Eight women from promising startups pitched. But only one won the big prize.

AirMatrix, a Toronto-based company that “builds highways in the skies” for the emerging revolution in drone usage, is $100,000 richer today, walking away with the cheque at the eighth incarnation of the Fierce Founders Pitch Competition.

“Very surreal,” said AirMatrix co-founder and COO Alexandra McCalla, asked how it felt to have emerged with the day’s winning pitch. “One hundred K is a lot for a startup, especially at our stage, with non-dilutive [money]. What that actually means for us will sink in on the drive back to Toronto.”

AirMatrix conducts aerial mapping, building an air traffic control infrastructure that drones will require in order to safely navigate congested urban airspace. The concept impressed the panel of five judges.

“Super novel idea. Super complicated. And they’re in with a lot of key players influencing policy. We think they’ll make a big impact,” said Talia Abramowitz, COO at Omnia AI, Deloitte’s artificial intelligence practice.

Steve Woods, Google’s Senior Director of Engineering, said the judges were additionally impressed with the combination of value proposition, size of potential market and that the company has set out to solve “an obvious problem that has to be addressed.

“And they have a really strong and experienced team,” he said. “The combination made it fairly clear, whether or not we supported them, that they had a good opportunity to be successful and we wanted to give them a kick-start.”

The eight pitching companies emerged from a cohort of 24 that had taken part in the Fierce Founders Bootcamp, a six-day, two-stage Communitech program backed by the Business Development Bank of Canada, Deloitte, Google, the City of Kitchener and the governments of Canada and Ontario. The program aims to help female-led tech entrepreneurs accelerate their companies.

AirMatrix and the two runners-up from Wednesday’s pitch competition, Coloursmith Labs (which makes contact lenses that remedy colour blindness) and Wavy Travel (which provides users with locally sourced travel and activity recommendations based on their interests) earned the opportunity to take part in the Fierce Founders Accelerator, a more robust, six-month program for female entrepreneurs.

Someone pitching onstage to an audience at the Fierce Founder event

The scene Wednesday at the Tannery Event Centre. (Communitech photo: Sara Jalali)

McCalla said the money will help the company in two direct ways – give it the resources to attend select trade shows in Asia, Europe and the U.S., and hire a VP of strategic partnerships.

“So, two huge things that are going to lead to our expansion and our success and [help us become a] big Canadian company swinging for the fences,” McCalla said.

The pitches Wednesday were crisp, well-thought-out, and the business concepts intriguing. Woods and Abramowitz said the judges’ deliberation was painful.

“It’s always difficult,” Woods said. “I love startups but I don’t like selecting between them, because I think it’s hard to pick winners and losers.

“I wouldn’t make a very good venture capitalist.

“There were some great entrepreneurs here. I think that of these companies, all of them have [sound] businesses, all of them have an opportunity to be successful.

“We’re very impressed by all of them.”

It was a sentiment that McCalla echoed – for the entire cohort.

“I loved this program. These 23 women are amazing. Imagine, all these women in one room, learning from each other. I’ve learned so much from them.”

Other judges included Kim Yeung of the Business Development Bank of Canada, Jennifer Smith of Cineplex Digital Media, and Aaron Bast, Investment Director with the MaRS Investment Accelerator Fund.

The keynote address leading into the pitches was delivered by Alwar Pillai of Fable Tech Labs, who won $75,000 at the Fierce Founders Pitch Competition event last September.

Other companies that pitched Wednesday included:

    • Senior Care Connect, based in Toronto, which aims to connect seniors with qualified caregivers.

    • Vaughan-based Swob Inc., the maker of an app that connects students seeking jobs with companies that have job openings.

    • Waterloo-based Toxon Technologies, which makes hardware that help archers enhance their shots.
A group of people standing onstage at Fierce Founders with a giant cheque

Judges, sponsors and participants at the conclusion of the $100,000 Fierce Founders Pitch Competition.

(Communitech photo: Sara Jalali).