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

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 alum’s startup offered $150,000 Dragons’ Den deal

Leila Keshavjee’s ice pops pave path to sweet future

U of T alum’s startup offered $150,000 Dragons’ Den deal

U of T Kinesiology alum Leila Keshavjee’s startup has landed a sweet deal.

On the recently aired season 13 premiere of reality television show Dragons’ Den, Keshavjee’s healthy ice popsicle startup Happy Pops was offered a $150,000 investment and access to a business accelerator in exchange for 30 per cent equity.

“It was definitely a little more equity than I said I wanted to give up initially going in,” says Keshavjee. “[But] I went with my gut… I have this offer now and I think it’s 100 per cent the best fit.”

Happy Pops was born out of Keshavjee’s desire to create a product that was “a healthier alternative to what’s already out there but still tasted good.”

Through her Kinesiology degree, Keshavjee learned about nutrition and the many ways that sugar can be hidden on food labels. “I wanted to have a product [with ingredients] that anybody could pronounce… There was no hiding.”

While still an undergraduate student at U of T, Keshavjee enrolled in IMC200 — Innovation and Entrepreneurship and IMC390 — Internship in New Venture, where she learned about what it takes to start a business.

Later, she sought advice and support from U of T’s Impact Centre, which she credits with supporting her entrepreneurial adventure. “When you’re running a business, you’re often alone in the startup phase… The opportunities to interact with other entrepreneurs… is one of the most valuable things. You can learn so much from each other.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF LEILA KESHAVJEE

She started her ice pop business after graduating from U of T in 2016, when, with funding from her father, she purchased an ice pop business that had a 1,000-square-foot commercial kitchen but no retail products.

“When I started, I made all the popsicles myself for the first month. So I used to cut the fruit, blend it all, put it in the popsicle mould, seal them, wash all the dishes and all that.” Now that the business has grown, Keshavjee’s role is primarily focused on sales and marketing.

She describes running her own business and building a brand as filled with constant ups and downs. “You could be cold-calling for days. Or, someone could reach out to you and say, ‘Hey, I wanna have you in my store’… Getting people to know who you are as a brand and trust you hasn’t been easy but it’s definitely been a great learning experience.”

On the encouragement of her friends, Keshavjee auditioned for Dragons’ Den in Toronto, which was among the 38 stops the show made across the country. She waited for four hours among many other worthy businesses. She describes the audition process as intense: “You really just have to block out everybody around you and focus on your pitch.”

After being placed on the standby list, she was called and given three days’ notice to appear on Dragons’ Den. She had to prepare her presentation over that weekend, making sure it was entertaining and that the product looked perfect.

Going into the den, Keshavjee was nervous. “I was nauseous, I was sleep-deprived, I was excited… I [had] watched this show for so long.” However, she relaxed when she saw that the investors liked her product.

During her 45 minutes of filming, four of the six investors made offers for Happy Pops.

Keshavjee made her final decision in about a minute. Originally seeking $50,000 for 10 per cent equity, she is finalizing an offer from Arlene Dickinson, whom she knew that she wanted to work with going in, of $150,000 for 30 per cent equity.

To other students looking to start their own businesses, Keshavjee says, “Don’t be afraid to fail and don’t be afraid to take a risk, especially while you’re young. Now is the time to try these things.”

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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Your holiday gift guide, meme-ified

Founded by Rotman students, DankTank sells everyday objects with a twist

Your holiday gift guide, meme-ified

The holiday season brings with it cold weather, exams, new Starbucks cups, and ongoing anxiety to find the perfect gifts. One company has stepped in to help you find the best present for your meme-loving friends and family.

Dank Tank, founded by third-year Rotman student Jonathan Ge and his partner, Jason Wong, ‘meme-ify’ everyday products to give them a fresh twist. Alongside their team of five, including two “meme researchers,” Dank Tank is making the products you never knew you wanted.

In December 2016, Dank Tank launched their first product, Holy Méme Bible, an adult colouring and activity book that included all of the most viral memes of 2016. The first edition generated $200,000 in sales in just three weeks.

This year, Holy Méme Bible: New Testament showcases all of 2017’s most popular memes in over 60 pages of activities. From connecting the dots of Mocking SpongeBob to learning some meme trivia, the book inspires hours of fun.

New Testament also pokes fun at US President Donald Trump on several pages, which Ge attributes to his unpredictable and random nature. “In 2017, Trump himself perpetuated the meme game. He probably takes up five per cent of the total meme space,” says Ge.

If colouring is not your thing, Dank Tank also offers meme-inspired bath bombs. The current stock includes a fidget spinner bath bomb with the scent of Summer Berry, and one Cherry Blossom-scented bath bomb with the inscription “Send Nudes.”

Ge also hints at future designs that will include bath bombs in the shape of the Swirling Mr. Krabs meme, and another paying respect to the widely popular game The Floor Is Lava.

