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New study shows York Region is a digital leader

Though there's a growing appreciation that Toronto and the surrounding regions are fast becoming a major hub for tech and digital innovation, just how sizable we've become in those sectors isn't always apparent. A new study highlights the significance of southern Ontario in particular, as "one of the most concentrated centres of technology leadership and growth in the world."

Conducted by tech sector analysts The Branham Group, the report identifies what it calls "Ontario’s own Digital Corridor: a concentrated cluster of innovative technology firms across the York Region, GTA, Kitchener-Waterloo, and Hamilton areas." In that corridor, the report finds, are "176,000 skilled professionals working in the technology sector, generating an average of $387,000 in revenue per employee."

The report is in part an attempt to not just identify the strength of the Toronto-Hamilton corridor in the tech sector, but to highlight one major shortcoming: our lack of effective marketing to celebrate this concentration of talent when compared to, for instance, Silicon Valley.

Our corridor "has everything offered by its U.S. counterpart: talented entrepreneurs, innovative companies, supportive governments, major post-secondary institutions (at least 12) and a track record of success." The report coins the term "Digital Corridor" as an attempt to begin to rectify that situation, developing a local analogue to the Silicon Valley branding that made that part of northern California so famous.

Comparing the two regions, the report notes some interesting differences: per capita income and overall population is higher here, but revenue per employee and total revenue generated are higher there. One potential explanation for this raised in the report: Canada tends to spend less on research and development than our neighbours to the south.

In an interview with John Ruffolo, CEO of OMERS Ventures that is included as part of the report, Ruffalo says: "Your data is concerning and supports other research indicating that Canada’s track record in R&D spend trails other nations around the world. We have to reverse this and make sure R&D spend is a key priority. It is a central strategy for viability of our industry and in individual companies."

Writer: Hamutal Dotan
Source: The Branham Report (Issue 2)

York Region seeking homegrown social entrepreneurs

Every city and region has its challenges and often the best authorities—both on the nature of the problems and the value of potential solutions—lies within the local community, the residents who encounter these issues first-hand. That's the principle underlying communityBUILD, an ongoing collaboration between VentureLAB, a York Region innovation accelerator; York University; and United Way York Region. It is "is a partnership from three very different organizations," says VentureLAB project lead Heather Crosbie, "and the partnership itself breeds quite a unique approach to what we're tying to do, which is tackle York Region social issues through the lens of social entrepreneurship."

That ongoing project has an upcoming major event: communityBUILD Mash-UP, a two day intensive workshop to help better understand some specific challenges within York Region, and to spur local social entrepreneurs to develop innovative approaches to tackling those issues. By the end of the Mash-Up, some participants will be selected for a prize pack that includes mentoring, office space, and other in-kind support.

With the help of the United Way, two specific social problems were identified: food insecurity and youth unemployment. The goal of the Mash-Up is to spend "two intense days to work on solutions to two of these 'grand challenges,'" explains Crosbie. 

One of the features that makes this event unique, she says, is "you can apply to be a collaborator, to join an existing team, as well as pitch as a team or an existing early-stage project." Applications for partipating in either capacity are being accepted online until March 8. A panel of local experts will winnow down the list of applicants; those selected will participate in the two-day workshop, which runs March 27-28.

After that, says Crosbie, there are "three hurdles to get over" before the winners are selected: whether the proposal is relevant to one of the "grand challenges"; whether the team proposing an initiative "has experience in either living the reality or working on the problem"; and whether everyone else participating in the Mash-Up sees merit in the proposal.

The workshop will begin with everyone pitching their ideas and it'll be up to the Mash-Up participants to select which of those ideas seem most promising. Those will be the ones that teams will work on over the course of the two days—developing business plans, rollout schedules, and the like. A panel of four or five entrepreneurs will determine the "viability, scalability, and sustainability" of the fleshed-out proposals, and select the ultimate winner.

