In the midst of crisis, a unicorn appears

After nearly two months under lockdown, with many businesses sidelined and an uncertain road ahead, Waterloo Region’s tech community kicked off the month of May with some big and reassuring news: ApplyBoard, whose platform helps place international students in schools, leapt up to unicorn status, reaching a valuation of CDN$2 billion as it closed a CDN$100-million Series C investment round. While the business climate due to COVID-19 complicated the fundraising process, the company’s strength was enough to see the deal through. In a special video feature by Communitech News producer Sara Jalali, ApplyBoard CEO Martin Basiri talks about the genesis of the company and the hard road that preceded its explosive growth.

ApplyBoard wasn’t the only local company to raise money in spite of the pandemic; in fact, one arguably raised a CDN$5.33-million seed round because of it. That company is Trusscore, the latest venture led by serial entrepreneur (and Communitech board Chair) Dave Caputo, which makes a replacement product for painted drywall using sustainable materials and nanotechnology. As reported in last month’s Roundup, Caputo earned a shoutout from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his daily pandemic briefing in late March for donating temporary walls to help hospitals keep patients safely separated. Caputo cited the PM’s nod as having helped fuel interest from investors.

Also in May, eleven-x, the Waterloo Region company whose national network connects devices on the Internet of Things, raised its first institutional investment in a round led by the Canadian venture capital arm of Crédit Mutuel Equity (formerly CIC Capital Ventures).

Pandemic pivots

As health authorities around the world worked to get a handle on the COVID-19 pandemic, companies continued to adapt their operations accordingly.

Four alumni companies from Communitech’s Rev sales accelerator program made news in May related to COVID-19: Ed-tech startup Knowledgehook rolled out its mathematics learning platform to all 72 of Ontario’s school districts. PiinPoint, which helps retailers find the best locations to set up outlets, found retail visits in Canada were down 76 per cent during the pandemic. PicThrive, whose travel photography business dried up as COVID kept people at home, turned their platform into the Thanks Collective, which enables users to thank others for making a difference. And Local Line, an online platform that connects local farmers with customers, reported a ninefold increase in onboarding of new clients.

Meanwhile, Waterloo Region’s Medical Innovation Xchange medtech hub partnered with the Ontario government to help companies retool to make medical supplies.

One early-stage company working out of the University of Waterloo’s Velocity program is working to tackle blood shortages, which worsen during times of pandemic. Membio is working to develop a blood replacement that would mitigate such shortages.

Speaking of medical supplies, early May saw a follow-up community drive, led by Communitech, for donations of personal protective equipment (PPE) and hygiene products for workers and residents at long-term care facilities. The drive, and a previous one in April, culminated in the formation of the Community PPE Co-operative, a non-profit collaborative group that will use bulk purchasing power to meet local agencies’ needs for protective gear.

Among those local agencies are street-level services such as homeless shelters. Early in the month, Communitech convened a lunchtime crowd online to hear John Neufeld, Executive Director of Kitchener’s House of Friendship, describe how his organization transformed itself literally overnight to meet the challenge of COVID-19.

House of Friendship is just one of many local charities in need of extra support due to the pandemic. In response, Communitech launched This, too, will pass, a 25-day fundraising drive in which monetary donations are tripled, thanks to contributions from partners. Donations will be accepted through today, Sunday, May 31.

On the topic of affordable accommodation, temporary farm workers from abroad are crucial to the function of Ontario’s agricultural sector each summer. Backpacker College, which helps universities rent out empty dorm rooms, turned its attention to accommodating farm workers who must self-isolate for 14 days on arrival to Canada.

From college dorms to conference halls, few aspects of life haven’t undergone a radical rethink since the pandemic began. Fluxible, the annual Waterloo Region gathering that focuses on user experience (UX) design, is no exception – but rather than try to mimic the conference virtually, organizers turned their expertise to designing a unique online event called FluxibleTV. The daylong event (with frequent breaks) runs on June 4.

Returning, reopening, recovering

As the curve of new COVID-19 cases began to flatten, governments took modest measures to ease the lockdown, and talk turned cautiously to returning to workplaces and economic recovery.

Shopify, the e-commerce platform whose already-strong growth was supercharged by the pandemic, made news on a number of fronts in May. After surpassing the Royal Bank of Canada as the country’s most valuable company, CEO Tobi Lütke described Shopify as a “digital by default” workplace going forward, with offices closed until 2021 and most employees free to continue working from home indefinitely beyond that. As such, Shopify joined tech giants such as Google, Twitter and Facebook in moving away from an office-centric approach to employment. Along those lines, Google Canada engineering lead Steve Woods voiced concern about Canadian “overenthusiasm and magical thinking in the return to the office” during a Communitech panel discussion.

With many tech companies continuing to recruit during the pandemic, tactics shifted accordingly. Communitech’s periodic Tech Jam job fair went online with an event early in May, and attracted more than 1,000 job-seekers and 25 companies looking to fill 350 positions. Waterloo Region-based nanotech firm VueReal, meanwhile, launched a design competition with a grand prize of a full-time job for the winner.

Speaking of competition, Simon Chan, Communitech’s VP of Talent, Academy and Future of Work, spoke to the importance of companies adapting their approaches to work if they want to compete effectively for talented workers in the post-COVID era.

Despite the recent economic upheaval and retrenchment by many tech companies, the recovery when it comes will be fuelled by tech, according to a report from Prospect, a Canadian data and startup career hub. The tech sector will also be vital to Ontario’s economic recovery, especially in guiding a renewal in manufacturing, the province’s Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, Vic Fedeli, told Communitech News in an interview.

A more robust approach to procurement by the federal government should also form part of the COVID recovery plan, according to Technation, so that Canadian tech companies can benefit as suppliers of innovation to public agencies.

In other news

    • Douglas Wright, an early University of Waterloo president credited with laying the foundations of the area’s tech community, died at age 92.

This edition of the Tech Roundup compiled by Anthony Reinhart.

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