Tech Roundup for February 2020

Written by: Anthony Reinhart | 02 March 2020 | Monthly tech roundup, News

Google's Canadian engineering headquarters in Waterloo Region. ( Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart )

Spring can feel a long way off in February, but Google brought the heat with a set of major announcements early in the month. On Feb. 6, four days before groundhog prognosticator Wiarton Willie predicted an early end to winter, Google unveiled plans to triple its Waterloo Region headcount to 3,000 by 2022 and launch its first Canadian startup accelerator at its Breithaupt Street engineering office. Communitech News journalist Craig Daniels spoke with Steve Woods , Google’s Senior Engineering Director who leads the Waterloo Region office, while Peter Armstrong of CBC News looked at the broader implications of the company’s Canadian growth plans.

One clear result of Google’s ongoing growth is the number of top engineers it has attracted to Waterloo Region – some of whom have gone on to start their own ventures. One such ex-Googler is Marcelo Cortes, co-founder of Faire, a software platform that curates inventory purchases for small retailers. When Faire – a freshly minted unicorn valued at US$1 billion – opened its newly expanded Waterloo Region engineering office last month, Communitech News sat down with one of its earliest investors, Kirsten Green of San Francisco’s Forerunner Ventures, for a Q&A.

The unicorn’s Canadian cousin, the narwhal, also made news in February with the release of the 2020 Narwhal List . The list ranks Canadian companies on their “financial velocity,” or the amount of funding they’ve raised relative to their years in existence. Four Waterloo Region tech companies made the list , though Faire was not among them; its business operations are headquartered in the U.S.

Finding True North

Growth is great, but winning at all costs comes with, well, costs. When Cambridge Analytica harvested millions of Facebook users’ personal data without consent and used it for political advertising, a British investigative journalist named Carole Cadwalladr was among those watching – and her explosive coverage in 2018 contributed to Facebook losing US$100 billion off its market cap, among other consequences for the social network. In February, Communitech announced that Cadwalladr will give the opening keynote address during the Centre Stage portion of the 2020 True North Festival in Waterloo Region this June (check out the True North website for more info). 

As observers of Waterloo Region’s tech scene already know, True North’s tech-for-good ethos can be found throughout the ecosystem. That much was clear at Communitech’s Fierce Founders Bootcamp Pitch Competition, where all eight participating companies had a humanitarian component to them. Two of them – RainStick and HyIvy Health – shared the $100,000 prize.

Fighting fake news using AI, which is the focus of the $1-million Leaders Prize announced at True North last year, is also the focus of DarwinAI, a Waterloo Region company profiled in the Waterloo Region Record last month. Meanwhile, another local company that Roundup readers might recall , Ground News, was featured by Digital Trends for its news comparison app. Ground CEO Harleen Kaur was part of a media panel at the first True North in 2018.

From the spread of viral fake news to mounting fears of a coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, health-related tech companies were in the thick of the action in February. They included O2 Canada, a Waterloo Region startup previously featured on Communitech News, whose respiratory masks are suddenly in heavy demand. The company told the Globe and Mail (subscribers only) it had been swamped with 2,000 orders a day, up from the usual one or two.

The rise of the local medtech sector, meanwhile, led Velocity, the University of Waterloo’s startup program, to launch the Velocity HealthTech Fund . It will make $50,000 investments in companies working to develop medical devices, diagnostic tools, therapies and digital health initiatives.

Still with tech for good, Waterloo Region traffic-management scale-up Miovision – which headlined last month’s Roundup after raising CDN$120 million in new investment – launched two new products that go beyond car-counting and measure different modes of urban travel. The new tools are designed to help municipalities make intersections safer for all road users.

Driving forward

Speaking of road safety, autonomous vehicles are touted for their potential to eliminate the kinds of human errors that lead to collisions. Still, formidable challenges remain in making self-driving cars a more common sight on our streets. Key among them: how to teach autonomous vehicles to navigate Canadian winters. A team of engineers at the University of Waterloo have taken up that challenge, the CBC reported, and are building the world’s first data set for winter driving. The story coincided with the grand opening of UW’s Autonomous Vehicle Research and Intelligence Laboratory (AVRIL), as covered by BetaKit.

From public roads to the factory floor, autonomous transport also made news in February for OTTO Motors, the industrial division of Waterloo Region’s Clearpath Robotics. After five years shuttling goods inside warehouses and factories in North America, OTTO has gone global, establishing a presence in Japan, the Waterloo Region Record reported.

Critical to the future of autonomous vehicles, advanced manufacturing and countless other emerging technologies will be robust and reliable connectivity, which 5G networks are on the cusp of delivering. Alexander Brock, Senior Vice-President Technology, Strategy, Innovation and Partnership with Rogers, sat down with Craig Daniels for a Communitech News Q&A looking at how 5G will reshape the world.

In the nearer term, mobility within the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor continues to be a key challenge due to highway congestion and a shortage of fast, frequent rail options – an issue raised by Waterloo Region mayors and others during a pre-budget consultation with Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips, Kitchener Today reported. Data released by Metrolinx, the provincial Crown agency that manages public transport, bolstered the case for beefed-up service : Ridership from the Kitchener GO station saw a 40-per-cent increase between April and December last year.

Transit improvements will come none too soon for the corridor’s tech community, a profile of which was published in Forbes , penned by Abdullah Snobar, Executive Director at the Toronto-based accelerator DMZ.

Trending skyward

Last month’s Roundup brought news of another round of investment for SkyWatch, the scaling company housed in the Communitech Data Hub in Waterloo, whose platform has made it cheaper and easier to buy satellite imagery. In February, Communitech spoke with SkyWatch CEO James Slifierz about the company’s growth plans.

Stratospheric is a good descriptor for the growth at ApplyBoard, the Waterloo Region scale-up whose software platform makes it easier for foreign students to gain admission to post-secondary institutions in North America. To help guide that growth, the company has appointed Jo Johnson, brother of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, to the role of Chairman of its advisory board.

On the topic of education, Kiite, a Communitech Data Hub tenant company that helps sales teams capture and share their knowledge, launched an online training program for people looking to land sales roles at technology companies. Called Uvaro, the 12-week program includes an optional paid internship and requires no upfront tuition. Participants start to pay only after they land a full-time job with a minimum salary.

Meanwhile, Vehikl, a Waterloo Region software consultancy, was honoured for its part in helping Conestoga College students move into the workforce. The company has awarded 37 work terms to Conestoga students since 2013, Exchange Magazine reported.

In other news

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Anthony Reinhart

Editorial Director, Communitech
Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Editorial Director and a former newspaper journalist. He held staff writing positions at the Guelph Tribune, Waterloo Region Record and the Globe and Mail before leaving the Globe to join Communitech in 2011.