A year like no other “Happy New Year.” It’s one of those time-worn seasonal greetings that, in a normal January, we toss around without a second thought. This year, it’s different. This year, “Happy New Year” is a wish we genuinely want to come true after the upheaval that defined 2020. How to sum up a year that started typically enough, only to be rocked by a global pandemic two months in, worldwide protests against anti-Black racism in spring and summer, and then, to top it all off, a second wave of COVID-19 even bigger than the first? For all the damage wrought by the pandemic in 2020 – the lost lives, closed businesses, cancelled events, disruption to schools and workplaces – it also brought out the best in us. Nowhere was that clearer than in Waterloo Region’s tech community, which – perhaps unsurprisingly – rose to the pandemic’s many challenges, despite the chaos and uncertainty it ushered in when lockdowns began in March. In myriad ways, this community stepped up: for our hospitals, for our charities, for our businesses, for each other. And while there have been some dark days, there were bright spots throughout, as regular readers of the Roundup will recall. As the first vaccinations get under way across Canada, there’s light on the horizon and good reason to look forward to better days, though in a changed world. For now, let’s look back on a most unusual year that none of us will soon forget. January The year got off to a capital start with several Waterloo Region tech companies announcing new investment. Topping the funding charts was smart-cities scale-up Miovision, whose traffic-management platform helps people move through urban environments more efficiently. The company raised a CDN$120-million round led by Telus Ventures. From healthy cities to healthy humans, investors made a CDN$10-million bet on Nicoya, a Communitech Rev graduate. Nicoya uses nanotechnology and AI to make analytical instruments that help scientists and medical personnel produce treatments for disease. Also flying high was SkyWatch, a space startup that announced a CDN$10-million Series A round. Housed in the Communitech Data Hub in Waterloo, SkyWatch makes it cheaper and easier to order and buy satellite imagery. January went out with a dash of glitz and glamour as Waterloo-based Dejero won another Emmy Award for technology and engineering, the company’s second in a row. Dejero’s technology uses the internet to enable live TV broadcasting from virtually anywhere. February Google warmed up a typically frosty month when it unveiled plans to triple its Waterloo Region headcount to 3,000 by 2022 and launch its first Canadian startup accelerator based out of its large and growing engineering office in Kitchener. Faire, fresh from hitting unicorn status in late 2019, opened a spacious new office in Kitchener and brought top retail investor Kirsten Green in from California to mark the occasion. It wouldn’t be the last time the inventory platform for independent merchants would make news in 2020. Presaging what would become a dominant theme for the year – tech for good – all eight companies at Communitech’s Fierce Founders Bootcamp Pitch Competition had a humanitarian component, with two women-led startups sharing the $100,000 prize. And, for the first time, references to the growing threat of COVID-19 bubbled up in a local tech-news context, with Waterloo Region mask-maker O2 Canada telling the Globe and Mail its orders had skyrocketed, specifically in Asia. March It was a month that would feel like a year, and it started with a palpable sense of storm clouds gathering as an early handful of COVID-19 cases began to grow across Canada. While Waterloo Region reported just one positive case as of March 8, that figure would grow to 117 by month’s end and continue to rise from there, while public health guidance seemed to evolve daily. The growing crisis sent local health-care professionals, in the words of Grand River Hospital CEO Ron Gagnon, “sprinting to the starting line of a marathon” to prepare the region for the worst. In the process, it brought out the best in a community known for rallying when it matters. As Communitech’s Craig Daniels would document in a column later in the month, a cross-functional team of about 40 people, including Communitech executives, came together to tackle the most pressing aspects of the region’s response and preparedness in a way that left Gagnon, a relative newcomer to the area, “at a loss for words.” On the business front, no words were spared in the effort to secure government support for the region’s tech employers, many of whom sent their teams home to work amid an Ontario-wide state of emergency and lockdown. Communitech added its voice to those of more than 200 tech CEOs in calling for targeted relief measures in open letters to Queen’s Park and Ottawa, calls that were heeded and helped preserve countless jobs. Local leaders also formed a group called BESTWR (Business and Economic Support Team of Waterloo Region) to help businesses meet pandemic-related challenges. Area tech companies big and small also made quick pivots to join the fight against COVID-19. Some turned out physical products such as face shields, ventilators and