Toronto’s 20 most brilliant tech innovators
1 Seven years ago, Ted Livingston, a University of Waterloo engineering student, met with the Research in Motion brass and suggested they take their BlackBerry Messenger cross-platform. They shot him down—so he built the technology himself. Now his company, Kik, has 150 employees and 300 million registered users. It’s a secret sensation, used by approximately 40 per cent of all American teens, who love it because it’s anonymous, doesn’t require a phone number and works on virtually any Wi-Fi enabled device. Last year, Tencent, the Chinese tech giant behind the mammoth app WeChat, poured $50 million into Kik, endowing it with a valuation of $1 billion and the power to become the WeChat of the West. Fred Wilson—whose firm, Union Square Ventures, has invested in Twitter, Tumblr and Etsy—jumped on board, too. Kik’s success has shot Livingston to the top of the Canadian tech world and lured investors to Silicon Valley North. Up next: transforming his captive audience into cash by connecting Kik users with brands like Sephora and CNN.
2 Romanow has already created five blockbuster businesses, including the daily deals site Buytopia, which has ballooned to 2.5 million users; the coupon app SnapSaves, which was acquired by Groupon; a caviar company; and a sustainable café. Her latest effort is Clearbanc, a financial firm that offers instant-pay options, cash advances and automatic tax-sorting services to the exploding on-demand worker population. Uber became a partner in April, and the company has already attracted some of the same investors as Facebook, PayPal and Airbnb. When she’s not building the business, she’s taking pitches from other entrepreneurs on Dragons’ Den.
Ivan Yuen and Allen Lau
3 Yuen and Lau call their reading app the YouTube of the literary world: authors post their stories online for free. More than 45 million bibliophiles across the globe devour 4 million new words a day, mostly in the form of post-apocalyptic sci-fi or steamy Justin Bieber fan fiction. In 2014, Wattpad received $46 million in funding, and it has hired employees proficient in languages like Swahili, Icelandic and Tagalog (a dozen Filipino Wattpad stories have been adapted into films). The end game? To expand their empire and become the envy of shuttering bookstores everywhere.
4 Serbinis cemented his spot among Canada’s tech titans when he sold Kobo for $315 million in 2012. Now, some of his rich investors are buying into his latest project, League—a sleek platform that manages wellness programs for Canadian companies, liberating employees from tedious paperwork and tailoring benefits to the individual user. The company raised $33 million from OMERS Ventures, Royal Bank, Manulife and former RIM honcho Mike Lazaridis in June.
Lauren Lake and Mallorie Brodie
5 Three years ago, Lauren Lake and Mallorie Brodie were paired together in the Next 36, a start-up mentoring program. For their project, they interviewed construction workers and contractors about their on-the-job gripes. The number one response: poor communication about what needed to get done on-site. To fix that, the duo created Bridgit, an app that centralizes and digitizes all the tasks that would otherwise be scrawled on site plans and to-do lists. Investors from across the continent have already poured $2.2 million into the platform.
6 Sci-fi fans are losing their minds over Myo, an armband CEO Stephen Lake created with his two fellow Thalmic Labs co-founders in 2012. By measuring muscle movements, the wireless device lets its wearer use the Force—or at least control a prosthetic limb, translate sign language, play a video game or fly a drone—with the wave of a hand or clench of a fist. Lake has parlayed his geek dream into a $20-million heavy hitter, with financing from Spark Capital, a backer of Twitter and Oculus. To date, Thalmic has sold $10 million worth of armbands, which go for $250 at Best Buy.
7 In 2003, Mike McDerment was running a small design agency when he accidentally lost an invoice. The frustration that followed inspired him to code his own cloud-based record-keeping system, which quickly evolved into FreshBooks. It’s now the go-to invoicing tool for 10 million freelancers and small businesses, including the Parkdale taqueria Grand Electric and Bellwoods Brewery on Ossington. Last month, McDerment and his team relaunched the service with a slew of new features to accommodate the ever-changing, increasingly on-demand workforce.
Gregory Levey and Joshua Landy
8 Levey has an eclectic CV: journalist, Ryerson professor, speech writer for former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. He never expected to create a start-up, until Joshua Landy, a doctor, approached him with the idea for Figure 1, an Instagram-style tool that lets doctors share photos of their patients’ problems—bizarre bone diseases, rare snake bites, gnarly rashes—so that other physicians can help diagnose them. In three years, the app has raised nearly $11 million (U.S.) from Union Square Ventures and other investors. Its users include Doctors Without Borders and Women’s College Hospital.
9 Krista LaRiviere is the David to Google’s Goliath—her seven-year-old firm, GShift, goes up against Analytics in the business of providing search engine optimization and real-time web stats. It can measure SEO performance by city and auto-generate custom SEO reports that incorporate info from search engines, social media, email campaigns, and more. The company has only 25 employees, but it’s backed by MaRS and is already working with 10,000 brands—including Bell and Budweiser—in 22 countries.
