There’s a rather long list of problems to solve in 2024: climate change, chronic diseases, cybercrime, food insecurity, to name just a few. But across the country, great minds are at work on a range of novel tech solutions.
Whether it’s modular smart farms that grow fresh produce in even the harshest conditions, devices that turn fog and seawater into safe drinking water, or new methods of using nutrient-rich breast milk to care for the immunocompromised, these game-changing developments have the potential to improve the lives of countless Canadians — and they reflect the dedication and vision of the individuals and teams who have been striving to bring their technology to wider audiences. Here are 11 entrepreneurs whose innovations could make a huge difference.
According to data from Statistics Canada, nearly a fifth of Canadian businesses have been subject to a cybersecurity threat — Sobeys, Indigo, Suncor and the Toronto Public Library are just a few of the recent victims of ransomware attacks. “Adversaries only have to be right once. Companies have to be right every single time,” says Kerry Bailey, CEO of eSentire. “But technology and software alone won’t solve the problem.” In addition to its extended detection and response (XDR) technology, which uses AI and machine learning, the Waterloo-based company has a round-the-clock Threat Response Unit, a team of cyber sleuths who monitor global patterns and are able to detect and disable threats within minutes.
Worldwide coverage: The company serves more than 2,000 customers in 85 countries. The eSentire team is also global, and includes a group of 22 developers in Kiev, Ukraine, who coded a software program from a bomb shelter. “They are so resilient, it’s unbelievable,” says Bailey. “They’re the most inspiring team I’ve ever been a part of.”
What’s next: Last year, eSentire expanded into Australia and the Middle East. In the coming months, Bailey plans to finetune the company’s cloud security and Generative AI capabilities. “Cybercriminals are always trying to be two steps ahead of the game.”
As a former lawyer, Shelby Austin knows the devil is in the details. And when she recognized the need for technology that could streamline the creation of documents and contracts, she left law for the startup world. After her first document technology company was acquired by Deloitte, she founded Arteria AI, which uses artificial intelligence to digitize documents and contracts for financial institutions.
Key milestones: Since launching in 2020, the Toronto-based company has tripled its recurring revenue. Last fall, it landed $46 million in Series B funding, upping the company’s total funding to $69 million. Plus, the tech research and consulting firm Gartner named it one of three “cool vendors” in its recent Generative AI in Banking Report.
What’s next: Austin says the company is on track for aggressive expansion in 2024, and is looking to onboard customers in asset management, banking and other financial services.
AI, machine learning and 5G requires a lot of computing power. But to support all those terabytes of information, data centres need a major overhaul. That’s where Ranovus comes in. Based in Ottawa, Hamid Arabzadeh’s company is developing an advanced single-chip optical engine platform that replaces electrical circuits and semiconductors with advanced fibre optics. The company’s microchip, roughly about the size of a dime, can handle complex computing using a quarter of the energy of traditional semiconductors. “Think of fibre optics as a 10-lane highway in terms of capacity, but it’s only the size of a one-lane road,” says Arabzadeh.
Keeping things Canadian: In 2018, Ranovus repatriated the majority of its manufacturing to Ottawa. Arabzadeh proudly hires local talent; many of his staff are recent graduates from Canadian universities.
What’s next: The Ranovus team is laser-focused on expanding operations, which means doubling the square footage of its Ottawa facilities and hiring more staff to help Canada establish itself as a leader in data-centre computing logistics.
After a trip to Iqaluit in 2015, Growcer co-founder Alida Burke was inspired to find a more sustainable — and affordable — way for remote communities to get fresh produce. Growcer’s prefab vertical farms can produce veggies year-round at a fraction of the price and water usage, and without the need for long-distance transport. By using these containers, prospective farmers can grow food in temperatures from -40°C to 40°C.
Growing the business: To date, more than 70 Growcer farms have grown more than 10 million servings of fruits and vegetables. But Burke and her co-founder Corey Ellis realized many people don’t have the capital or the know-how to run a farm — even a prefab one. As Ellis admits, he was even a bit lost at the start. “I was not a handy person, so I had to learn how to use tools very quickly.” So Growcer recently launched an in-person bootcamp to teach customers everything they need to know about operating its units. The company also developed a program that pairs investors with customers, setting up leasing or rent-to-own arrangements.
What’s next: Growcer’s R&D team are testing production of new fruit crops, such as strawberries.
Human breast milk is chock-full of nutrients and antibodies that help newborns fight off everything from colds and flus to ear infections and allergies. Viraj Mane, chief scientific officer and co-founder of Toronto-based Lactiga, uses human milk to develop naturally occurring antibodies, which he then turns into medication that can be taken (in pill form or through an inhaler) by immunocompromised people who have mucosal infections, COVID-19 and gastrointestinal infections.
The backstory: The inspiration to start Lactiga began in 2012, when Mane became a father. As his freezer filled up with packets of breast milk to feed his newborn, Mane’s biotech instincts left him wondering if the substance could be used to help patients combat illnesses.