protective panels to separate hospital patients while others opened up their software platforms or offered cybersecurity tips for teams suddenly working remotely. April The shock of the pandemic’s arrival in March gave way to the reality of its implications in April, as the death toll rose, the economy stalled and uncertainty prevailed. Rather than sit on their hands, tech entrepreneurs continued to roll up their sleeves, most notably Jeremy Hedges of InkSmith. The company had begun March as a 10-person startup making robotics kits for schools, but by late April, it was on track to employ 300 as it cranked out protective face shields by the millions from a spinoff operation aptly named The Canadian Shield. The InkSmith story underscored a stark reality exposed by the pandemic: Reliance on offshore manufacturing had left Canada vulnerable to shortages of personal protective equipment, or PPE, as we’ve all since come to know it. With local hospital supplies under pressure, Catalyst Capital and Communitech helped lead a community PPE drive for masks, gowns, gloves and disinfectant spray. PPE wasn’t the only pressing issue inside area hospitals. Front-line workers dealing with COVID-19 encountered technological needs that Communitech News highlighted in a special four-part series called Code Now, an initiative that helped kick off a new collaboration between local health institutions and tech innovators. A host of local companies, meanwhile, pursued pandemic-related solutions, including such medtech firms as Nicoya and KA Imaging, while other companies worked on tools ranging from robotic triage workers and indoor contact tracing to communication tools for health-care workers, schools and news organizations, among others. At a higher level, advocates including Communitech continued pushing for improvements to federal economic supports as the threat to companies – particularly early-stage, pre-revenue startups – became clearer. Ultimately, the federal government unveiled another $1.2 billion in relief measures, including $250 million to help startups. And, on the community front, Communitech Multimedia Manager Sara Jalali put together a visual project called #Project19 to showcase how local residents are staying strong in the face of COVID-19, while Tech About Town columnist Alex Kinsella told us how to connect with artists during the pandemic. May After a relentless two months of sombre news, May brought a welcome dose of relief in the form of a mythical, one-horned creature – a unicorn – called ApplyBoard. The Waterloo Region company and Communitech Rev graduate hit a CDN$2-billion valuation as it continued to scale its platform to connect international students with educational institutions. Trusscore and eleven-x also announced fresh funding rounds, signalling continued long-term optimism among investors despite current circumstances. The list of area tech companies turning their focus to the pandemic continued to grow, with the likes of Knowledgehook, PiinPoint, PicThrive and Local Line making news for various reasons. And, following on from the inaugural community PPE drive she helped to spearhead, Amber French, co-founder at Catalyst Capital (and now a Communitech VP), was named President of a new collective called the Community PPE Co-operative, to help small local organizations procure much-needed protective equipment. As talk turned towards an eventual reopening of the economy, Vic Fedeli, Ontario’s Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, told Communitech News that the kind of leadership shown by Waterloo Region tech companies during the pandemic would be vital to the province’s manufacturing future. Meanwhile, as remote work became the new norm and companies began to announce permanent work-from-home arrangements, Simon Chan, Communitech VP Talent, Academy and Future of Work, spoke to MaRS about the implications of the pandemic for talent recruitment. On that same theme, Communitech took its periodic Tech Jam job fair virtual, with Tech Jam at Home, which connected more than 1,000 job seekers from across the country with 25 potential employers. June As countries around the world wrestled to bring COVID-19 to heel with varying degrees of success, another global phenomenon emerged in June, as people took to the streets to protest anti-Black racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis. In Waterloo Region, a crowd estimated at more than 12,000 turned out for a Black Lives Matter march in downtown Kitchener, prompting further discussion about racism and policing on Communitech’s True North TV series on YouTube. True North TV, which explores topics related to “tech for good,” was launched in the wake of the pandemic-related cancellation of the in-person True North Festival, and continued throughout the year. Tech for good as a global differentiator for Canada was the focus, incidentally, of a long read in the MIT Technology Review, which included comments from Communitech CEO Iain Klugman. Leading by example on the tech-for-good front was Guelph, Ont.