10 After spending time in the U.K. working for the consulting firm Axsium, Ben Zifkin ignored the calls of Silicon Valley colleagues to come home to Toronto. Now you can’t go anywhere in the city’s tech world without running into him. Zifkin advises MaRS and Fortune 1000 companies like Unilever and Walmart, and sits on the board of Ladies Learning Code. His latest effort: Hubba, an Amazon-like platform where retailers can find comprehensive information about the products they put on their shelves.
11 If there’s a “sponsored by” badge at the top of the article you’re reading, chances are Kunal Gupta put it there. His company, Polar, is a top dog in the online custom content scene: when advertisers want to place one-of-a-kind, organic-looking ads with Rolling Stone, Huffington Post or virtually any Toronto newspaper, they go through one his 50 employees in Toronto, New York, London or Sydney. So far, the company has raised $14 million in capital and works with 2,000 publishing sites across the world.
12 Ben Baldwin built his name on the job search engine ClearFit, so he knows the life of a start-up whiz can be stressful. Last December, he started the Founder City Project, a Toronto-wide network where CEOs and start-up types can trade tips, vent and, we presume, conspire about global domination. He and Mike Shaver (a Mozilla co-creator who spearheaded the Facebook mobile app) have also created ScaleDriver, a matchmaking service that pairs traditional Fortune 500 companies with adventurous innovators from the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor and Silicon Valley.
13 If you’re walking through a major Canadian mall, Hongwei Liu’s company probably helped map it. A few years ago, he dropped out of the University of Waterloo to focus on MappedIn, a Google Maps–type software platform for indoor spaces. Nine of the country’s 10 largest shopping centres—including the Eaton Centre and Square One—now use his system. Investors have bought in to the tune of $3.5 million. The platform is impressively precise: in one Indigo store, you can use MappedIn to find a specific book on a shelf.
14 Five years ago, when Marie Chevrier was working for fashion and cosmetics ad agencies in New York, she didn’t understand sampling. Why would companies hand out free products without knowing who was getting them or whether the recipients ever came into their shop? So she founded Sampler, which takes the guesswork out of the game by shifting it online. Clients like the Body Shop, Kimberly-Clark and L’Oréal now use it to ship samples to target markets and gather real-time data on their success. The company has attracted more than $1.9 million in funding to date.
15 Alex Barrotti netted a $45-million exit from Inex, his e-commerce platform, in 1999. Eleven years later, the idea for another start-up sparked in an usual place: a sushi spot in the Caribbean. His friend, the owner, said he wished there was a way to send orders directly from the table to the kitchen. So Barrotti dove into the restaurant business and launched TouchBistro, a tablet app that lets diners order food, and managers monitor the speed and quality of service. The app, which is used in 700-plus Toronto restaurants, handles more than $3 billion in transactions every year.
16 When Emilie Cushman applied to the mentoring program the Next 36, she had to submit a minute-long YouTube video pitching herself. The experience sparked the idea for Kira Talent, an online interview platform that simplifies academic applications. Over the next couple of years, Cushman connected with universities across the country, and collected funding from arts white knight Gary Slaight and economic whiz Roger Martin. These days, she counts more than 150 school programs—including ones at Yale, Northwestern and Toronto’s big three—as clients.
17 Michael Katchen knows that investing is a terrifying prospect for even the most prudent millennials. That’s why he started Wealthsimple, a user-friendly, no-nonsense investing app for finance neophytes: it automates the boring bits, pumps out easy-to-understand advice and eschews hot stock–chasing stress for low-maintenance, long-term savings and portfolios. Power Financial, a giant of the sector, poured $30 million into the service, and the app’s success has quickly turned Katchen into an investing big shot.
18 Move over, Bautista. The city’s fastest growing “sport” is competitive video gaming—Deloitte predicts e-sports will bring in a half-billion dollars worldwide this year, up 25 per cent from 2015. Revlo co-founder James Sun wants in: his platform is an add-on to Twitch, the reigning ruler of video game streaming, that lets gamers measure and reward their fans. The product itself is all fun and games, but its potential is serious business: Extreme Venture Partners and Y Combinator are just a couple of Revlo’s investors, and more than 15,000 broadcasters use the service each month.
19 Having grown up with an autistic brother, Nadia Hamilton was inspired to found Magnusmode, an app that coaches people with special needs through everyday situations—cooking, shopping and travelling—through customizable flash cards, stories and a wizard character named Magnus. The start-up helps users bank, order food, tour museums and live independently—its partners include the ROM, MLSE, CIBC and Tim Hortons. Earlier this year, she shared in a $500,000 grant through the Radical Generosity Initiative, which supports female-led Canadian companies.
20 When people get sick in 2016, they google their symptoms. Rather than fighting that impulse, family physician Joshua Liu embraced it. His app, SeamlessMD, streamlines the surgical process. Patients can record their symptoms before and after an operation, and access doctor instructions and exercise videos. The app sends their reports to their doctors, reducing the number of ER visits and giving patients a support system between appointments. Wind Mobile kingpin Anthony Lacavera is an investor, and Sunnybrook Hospital is already using the platform.