changing that,” she said. Keshavjee said that preconceived notions of what an entrepreneur looks like can be a strong inhibitor for women. Her appearance and subsequent $150,000 offer on Dragons’ Den, she said, has allowed her to partially overcome this issue when dealing with clients, despite nothing about her product having changed.

For Viswanathan — co-founder of Braze Mobility, a startup that develops sensors that improve accessibility for wheelchair users — perception can be turned to her advantage. “I think a lot of the [problems are] just how you perceive [them],” she said. “So when you walk in thinking you’ve got a competitive edge because you’re a woman, then it actually turns out that way.”

Failure can be healthy

Failure has been a recurring motif for the three entrepreneurs, and each has their own approach on how to fail and how to come back stronger. “You’ve gotta fail fast,” Keshavjee said. “You’re gonna fail so many times as an entrepreneur… there’s a lesson to be learned in all of this.”

Viswanathan said that failure prevents complacency and pushes her to pursue alternative solutions to problems. “One thing that I actually love about failure is there’s nothing [like it to] get you moving,” she said. The lack of wheelchair standardization made it difficult for her startup to create universal sensors, especially without enough expertise in mechanical engineering and design. Her solution was to assemble a team capable of complementing each other’s expertise.

As for Punjani, overcoming failure depends on “changing the definition of what it actually means to fail.” She added that “having had more life experience and more of an entrepreneurial experience, you start to see that it’s not really about what you accomplish at the end of the day or what you expected, but… that you keep going.”

Sensing a bright future

Keshavjee, Viswanathan, and Punjani’s brother all relied on U of T’s Impact Centre to help launch their startups. The Impact Centre is one of the university’s nine accelerators; it provides resources and commercialization aid for aspiring entrepreneurs. Punjani had also relied on support from the Department of Computer Science Innovation Lab and UTEST, two other U of T accelerators.

Changes are on the horizon for all three startups, owing to the continued success they’ve been able to achieve thus far. Keshavjee’s Happy Pops is projecting 500,000 sales in 2019, in what is only its fourth year of operation. Keshavjee hopes to distribute her product across Canada and the US within the next five years.

Punjani and Structura Biotechnology are likely to shift from developing software to becoming involved in the field of drug discovery as they continue to expand their reach into their market.

Finally, Viswanathan’s startup is aiming to be “the intelligence behind the entire wheelchair manufacturing industry.” She said that the “industry is very mechanical heavy,” meaning that it has not significantly invested into software and intelligence data, which in turn limits wheelchairs’ mobility and ability to overcome certain accessibility concerns.

Impact Centre founder and U of T Entrepreneurship academic director Cynthia Goh described each of the entrepreneurs best at the start of the evening as “changing not only the conversation, but the very landscape of their fields.”

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.”