-based serial entrepreneur and philanthropist Jim Estill, who delivered a virtual talk for a Communitech audience. Estill co-founded the Ventilators for Canadians consortium to build life-sustaining technology during COVID-19, and recently turned his attention to producing ultra-cold freezers at the appliance company he leads, Danby, for safe storage of early COVID vaccines. Still with tech for good, a Communitech-led fundraising campaign launched a month earlier for local charities wrapped up on a high in June, with $208,858 going to seven local agencies. In company news, June brought the blockbuster announcement that Google had acquired North (formerly Thalmic Labs), the fast-scaling Waterloo Region wearable technology company that produced Focals smart glasses and, before that, the Myo armband for gesture-controlled computing. Google said the North team would join the internet giant’s Waterloo Region engineering operation. The month also saw continued strong investment activity, with several Communitech member companies announcing significant raises, including Clearpath Robotics’ OTTO Motors division, biotech firm Cyclica, HR/benefits software firm Humi, and ThinkData Works, a Toronto-based data technology company. Pandemic-related demand also led to growth for cybersecurity firm eSentire, video marketing platform Vidyard and medtech firm CloudDX, among others. And, in the world of bricks-and-mortar retail, Communitech was tapped by the federal and provincial governments to help deliver Digital Main Street programming across Ontario, in which businesses receive free help in taking advantage of digital tools. July With COVID-19 cases easing and Ontario’s economy gradually reopening, Ontario Premier Doug Ford led a delegation from Queen’s Park to Waterloo Region mid-month to unveil the province’s new Intellectual Property Action Plan, designed to increase Ontario’s and Canada’s IP commercialization numbers and to keep more of our IP value at home. Following the announcement, Communitech hosted Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli and Colleges and Universities Minister Ross Romano for an IP-related roundtable with local business leaders. Otherwise, July played out like an episode of Waterloo Region’s Got Talent. The thriving tech ecosystem received a well-deserved nod in CBRE’s Scoring Tech Talent report, ranking No. 1 on the list of the top 25 “up-and-coming” North American tech markets. Waterloo Region was also highlighted in a thoughtful opinion piece in the Toronto Star by Vijay Sappani of Ela Capital, who pointed out that the extension of H1-B visa restrictions in the U.S. offered Canadian tech companies a great opportunity to attract international tech talent. Communitech spotted the same opportunity and acted quickly. In late July, motorists coming off the San Francisco-to-Oakland bridge in California were greeted by a Communitech-sponsored billboard that alerted international tech workers in Silicon Valley to the great opportunities in Canada. The campaign, which attracted a lot of media attention, was extended through Silicon Valley, and later expanded to other U.S. tech centres, including New York City. And Communitech held its second online version of Tech Jam. The popular job fair attracted 950 job seekers and 26 companies, which were looking to fill 350 positions. Job growth no doubt followed another flurry of investment in Communitech member companies in July, as Rapid Novor, Bridgit and Fable Tech announced significant rounds. August In yet another vote of confidence for Waterloo Region’s “insane tech scene,” the founders of gaming startup Odyssey Interactive, who formerly worked in the U.S., decided to launch in Waterloo Region on a US$6-million investment from some high-profile backers, BetaKit reported. The Waterloo Chronicle also profiled Odyssey CEO Richard Henkel, who graduated from the University of Waterloo before making a splash with Riot Games in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Canadian tech leaders were stepping up their efforts to promote Canada as a compelling alternative to Silicon Valley, especially for international tech talent. In an opinion piece penned for TechCrunch, Communitech CEO Iain Klugman and veteran Canadian software technologist Tim Bray touted Canada’s thriving tech sector, its openness to skilled immigrants and its social cohesion. As that piece circulated, the Communitech billboard campaign aimed at Silicon Valley tech workers continued to grab media attention from outlets such as CNBC, the CBC, Toronto Life and the Logic, among others. Despite the pain and upheaval caused by COVID-19, the stick-close-to-home restrictions continued to yield some positives for the tech sector. Take Shopify for example. In August, the Ottawa-born company – which has a significant workforce in Waterloo Region – was dubbed “Amazon Junior” in a Bloomberg report following news of Shopify’s 97-per-cent increase in Q2 year-over-year revenue. Also on a roll was Waterloo Region-based edtech company D2L, which saw demand grow for its online learning platform. In an interview with Iain Klugman for an episode of True North TV, D2L founder and CEO John Baker described how the pandemic accelerated the evolution of education delivery by 10 years. And Vidyard, another Waterloo Region success story, reported a 400-per-cent increase in adoption of its video creation and