Ten out of the 16 startups that pitched at today’s Series 401 event at OneEleven coworking space in Toronto (otherwise known as the Google Building) came from Waterloo.
It was Sunil Sharma’s plan all along.
“Despite the 100 kilometres between Toronto and Waterloo, there are surprisingly few Toronto-based investors that make enough visits to Waterloo to first-hand experience the kind of companies that are taking shape over there,” said Sharma, the man who hand-picked every investors, media member and other attendee in the room today. “And this is despite a very globally recognized brand and image that waterloo has.”
One of the investors that made the trip was Sean Brownlee, a partner at Rho Canada Ventures, and he agreed. Mingling among the crowd of about 175 following all 16 pitches, he told me even in Boston where he previously worked, some investors from merely a different part of town would rarely check out the other’s startups. Perhaps a home-field bias does exist, and so today’s event served as a chance for these startups, a diversified group with several already having shown impressive sales, to wow Toronto investors.
The 16 startups that pitched were AvidTap; Beanworks; Bio.Diaspora; bionym; Chematria; Cream.HR; Dejero Live; ESL Explorer; Finmaven; Granatads; Marketclouds; Plasticity; PumpUp; RenoMii; Tulip Retail; and MappedIn
Some of them, like Tulip Retail, were founded by proven winners in the field. Tulip Retail was started by former Well.ca founder Ali Asaria, and is a mobile and cloud retail platform that gives a retailer’s customers a “fluid digital retail experience via online, mobile, and in-store.” He said too often retail stores listied products on their app that couldn’t actually be bought on their website or in-store because the catalogues were separate.
Plasticity, a startup devoted to keeping the workforce happy, was started by former National League Lacrosse player Jim Moss, diagnosed in 2009 with Guillane-Barre Syndrome, a neuro-muscalur disease. Motivated by how two separate nurses could encourage him differently by what they said to him during his recovery, he started Plasticity, originally known as “The Smile Epidemic”. By writing what made him smile, or that he was grateful for on a piece of paper above an image of a smile, the project was born. People from over 450 cities and 200 countries around the globe participated online by taking pictures of themselves holding up a note on what makes them smile. Plasticity is an integrative tool for companies to engage their workers to a greater degree and encourage a positive working environment.
Dragons’ Den pitchers PumpUp shared their Toronto-based personalized fitness app, as did construction veterans RenoMii, who explained to the crowd how their easy-to-use software tool can help manage home renovations for both contractors and home owners.
There was even a startup devoted to entirely changing the way television news broadcasters transmit live broadcasts, through a cheaper and more efficient manner. Kitchener-based Dejero Live provides “the most extensive and versatile range of bonded wireless uplink solutions for mobile news-gathering.” It’s products can be set up anywhere in seconds to broadcast live to television viewers, stream to the Web, transmit recorded video for later use, share video content with other organizations, or send files remotely.
Because the event was scheduled so close to the Canadian Innovation Exchange (CIX) (which occurred the day before at the MaRS Discovery District), even investors from as far away as Vancouver were present at Series 401. Ray Walia of LX Ventures told me that he was impressed with how polished some of the pitches were, detailing startups that hadn’t just graduated from a seed-level accelerator. “Most of the pitch events I go to, they’re straight out of the accelerator and they’re just showcasing. You don’t get to see really what they can do until they get their seed money,” he said. “And then problems start to surface.”
Walia emphasize that some of the greatest startups arise out of the founders’ personal pain point, and in that sense he enjoyed pitches like RenoMii, Plasticity or even Beanworks, started by accountant who knew first-hand the issues with paper-based invoices that need to be “processed, copied, routed, monitored, approved, paid, filed, and sometimes found again for audit and reporting purposes.” Beanworks created a cost-saving accounts payable solution that is streamlined and paperless, online and easy to implement.
Walia said fundamentally there’s no difference between startups in the “Toronto-Waterloo Corridor,” or out west in Vancouver, as “tech startups are tech startups,” he said. But each region seems to enable companies that can most take advantage of its resources. “It’s focused on the resources around you and the skill sets you have,” said Walia. “So in Vancouver you’re going to see a lot of media and consumer products and Alberta I see a lot of more B2B and resource startups- it’s leveraging what’s in your backyard.”
I even had a chance to speak with Kuljeev Singh, an associate at iGan Partners. He told us a few months ago that the venture capital firm wanted to focus on startups working in the Waterloo-Toronto corridor, so his presence at the event was certainly warranted. Singh commented that the day showcased a lot of interesting companies, and the best part about events like Series 401 was the diversity of the companies.
“You get to see so much. It covers everything from construction to real estate to healthcare: it just shows how much innovation is happening around Toronto,” said Singh. “People are thinking outside the box. There’s problems in each and every industry and startups are creating the ideas to solve these problems.”
For Sharma and his fellow organizers at Communitech and OneEleven, it seemed to be a job well done.
“This idea was simply a way to make it easier for investors in the city to experience those companies and also bring some of those Waterloo companies out of their element into Toronto, and I know there’s a lot of interest to do similar programs outside of Toronto in other cities,” he said.