Duty calls. Tech is answering.

Even in so-called “normal” times, we at the Roundup – and many of you, our readers – marvel at the volume of activity that takes place each month across the Waterloo Region tech community. It’s an understatement to say March took things to a whole new level, with the COVID-19 virus shutting down public life, threatening our physical, mental and financial health and forcing us to adapt daily to a new and ever-changing normal.

And all indications suggest the storm is just beginning.

Uncertain as everything seems right now, one thing became clear as the COVID-19 tide began to dampen our doorstep mid-month: Waterloo Region’s can-do, collaborative spirit has never been stronger. Nowhere was that more evident than in the way community leaders across sectors (including tech) responded to our most urgent challenge – saving lives – by pitching in to shore up our overburdened healthcare facilities.

In a March 26 column, Communitech News senior journalist Craig Daniels laid out how a group of about 40 people, including Communitech CEO Iain Klugman, has been marshalling medical equipment, activating local manufacturers and working to clear policy obstacles to help our hospitals. This ongoing collaboration includes helping to stand up two temporary hospitals with 700 beds, beyond the 400 additional beds the region’s three existing hospitals will add over the next 12 weeks.

Among area tech companies to jump in with products to protect healthcare workers and hospital patients were Trusscore, a new startup led by serial entrepreneur Dave Caputo; and InkSmith, which pivoted from providing schools with classroom tech tools to producing thousands of what it calls “the Canadian Shield” – a protective face covering for medical professionals. Others, such as traffic-tech firm Miovision, are contributing expertise and logistical support, while Bonfire – whose software eases procurement of supplies – opened up its platform, free of charge, to public agencies fighting the pandemic.

Help for business

Apart from the immediate public health threat posed by COVID-19, the pandemic violently upended the global economy in March. What began as a series of conference and event cancellations (including that of Communitech’s True North Festival) quickly cascaded into travel restrictions, workplace closures and government declarations of states of emergency. Markets roiled as companies – and in many cases, their customers – scrambled to stay afloat. Employees by the thousands adapted to working from home, often while caring for children due to school closures.

As Communitech itself moved to a work-from-home model with virtual programming, Communitech News heard from a host of local tech companies and employees with wisdom to share about how they were adapting and, in Vidyard’s case, offering free video tools to other businesses, while columnist Melanie Baker offered tips from her six years of experience with remote work. Cybersecurity company eSentire, meanwhile, shared advice on how to secure business data with so many people now working from home. And Fongo, a Waterloo tech company in the telecom space, made its cloud-based phone service free to small- and medium-sized businesses.

The economic turmoil fuelled by COVID-19 led governments at all levels to announce measures to blunt the impact for companies and workers, amid calls from business leaders to move aggressively. Late in the month, Communitech, MaRs and Invest Ottawa joined more than 200 tech CEOs in calling on the provincial government to take swift, targeted action to keep companies alive through the crisis, echoing a similar open letter issued days earlier to the federal government. The Logic, meanwhile, published a list of ideas from Canadian innovation leaders on how to confront the crisis, while more locally, a group of leaders, including Communitech CEO Iain Klugman, formed the Business and Economic Support Team of Waterloo Region (BESTWR) to help all types of businesses cope with COVID-19 challenges. The BESTWR group penned an op-ed for the Waterloo Region Record late in the month, outlining its proposals to governments.

Governments responded to business pleas with a series of measures, some of which have been expanded as the breadth of the pandemic’s impact becomes increasingly evident. At the federal level, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – working in self-isolation from his home – announced a 75-per-cent wage subsidy to help businesses avoid laying off employees, up from 10 per cent announced earlier in the month. It was the latest of many federal measures, a full list of which is available here. The Ontario government released a multibillion-dollar COVID-19 action plan to improve business cash flow, provide tax relief and support workers. And local municipalities took steps of their own, with Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge setting aside funds to help residents and businesses hurt financially by the pandemic.

Meanwhile, it’s been full steam ahead at Communitech, even if business-as-usual now means business-as-virtual. Adaptive measures include a virtual front desk where customers and visitors can connect with staff, and a comprehensive COVID-19 information centre that’s continually updated. Clients who need help are encouraged to reach out to their usual Communitech contacts.

On March 12, a day before widespread COVID-19 closures began in earnest, a Communitech contingent travelled to Windsor, Ont. to talk about the future of work and learning, and how technological adaptation will be key to companies’ survival. Within mere hours, at countless companies, that future became the present.

In other news

At a time when days tend to feel like weeks, and all attention seems to be focused on COVID-19, it’s easy to overlook other developments. In other local tech news in March:

This edition of the Tech Roundup compiled by Anthony Reinhart.

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