hosting platform, as business demand for video tools soared. Other good news included the announcement by SWTCH Energy, an alumnus of Communitech’s Fierce Founders program for women entrepreneurs, that it had raised CDN$1.1 million to expand its network of smart charging stations for electric vehicles. Meanwhile, IMS, whose connected-car technology helps insurers provide usage-based coverage, announced plans to double its Waterloo workforce, while Sweat Free, maker of perspiration-resistant apparel, received an order for 10,000 facemasks from Ontario’s regional transit agency, Metrolinx. And Canada’s new Google for Startups Accelerator, meanwhile, named nine startups to its inaugural cohort, including Waterloo Region’s LumenEd, an online platform that connects tutors and students. September If I had a million dollars… I’d create an AI-driven program to stop fake news. Well, Bill (Yu) Wu now has the money to do that. The machine-learning engineer from Toronto bested a field of 150 competitors to win the first-ever Leaders Prize, which comes with CDN$1 million to bring his proposal to life. The tech-for-good competition – a partnership involving Communitech, the Schulich Foundation, the Leaders Fund, and the University of Waterloo as an academic partner – was first announced at Communitech’s True North Festival in 2018. They say confidence attracts investment. Well, the Waterloo Region tech ecosystem continued to garner both in September. A report from market-data firm Hockeystick showed venture funding for Waterloo Region tech companies hit a five-quarter high of CDN$148.6 million in the second quarter of 2020. Most of the Q2 investment went into later-stage rounds, prompting Hockeystick analyst Max Folkins to point out the significance of scale-up companies doubling down on Waterloo Region rather than moving to larger tech centres. As Folkins told Betakit: “All the big companies are staying there because the amount of support that the companies get in the region really incentivizes them to stay in the region.” September activity only affirmed the trend. Scale-up unicorn ApplyBoard took on another CDN$70 million to extend the $100-million round it announced in May, while Clearpath’s OTTO Motors division added US$5 million to the US$29-million round it reported in June. Other companies raising money in September: Agtech startup BinSentry, whose technology monitors farmers’ feed-bin levels to streamline feed deliveries, harvested US$7.7 million in Series A investment from Missouri-based Lewis & Clark AgriFood. ProNavigator, an AI startup collaborating with Wawanesa Mutual Insurance Company (both companies have space in the Communitech Hub), steered its way to a CDN$5.6-million Series A round. Wagepoint, a 2014 graduate of Communitech’s former Hyperdrive accelerator program, received CDN$10 million in growth capital from Providence Strategic Growth, which also took a majority stake in the payroll services company. Acerta Analytics Solutions, which provides AI-based quality control technology to automakers, announced a US$7-million Series A round led by OMERS Ventures. And startup Brink Bionics, which builds a hyper-responsive glove interface for gamers, raised a CDN$350,000 seed round. September drew to a close with good news on the growth front: Waterloo Region tech companies were well-represented on the Globe and Mail Report on Business annual list of Canada’s Top Growing Companies. Of the 400 companies named to this year’s list, 12 are based in the region and 33 have worked directly with Communitech. October Pssst… can you keep a secret? Waterloo Region’s global reputation for cybersecurity has a fascinating backstory. Writer Craig Daniels took a deep dive into the industry’s local roots to tell the tale of Bill Tutte, a Second World War codebreaker who went on to teach at the University of Waterloo and plant the seeds for the thriving security cluster we see today. As if to underscore the significance of the region’s cybersecurity industry, Arctic Wolf Networks, one of the region’s biggest security companies, vaulted to unicorn status in October, reaching a US$1.3-billion valuation upon raising a US$200-million Series E investment round. Rare as unicorns might be, the Arctic Wolf news was followed by word that Faire – a wholesale platform for small retailers founded in Waterloo Region and San Francisco – pushed its value to US$2.5 billion with a Series E raise of US$170 million. That’s double its valuation of a year ago when Faire first reached unicorn status. In other funding news, edtech startup Knowledgehook, an early alumnus of Communitech’s former Rev accelerator program, announced a CDN$20-million Series A raise. The money is helping the company grow its online math instruction platform. Speaking of healthy growth, Waterloo Region’s medtech industry continues to thrive, with more than 130 health-based tech companies calling this area home. A number of local medtech leaders met with Vic Fedeli, Ontario’s Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation, and Trade, during a Communitech-hosted roundtable. And mixing medical with aeronautics, AirMatrix piloted its skyways technology over Waterloo Region in October to test drone delivery