One of Dank Tank’s products is slightly different than the rest: the candles. “They’re not based off memes. Realistically, we call them Relatable Candles because their scent and text is meant to convey a certain meaning,” says Ge.

Candles such as the “smell of your bed sheets when you cry yourself to sleep at night” and the “smell of the perfume from the crush that you never got to ask out” will surely strike a chord with many.

Though Dank Tank only has three products currently for sale, Ge gave The Varsity some insight into its future developments. The Lean Méme Cuisine Cookbook, currently available for pre-order, offers close to 20 meme-inspired recipes, including Cashew Me Outside and the Idiot Sandwich.

Ge also reports that “condoms that look like sauce packets” will also be for sale sometime in 2018. The meme team also plans to release a meme encyclopedia that categorizes, describes, and provides information for over 300 different memes disseminated from 2003 to 2017.

“Memes are one of the most important pieces of our generation,” says Ge on his inspiration. From leading political movements to vouching for social change, Ge believes we have yet to reach the heights of meme culture’s success.

Despite the initial success of Dank Tank, Ge doesn’t have plans to leave school. He says he has a lot to learn, including marketing strategies and how to properly manage a company’s finances. Ge also attributes the optimization skills learned during his Rotman education as a key element that has helped his company’s financial gain.

“If you want to become an entrepreneur, just do it. You have to stop thinking, ‘This might not be a good idea,’” says Ge. “If you want to genuinely impress employers, start your own business. That shows strength and initiative,” he added.

Dank Tank’s products are the perfect gifts for this holiday season. Whether you choose the Holy Méme Bible, meme bath bombs, or the Relatable Candles, each item will certainly serve as a conversation starter, in addition to a practical purpose.

Ge guarantees that the recipient of any Dank Tank product will be surprised by your choice of gift.

Alumni startup iMerciv wins TELUS Pitch

BuzzClip wearable technology for visually impaired chosen as grand prize winner

Alumni startup iMerciv wins TELUS Pitch

The final prototype for the BuzzClip, a mobility tool for the blind, culminated after 18 months of research and design, and it is now being used by more than 800 individuals.

This project, developed by Bin Liu, a U of T civil engineering graduate and co-founder of iMerciv, was awarded $100,000 through the TELUS Pitch small business competition. Recognized for their promising startup, the team won the grand prize of $100,000 among nearly 3,000 entries. The panel of judges included Arlene Dickinson, the CEO of District Ventures Capital. The other two finalists, Flashfood and JamStack, received a $10,000 prize.

iMerciv specializes in developing technologies to assist those dealing with vision loss, and aims to be a leader in the market by providing a one-stop shop for vision loss and mobility related products. The company’s featured product, the BuzzClip, is a wearable device that uses ultrasound technology to detect obstacles in the user’s path, particularly those at head level. Vibrations notify the user of an obstacle allowing them to recognize and navigate around the obstacle.

The name iMerciv stems from Liu’s desire to give visually impaired users a living experience that is more immersive. Combined with Liu’s interest in civil engineering, the name iMerciv was chosen.

Upon graduation, Liu was accepted into Techno 2014 program at the Impact Centre, and said that as soon as he was accepted into the program, he contacted Arjun Mali, who became iMerciv’s co-founder with Liu. The two previously researched technology for those living with vision loss, but only began conceptualizing their technology during the program. Both were 23 years old when they founded iMerciv.

iMerciv will use the $100,000 grand prize to increase BuzzClip sales and help with production costs of a new product. According to Liu, the money from the competition will help the company expand their presence in Europe and Asia.

It was a personal connection that drove the co-founders to empower and help individuals who are partially sighted or blind. Liu’s father suffers from inoperable glaucoma, and Mali’s family has been supporting a blind orphanage and school in India for decades. “People with vision loss are hugely underserved,” said Liu in an email to The Varsity.

The ‘ah-ha’ moment for the two came after consulting with users and mobility trainers for the blind, and discovering obstacles at head level are a major challenge for individuals with vision loss.

Despite the company’s current success, iMerciv faced challenges in advertising and manufacturing. “We were not able to market to our target audience through traditional media so we had to come up with new ways to reach end users,” said Liu. The two were able to navigate this challenge by attending conferences and utilizing online communities.

Manufacturing the BuzzClip was a time-consuming and costly process. Liu and Mali advise entrepreneurs to “look into marketing strategies earlier on, even before the product is ready” and to “plan ahead for manufacturing cost and time and then multiply both by 3x when you do your first batch of production.”

Despite the challenges, Liu fondly remembers shipping out the first batch of the BuzzClip. “It was one of the most fulfilling moments to see our hard work finally coming to fruition,” he said.

A second product is currently underway at iMerciv with pilot tests set to begin in 2018. “All I can say is that it will be a navigation system for the blind and it will be a game changer,” said Liu.

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.