A Wild Ride

There’s almost always a silver lining, even in a year rocked by pandemic. Take Jim and Jennifer Moss. COVID-19 delivered a knock-out punch to Plasticity Labs, the tech-enabled workplace wellness company they founded in 2012. Team Moss rebounded, though, and found new ways to move on while staying focused on the values that led them to start Plasticity in the first place. As the Waterloo couple told Communitech News, it’s all about sticking to what you love and do best.

Jeremy Hedges has also surfed the ups and downs of the pandemic. A year ago, the Waterloo Region entrepreneur pivoted his edtech company, Inksmith, to make urgently needed face shields for health-care workers. That led Hedges to create an additional company, The Canadian Shield, to focus on personal protective equipment (PPE). He expanded his workforce, moved to a 50,000-square-foot facility and invested millions in production equipment. Then came a slump in PPE demand, resulting in layoffs. But, all along, Hedges had his eye on the long game. He saw the potential for Canada to compete in the international PPE market by automating the production process. In March, Hedges began taking orders for the automated manufacturing systems that he has developed and refined over the past year. 

There are many similar stories across the Waterloo Region tech community. In March, Communitech News checked in with a number of companies to see how they’re faring after a full year of pandemic challenges. The big takeaway? Our tech community is a clever and resilient bunch.

Speaking of clever and resilient… Want to protect your business and get the economy reopened sooner? Workplace screening for COVID-19 will definitely help. Canadian business leaders are being urged to implement workplace screening using rapid, self-administered antigen testing. Communitech CEO Iain Klugman, a strategic advisor to Health Canada on workplace testing, provides a quick primer in this great op-ed.

Spring growth

Spring means growth, right? Well, along with the crocuses we saw a number of expansion-related deals popping up in late March.

Employee-training provider Axonify announced the acquisition of competitor MLevel, a digital learning platform based in Atlanta. The deal adds some major customers and strengthens Axonify “on just about all fronts,” said CEO and co-founder Carol Leaman.  It also adds 10 employees to the Axonify workforce, bringing the company’s total staff count to more than 200. Most are located in Waterloo, with some in Toronto and a few in Europe and the United States. Axonify plans to hire an additional 25 employees over the coming year.

Also nurturing revenue and employee growth is tech-enabled delivery startup Tyltgo. The company announced a CDN$2.3-million seed-round investment in late March. The raise was led by San Francisco-based venture capital firm TI Platform Management and included other prominent investor names such as Y Combinator and Charles Songhurst. Based in Waterloo Region, Tyltgo says it’s aiming to add 100 additional retailers to its platform by the end of 2021, and double its workforce from nine to 18 over the next two quarters. CEO and co-founder Jaden Pereira cited Communitech and other area tech resources for helping his company get off to a strong start.

Gig-economy pay specialist Paidiem has also announced a raise – CDN$3.75 that will help the company scale its enterprise SaaS platform and provide working capital. The financing involves “Canadian institutional and accredited investors,” and includes a dedicated operating line of credit, as well as term debt provided by the Business Development Bank of Canada, according to a news release. Toronto-based Paidiem manages the payment function between employers and their freelancers and contractors. 

Speaking of support, the CEO and co-founder of accounting software startup Beanworks thanked Communitech while announcing the sale of the Vancouver-based company last week. Catherine Dahl participated in Communitech’s former Hyperdrive accelerator in early 2013, back when her company was called BeanEvo. Beanworks sold a 96-per-cent stake in the company to Paris-based Quadient for CDN$105 million. Dahl says she plans to stay with the company for at least three years.

Some more encouraging news: the Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association (CVCA) says that despite the economic uncertainty of the past year, VC investment in Canada in 2020 hit its second-highest level based on existing CVCA records. In its recent 2020 year-end report, the association says 509 deals were done for a total CDN$4.4 billion, second only to 2019. Total dollars invested in 2020 topped the five-year average (CDN $3.8 billion and 517 deals in 2015 – 2019) with a lower number of deals.

Sticking with the VC scene, TechCrunch interviewed investor and former Communitech board member John Ruffolo, who has fought his way back from a catastrophic cycling accident last September to launch a new company. Maverix Private Equity has $500 million to invest in “traditional businesses” that already produce at least $100 million revenue and are using tech to grow.

