Facing up to a monumental challenge
After March brought the shock of widespread shutdowns due to COVID-19, April underscored the realities of the global pandemic: A rising death toll, a sidelined economy and an uncertain future. By month’s end, it had yet to become clear when any sense of normalcy might return to life in Waterloo Region, but local entrepreneurs weren’t sitting around waiting to find out. From hardware to software and big to small, companies were spurred to action in various ways.
The most visible example was InkSmith, which in early March was still a 10-person startup making classroom robotics kits. As local COVID-19 cases began to climb, and the company heard from a local doctor about a critical shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers, it quickly pivoted to making face shields – dubbed The Canadian Shield – leveraging help from Communitech and others to quickly secure Health Canada approvals. InkSmith’s staff ballooned to 80 as Ontario ordered 300,000 units. And then, on April 24, the federal government placed an order for a whopping 10 million of the face shields, setting the company on a path to employ 300 people in a cavernous local facility.
In and around Waterloo Region, many heeded the call to help meet the pandemic’s most pressing need: Saving lives. Serial entrepreneur and Communitech Board Chair Dave Caputo – who retooled his new company, Trusscore, to produce protective wall panels to safely separate hospital patients – earned a shoutout from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and was profiled in the National Post’s Heroes of the Pandemic series .
Jim Estill, another veteran tech leader and humanitarian, was similarly profiled by the Post after pivoting the company he runs, Guelph-based Danby Appliances, to building ventilators. Estill founded Ventilators For Canadians, an industrial consortium, to quickly supply Canada with the ventilators it needs to deal with COVID-19.
At a community level, local donors with masks, gloves and other items to share came through in a big way during a PPE drive early in the month, organized by Catalyst Capital and Communitech.
As hospitals across the country hunkered down for a wave of COVID patients, medical technology companies seized opportunities to refocus their efforts on helping to flatten the curve, the Financial Post reported , and medtech companies across Waterloo Region answered the COVID call throughout April.
In a special, four-part series called Code Now that kicked off on April 14, Communitech News journalist Craig Daniels spoke with front-line health workers and hospital administrators about their most pressing technological needs related to the pandemic. The series heralded the beginning of a productive, new collaboration between our local health institutions and tech innovators, with several local companies already responding.
The University of Waterloo’s Velocity incubator – which named a new director late in the month – extended its intake of companies as it refocused on fighting the pandemic. A pair of UW engineering professors, incidentally, worked with a ridesharing company to produce a contact-tracing app in hopes of slowing the spread of the virus.
Nicoya, a scaling Communitech Rev alumni company whose nanotechnology helps reduce the time and cost of disease research, offered free support to COVID-19 researchers conducting what are known as SPR experiments.
And KA Imaging, a Waterloo-based maker of a novel type of X-ray technology, told the Waterloo Chronicle how its detector could help with triaging of coronavirus cases.
Outside the immediate medtech sphere, other local technology firms made moves to contribute to the fight against COVID-19 in April. Clearpath Robotics, whose products include autonomous warehouse robots, began working with Boston Dynamics – the MIT spinoff company widely known for its robotic dog – to increase production of robotic triage workers that can stand in for vulnerable healthcare workers and reduce their exposure to the virus. Meanwhile, another local robotics firm, Avidbots, reported a 100-per-cent increase in demand for its autonomous floor scrubbers, and attributed the boost in demand to facilities’ desire to protect the health of maintenance workers. Communitech News previously featured Avidbots in its We Built This video series.
Speaking of video, Dejero, whose technology enables remote broadcasting from just about anywhere, saw a tenfold increase in use of its mobile app last month as remote work became the new normal. It rolled out several measures to ease the work of news outlets and public safety organizations during the pandemic.
MappedIn, the maker of indoor wayfinding technology typically targeted at shopping malls and other enclosed public spaces, trained its expertise on those facilities where essential workers are still active – healthcare facilities, grocery stores, warehouses and the like – with a contact-tracing application to monitor and track frontline workers and manage their COVID risk.
Athena Software, whose platform serves non-profits and social service organizations, announced features that make it easier for its customers to provide care to clients.
Igloo Software, which provides digital workplace platforms, enhanced its system for a 78,000-employee U.S. healthcare client so that vital COVID-19 information could be shared more effectively.
