Many have declared 2015 the best year yet for the Canadian tech startup scene. With Slack achieving unicorn status, Shopify’s successful IPO, and several significant $100 million-plus exits like Achievers, Recon Instruments, Plenty of Fish, it was undoubtedly a benchmark time in the country’s innovation history.
But despite this great lead-in, 2016 has been marked with skepticism across Canada and throughout innovation hotbeds like Silicon Valley. Can Canada’s tech industry live up to the sky-high expectations created by last year’s big wins? And where are the opportunities most ripe for further disruption?
The signs suggest we’re well positioned for continued success. We’ve witnessed a palpable shift in popular thinking about the startup ecosystem since Canada’s last tech boom. Champions of domestic innovation are challenging the perception that an American buyout is the mark of success, and questioning the advisability of trying to create a Silicon Valley “North” instead of focusing on our strengths to build something unique on Canadian soil. Serial entrepreneurs like Katherine Hague and Tony Lacavera have taken matters into their own hands by starting funds with audacious goals, Hague to create more female angels, and Lacavera to help entrepreneurs facing the temptation of foreign investment.
Forward-thinking policymakers are starting to embrace the new era of innovation; witness new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s remarks in Davos and John Tory’s observations about the startup community at TechTO. We’re also seeing interaction between industry leaders and policymakers become more frequent as Jim Basillie, John Ruffolo and others advocate on behalf of the Council of Canadian Innovators, and awareness of the critical importance of more tax credits and grants for SMEs is on the rise.
Elsewhere, Waterloo’s high-octane community shows no signs of slowing down, and notable entrepreneurs like Thalmic Labs co-founder and CEO Stephen Lake are advocating for a more robust corridor of transportation, funding and collaboration between Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo. In Montreal, Vancouver, Halifax, Ottawa, and Edmonton, cities are developing their own entrepreneurial identities, paving the way for promising things to come. Focusing in on these strengths and bolstering support at the pre-accelerator stage will be crucial to our national success.
At The Next 36, we are lucky to support some of the country’s most promising founders from coast to coast. Here are some trends we’ve noticed as we work towards the goal of improving Canadian prosperity through high-impact entrepreneurship.
There are still plenty of industries to disrupt
Uber is the most timely and obvious case in point here. But what about Canadian companies showing disruptive potential on a massive scale? Construction and e-sports are two industries where N36 alumni are leading the way by shattering the status quo. Last year was a hallmark one for Bridgit, as the company began to gain wide recognition for their work in the construction sector. By using software to streamline punchlist management on building sites, they’re making the entire industry more efficient, and in the long term, easing the pain many of us feel amidst perpetual condo development.
Meanwhile, Revlo has developed technology that engages millions of e-sports fans worldwide, monetizing a previously dormant corner of the Internet while bettering their users’ spectator experience.
Wearables are finally going mainstream
Wearables enthusiast Tom Emrich predicts a near future where wearables will provide everyone with technological capability through integrated—rather than invasive—means. He’s highlighted personal fitness as the likely birthplace of this movement.
A product of the inaugural N36 Hackathon, Onyx Motion is a smartwatch-integrated digital coaching app with an algorithm to help players up their game. With the software’s adaptive capabilities and company’s focus on making quality coaching accessible to youth, Onyx is taking the integrated approach that will make many wearables successful.
Other devices like the Nymi band and Thalmic Labs’ Myo offer a myriad of applications for savvy users, and will set the stage for mainstream wearables fans as product designs become more human-centric.
Virtual currency is gaining cachet
With growing interest in fintech, technologies like blockchain and bitcoin are gaining serious momentum in Canada as complements and alternatives to the traditional financial services industry. Haseeb Awan knows this, and founded BitAccess, a global bitcoin ATM network, to make the virtual currency accessible to those who already own it, rather than trying to convert conventional cash users to bitcoin.
AI has the power to solve global problems
The Ebola outbreak that began in 2013 left victims, doctors, and researchers feeling helpless as the virus spread rampantly across the globe. The World Health Organization finally announced last July that they were “closer than ever” to finding a vaccine treatment to quell the epidemic.
Instead of months and years, what if technology existed that allowed us to find potential cures and vaccines within days? Enter Atomwise. A graduate of The Next Founders and Y-Combinator, Atomwise is leveraging the power of artificial intelligence for drug discovery. Having gained significant ground during the Ebola crisis, and amidst the current threats posed by Zika, Atomwise sees imminent potential to ‘go viral,’ in the most positive sense of the word. Meanwhile, The Greenlid is attacking the Zika virus problem from the bottom up, using its patented technology to create mosquito traps.
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We live in an age of creative destruction; an age where there has never been a better or easier time to start something new. Momentum has been building in the Canadian innovation ecosystem for years, and there seems to be the political will at all levels of government to pitch in. To sustain this momentum into 2016 and beyond, we must connect and accelerate the growth of Canada’s most talented entrepreneurs.
It is inevitable that there will be failures along the way. We must accept and embrace that. Neither Rome nor Silicon Valley were built in a day, but if we stay resourceful and play to our strengths, this country will realize and exceed our great expectations.
Ainsleigh Burelle is the Marketing Coordinator and Jon French is the Director of Marketing and Communications at The Next 36, a program that accelerates the growth of Canada’s most talented young entrepreneurs by providing mentorship, capital and unparalleled founder development. What we do at The Next 36 would not be possible without the tireless efforts of our National, Academic, and Community partners.
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- The Massive Opportunity of Medical Technology »
- Why Cities Need to Step Up Startup Support »
What other developments or trends are you excited about this year? What can policymakers do to encourage the technology sector in Canada? Let us know by commenting below.