The future of work is 9 to 5-ish

There are a lot of interesting conversations going on about the future of work. But what do people just starting out in their careers have to say about it? Jenna Aquino is here to help with a new column called 9 to 5-ish. A zoomer with writing chops, Aquino is wrapping her undergrad while working on Communitech’s Talent & HR teams. Her latest column tackles the cognitive gear-shifting and multi-task juggling that many Gen Z’ers must do to balance school work, jobs and career searching.

Speaking of FoW, there’s lots going on behind the scenes as Communitech and its Future of Work & Learning partners prep for a coalition forum scheduled for April 28. 

The coalition came together in 2019 to drive conversations around the future of work and to launch pilot projects across Waterloo Region. It’s just one of the many ways Communitech brings diverse partners together to brainstorm ideas that benefit the entire community.

Narwhal sightings and unicorn tales

The 2021 Narwhal Report is out and companies in the Communitech orbit are at the head of the pod. Four of the top 10 scale-ups on the list are Communitech members; Communitech members also represent 20 per cent of the top 40. The Narwhal List identifies the fastest-scaling Canadian private technology firms. The ranking is based on publicly available information and helps companies benchmark themselves against other Canadian firms, unicorns and the competition. The report is developed by innovation economist Charles Plant with support from Communitech, Invest Ottawa and MaRS.

From narwhals to unicorns… Montreal-based Inovia Capital – which has strong ties to Waterloo Region – closed its second growth-stage fund with US$450 million. In 2019, Inovia launched its first growth-stage fund and invested in companies such as Lightspeed, which was already a unicorn before going public on the Toronto Stock Exchange in March 2019. Inovia Capital has invested in a number of companies in Waterloo Region or with strong ties to the area, including Vidyard, Clearpath Robotics, DarwinAI, Well.ca, Tulip Retail, and North (the former Thalmic Labs, since acquired by Google), among others. Dennis Kavelman, the former RIM (BlackBerry) CFO and COO, is a partner at Inovia; and former Velocity director and current Communitech board member Jay Shah is an entrepreneur-in-residence with the venture firm.

Driving for growth

A pair of startups that participated in the AVIN Waterloo Ventures program at Communitech have received provincial funding to carry on their research into autonomous vehicle innovation. 

Waterloo Region-based Transoft Solutions (ITS) received $876,000 from Ontario’s AVIN R&D Partnership Fund. It is combining that with nearly $1.8 million in industry funding for a $2.67-million project to develop a proactive “crash-risk prediction system” using Transoft’s transportation engineering software and analytics technology.

Meanwhile, Toronto-based autotech startup Gatik has received $997,000 from the same Ontario government fund. It’s using the money, along with $8 million in industry funding, advance its autonomous-driving delivery technology.

Also on the AVIN front, the Ontario government is providing up to $50,000 in grant support to companies using HD mapping technologies in the development or enhancement of their products or services.  

In other news

  • Patricia Riopel, president of tech-enabled editing service Scribendi Inc., has won the 2021 WEtech Woman in Tech of the Year award, presented by TekSavvy. The award recognizes the achievements of women with a passion for technology.
  • Waterloo-based Vidyard released its 2021 Video in Business Benchmark Report. The study explores the pandemic-sparked explosion in video use in 2020 and looks ahead to five top trends for the coming year.
  • AdHawk Microsystems is talking up its innovative eye-tracking technology, which uses sensors rather than cameras. The Waterloo Region startup’s eye-tracking product can be integrated with traditional glasses, AR glasses or VR headsets and can yield data used to study anxiety, ADHD, concussion impacts and other health conditions.
  • Construction-tech firm Bridgit is preparing for the biggest rollout yet of its workforce-intelligence platform through a new deal with Skanska USA Building to implement the Bridgit Bench software for Skanska’s building operations offices, which include more than 1,500 employees.Video-connectivity company Dejero has signed a number of new European partners as part of the Waterloo company’s strategy to strengthen its on-the-ground services for broadcasters in international markets.
  • The organization formerly known as the Canadian Digital Media Network (CDMN) has rebranded and changed its name to Canada’s Tech Network. The new name better captures the network’s mission to support Canadian tech-driven companies, said Avvey Peters, Managing Director of the network and Chief Strategy Officer at Communitech.

This edition of the Tech Roundup compiled by Kevin Crowley.

Subscribe to get the Roundup delivered to your inbox on the first Sunday of each month.