Vidyard, the video platform for business, introduced Vidyard for Schools , a free product to help teachers and students stay connected during the pandemic.
Cellular talk and text provider TextNow launched a free service in Canada – including free mobile devices – to help people impacted by COVID-19. The service, previously available only in the U.S., will use roaming on the network of Sprint, TextNow’s American telecom partner.
Shopify, whose business providing a platform for e-retailers surged in April to make it Canada’s second-most valuable company by market cap, cracked down on companies it found profiteering or making false claims related to COVID-19, the Waterloo Region Record reported .
With lockdowns extending throughout April and beyond, Canadians stuck at home increasingly sought relief by going outside, leading to concerns about their ability to maintain a safe distance from one another, especially in dense cities. Ratio.City, an alumni of Communitech’s Fierce Founders program for women entrepreneurs, used open data to map sidewalk widths in Toronto, where residents have clamoured for more public space to move around, while Waterloo Region smart-cities firm Miovision released a report on how COVID-induced traffic reductions have led to an increase in unsafe road behaviour.
And Plum, an alumni of Communitech’s former Hyperdrive accelerator whose AI-powered platform helps employers hire the right candidates, shared advice on how companies can boost productivity and satisfaction as employees work from home.
The Waterloo Region Record has been maintaining an extensive list of local companies of all types that have been responding to needs related to the pandemic.
As busy as many companies have been, many more have struggled to stay afloat as COVID-19 upended the economy and disrupted investment markets. Early in the month, Communitech convened an online chat with Steve Blank , the so-called “godfather of Silicon Valley” whose writings underpinned the lean startup movement, who spoke frankly of what the pandemic could mean for fledgling tech companies.
For Waterloo Region’s Plasticity Labs, whose world-record-setting gratitude wall graces the inside of the Communitech Hub, the lockdown that began in March foretold the end of the line as the company announced it was shutting down.
At the larger end of the company spectrum, COVID-19 also led to dramatic changes for OpenText, the Waterloo-based software giant with 15,000 employees and operations in 35 countries. Late in the month, the company announced it won’t reopen offices in about half of its international locations, due to the success of its employees’ transition to working from home. It will also reduce its workforce by five per cent.
Call and response
The clear existential threat to Canada’s innovation sector posed by the economic shutdown has prompted a vigorous and sustained response from Communitech and other tech advocates, a response that led to several key improvements to government support programs throughout April.
When it became clear that federal wage subsidies announced in March wouldn’t be enough to help certain early-stage companies, Communitech and several tech leaders wrote to top cabinet ministers to point out the gaps. When the subsidy eligibility criteria were eased a few days later , the measures still didn’t address the plight of some businesses.
Ultimately, on April 17, the government unveiled more than $1.2 billion in added supports, including nearly $1 billion for regional development agencies and a $250-million program to help startups through the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program. BetaKit followed up with a detailed report on how companies can access these funds.
On the investment front, a group of seasoned angel investors and VCs from the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor responded to COVID-19 by launching a new network called ArchAngel , to “accelerate the development and commercialization of any solution that has urgent, national or global need.” In related news, BetaKit reported that the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) is considering extending matching investments to include angel-backed companies affected by COVID-19.
As April wound down and thoughts turned to an eventual reopening of the economy, the Business and Economic Support Team for Waterloo Region (BESTWR), which includes Communitech, penned an opinion piece in the Waterloo Region Record urging the federal and provincial governments to take measures now to prepare for an orderly reopening and strong recovery for the economy.
And Communitech joined with Canadian tech leaders to form the Innovation Economy Council, a coalition that aims to help shape a new industrial innovation policy for the country. On April 28, the IEC published its first white paper , looking at how startups can drive the post-COVID-19 recovery.
In other news:
- Communitech published a visual project called #Project19, by Multimedia Manager Sara Jalali, to showcase how local residents are staying strong in the face of COVID-19.
- Tech About Town columnist Alex Kinsella told us how to connect with artists during the pandemic.
- The Accelerator Centre announced Cohort 12 of its AC JumpStart program for startups.
- Wes Graham, the professor whose pioneering work laid the foundation of the University of Waterloo’s global reputation in computing, received a posthumous lifetime achievement award from CS-Can/Info-Can.
This edition of the Tech Roundup compiled by Anthony Reinhart.
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