What’s next: Lactiga has developed partnerships with milk banks in Canada, the U.S. and Britain. This year, it’s launching clinical trials of its lead treatment, with the goal of achieving Health Canada and FDA approval.
The world is a thirsty place. It’s estimated that the global demand for freshwater will outstrip supply by 40 percent within the next six years. Dragan Tutic, co-founder and CEO of Sherbrooke, Que.-based Oneka, is on a mission to change that. His company has developed wave-powered buoys that desalinate sea water, pumping drinkable water to seaside communities, industrial plants and resorts; they can also be deployed in emergency situations.
Making waves: Oneka’s chemical and emissions-free solution can serve up to 1,500 people a day. So far, the company is quenching thirsty residents in Chile and Florida, and has received U.S.$500,000 after winning the U.S. Department of Energy’s Waves to Water prize last March.
What’s next: The company is gearing up to deploy its technology near the seaside town of Fort Bragg, Calif.
According to the United Nations, roughly 2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and half the world’s population is experiencing severe water scarcity. Sherbrooke, Que.-based Permalution, headed up by Tatiana Estevez, is looking to the sky for a solution. Her company’s water collectors can absorb anywhere between 150 and 2,000 litres of water from clouds and fog, per unit, per day. Permalution’s technology can be applied in many contexts, including agriculture, water-intensive data centres, municipalities and remote regions.
Repping her brand: Estevez was recently part of the Canadian delegation at COP28 in Dubai, was named a CEO Water Champion by the World Bank and was a panellist for Google Startups for Sustainable Development.
What’s next: The company is closing its seed round and expanding both operations and staff. It’s launching a pilot project that will capture and re-purpose steam from cooling towers. The company is also putting its water collectors to the test in Abu Dhabi.
Toronto-based LINDA Lifetech is developing a lower-cost alternative to mammograms. Founder and CEO Rubens Fernando Mendrone was inspired to start the company after losing his godmother and his business partner’s mother to breast cancer — neither woman had experienced any symptoms before her terminal diagnosis. LINDA’s device uses thermal imaging to scan breasts, then draws on artificial intelligence to cross-reference the results against thousands of mammograms, ultrasounds and biopsies. In just 15 seconds, LINDA can inform a healthcare provider if breast cancer is suspected.
Latest milestones: While LINDA Lifetech is headquartered in Canada, the company’s primary operations are in Brazil, where breast cancer screenings are not as prevalent as in other countries. To date, healthcare practitioners in Brazil have performed more than 40,000 scans using the LINDA device.
What’s next: Mendrone and his team are launching a clinical trial with the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, and are working to obtain regulatory approval in North America. The company is also aiming to double its customer base and triple its revenue in Brazil.
One of the biggest challenges in scaling clean hydrogen solutions is safely transporting and storing the energy. This conundrum is what inspired Natasha Kostenuk to found Ayrton Energy. The Calgary company’s liquid organic hydrogen carrier allows hydrogen to be stored as a liquid, no different than diesel or gasoline. That means hydrogen can be transported over long distances by trucks, trains and pipelines, without the need for pressurization or cryogenics. Upon arriving at its destination, the hydrogen can be securely stored until it’s ready to be used. Ayrton’s hydrogen storage technology can be used to remotely power telecommunications operations, and is a clean-energy alternative for diesel generator–reliant facilities like data centres.
Side hustle: When she’s not making her mark in the energy sector, Kostenuk runs Calgary Apraxia, a charity that organizes summer camps for children with special needs.
What’s next: “We closed our first fundraise in March of last year, which allowed us to triple the size of our team, file new IP and really speed up our tech development,” says Kostenuk. This year, Ayrton Energy is working to close its second fundraising round and launch two major pilot projects: one in Alberta, the other in Europe.
Robert Brooks first realized the impact robotics could have on patient health when he was doing his PhD placement at SickKids. Today, his Toronto-based startup Forcen is developing AI- and machine vision–powered robots, giving them the sense of touch, dexterity, reflexes and “muscle memory” of a veteran surgeon. “We aren’t just building a re-creation, but an amplification of human touch,” says Brooks. “Microscopes and 3D cameras don’t replace a surgeon’s eyes, but allow them to do amazing things. We aim to do that with touch.”
Robots for hire: Forcen’s technology is being implemented into FDA-approved robots, and is helping surgeons perform everything from general day surgery to more complicated procedures like knee replacements and spinal laminectomies. But Forcen’s robots have other applications, including handling delicate products like eyeglasses and electronics. Brooks says his fleet can undertake dangerous wind turbine repairs out at sea or be deployed to accomplish tasks in space; the devices are already being operated in the food industry. “Our first-ever food customer used our robots to pick and pack sashimi,” says Brooks. “It’s very delicate — if you are rough, everyone can tell.”
What’s next: This year, five flagship customers are implementing Forcen’s robots, and the company is working to land 20 more clients. “We’re excited to see our technology get out into the field and deployed en masse.”
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Illustrations by Monica Guan