of medications to homes and long-term care facilities. AirMatrix is a Communitech Fierce Founders Pitch Competition winner and current participant in the AVIN Waterloo Ventures at Communitech program. Sticking with urban tech, the City of Kitchener agreed to partner with the University of Waterloo on a new, 90,000-square-foot, $35-million health innovation facility at the university’s downtown Kitchener health sciences campus. And for Star Wars lovers... Waterloo Region engineer and YouTuber James Hobson and his team at Hacksmith Industries created some truly hot technology – a working plasma lightsabre that can reach a scorching 2,200C. November The Waterloo Region tech ecosystem rocked the rankings again in November, with the region and individual companies scoring high on a number of prestigious tech scorecards. CBRE’s Scoring Canadian Tech Talent report named Waterloo Region the fastest-growing major tech market in Canada. Tech jobs in the region grew 51.4 per cent between 2014 and 2019, more than Vancouver at 47.9 per cent and Toronto at 36.5 per cent. Waterloo Region also earned props in fintech. Startup Genome’s Global Fintech Ecosystem Report 2020 ranked the Toronto-Waterloo corridor among the world’s top 20 fintech ecosystems. Individual tech companies also got their share of rankings love. Intellijoint Surgical Inc. bagged top spot on Deloitte’s 2020 Technology Fast 50 list of Canada’s fastest-growing tech companies. The No. 2 spot went to ApplyBoard, another Waterloo Region company that recently reached unicorn status as a privately held company with a value over $1 billion. See the 2020 Technology Fast 50 list for more Waterloo Region companies [editor’s note: Roadmunk, a Communitech Hyperdrive alumnus with offices in Toronto and Waterloo Region, also made the list, at #38.] The Communitech Outposts program, which helps small- and medium-sized businesses across Canada tap into talent in international markets, expanded its network to more than 160 countries. In other expansion news, the Digital Main Street (DMS) initiative, first launched in Toronto, was extended across Ontario with the help of federal and provincial funding. Communitech was asked in June to deliver key components of the program in Southwestern Ontario. Activity ramped up in October and November, with Communitech hiring 270 students and recent graduates to help small- and medium-size businesses adapt to e-commerce, social media and other digital tools. In addition to helping businesses up their digital game, the Ontario government announced plans to accelerate the digitization of provincial services. Peter Bethlenfalvy, President of the Ontario Treasury Board and Minister Responsible for Digital and Data Transformation, visited Communitech in early November to talk about the initiative and the province’s new Ontario Onwards Acceleration Fund. Like the notion of “tech for good,” the term “peacetech” is gaining traction in tech circles around the world. Paul Heidebrecht, a professor with UW-affiliated Conrad Grebel University College, is using his degrees in engineering and theology to help make Waterloo Region an international leader in the growing field. According to media stories, Waterloo-based BlackBerry continued to look at selling a significant chunk of its patent portfolio. Many in the tech community mourned the loss of Pearl Sullivan, UW’s former Dean of Engineering and the first woman to hold the position, who passed away on Nov. 28 after a 12-year battle with cancer. December After a sprint to scale up production of PPE in response to COVID-19, manufacturers in Waterloo Region told Communitech News they’re now focused on developing a sustainable domestic PPE industry and laying the groundwork to compete in international markets. Also laying a solid foundation is Bridgit, whose software enhances resource planning for the construction industry. The startup, which spent a formative period in the Communitech Hub, announced a big jump in users and revenue just 18 months after launching its flagship product, Bridgit Bench. Speaking of bench strength (yup, it’s a bit of a segue reach), the number of student co-op jobs rebounded after a pandemic-related slump this past summer, but challenges remain. Students, post-secondary institutions and tech leaders in Waterloo Region are urging employers to keep hiring. In medtech news, Waterloo Region’s Kenota Health, which specializes in rapid allergy testing, received a US$9-million vote of confidence in the form of a Series A round led by Draper Associates. Startup NURO Corp. announced the release of the first editions of NUOS, a platform that holds great promise for helping people communicate with loved ones who are experiencing extreme states of neural incapacitation from strokes and other conditions. And the Logic asked whether Waterloo Region could forge a new identity as a medtech hub. And, to wrap up the year on a hopeful note, a personal support worker named Siham Ibrahim was the first person in Waterloo Region to be vaccinated against COVID-19. She works in a long-term care home in Elmira. This edition of the Roundup compiled by Anthony Reinhart and Kevin Crowley. 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