It's one of many new initiatives the organizing partners hope to develop over time. "The long-term objective," says Crosbie, "is to build out an ecosystem of social entrepreneurs tackling social issues in York Region specifically."

Writer: Hamutal Dotan
Source: Heather Crosbie, VentureLAB project lead

PowerStream unveils micro grid demonstration project

Like many municipalities, ones in Ontario are starting to play a larger role in energy production and distribution. One local company, PowerStream, is owned by three such municipalities together: Barrie, Markham, and Vaughan. And like many of these smaller companies, the focus is increasingly on using smart grid technology and renewable energy sources to lower the environmental burdens of providing power. A few weeks ago, PowerStream unveiled a new micro grid demonstration project in an attempt to further explore those possibilities.

Smart grid technology is essentially a way of fine-tuning the collection and distribution of power across a network, by working with real-time, fine-grained information about energy demands, sending power to where it is most needed and in some cases bringing power sources on- and off-line dynamically, to meet changing demands. PowerStream's micro grid works in the same way, but on a much smaller scale than the provincial power system—it's scaled to meet local needs, ideally with local, renewable power sources. It also latches into the provincial grid, drawing power from it when needed, and sending power to the grid if it's producing more than it requires.

PowerStream's micro grid demonstration project is installed at its head office in Vaughan. John Mulrooney, director of smart grid technologies for PowerStream, explains the project in a video guide as: "a two-phase initiative that will evaluate the micro grid's effectiveness as an alternative energy supplier for PowerStream's head office. It will test the ability to utilize different power sources and storage while delivering safe, reliable service."

In the first phase, power—coming from solar panels, wind turbines, and natural gas generator, and stored in three different types of batteries—will be used to provide electricity for the building's  lighting, a/c system, and refrigeration, plus charging stations for their electric vehicles. The goal in this first phase is to test how well the system operates when it's disconnected from the provincial grid. The second phase will see new sources of power generation added into the mix; the goal at that point will be to test the grid's ability to feed power into the provincial network.

Writer: Hamutal Dotan
Source: PowerStream

York Region Small Business and Enterprise Centre's new ambassador program underway

The York Region Small Business Enterprise Centre (YSBEC) has launched a new ambassador program, which its organizers believe to be the first of its kind in the province.

The provincial government established a network of these Small Business Enterprise Centres in conjunction with municipalities across Ontario about 20 years ago. That network now numbers 57 centres, which provide a range of services including free business development assistance, help with licensing and registration, and networking events.

The YSBEC serves the six northern and smaller municipalities in York Region: Aurora, East Gwillimbury, Georgina, King, Newmarket, and Whitchurch-Stouffville. (The larger, southern York Region municipalities--Markham, Richmond Hill, and Vaughan--each have their own separate centres.)

"Each one of the centres is there to help people get started in business, and help early growth stage business," explains Dan Ruby, a small business consultant with the YSBEC. They provide free consulting services that "can help you with your business planning, access to financing, sales, and marketing" and other start-up issues small business face.

"If you think of us as if we were a general practitioner," Ruby goes on, "if we were to diagnose an issue of concern that is beyond the scope of a general practitioner, we would send you to a specialist. The ambassadors are like our specialists."

Essentially, the consultants that are routinely available at the centre are able to provide business development support, but sometimes a client needs expertise in a particular field: accounting or digital media or branding or the like. The new ambassadors—the centre has about a dozen—are specialists in these and other areas, and the centre's clients can come to them for free sector-specific advice when they need it.

To provide maximum flexibility, clients can now access ambassadors via three different channels: at quarterly events, where "expert corner" roundtables are set up, through a direct referral from the centre, and online, via a new system called MENTORup, which is "kind of like eHarmony for mentors and small businesses," says Ruby.

Writer: Hamutal Dotan
Source: Dan Ruby, Small Business Consultant, York Region Small Business Enterprise Centre (Newmarket Region)

SelectCore launches cutting edge public-private partnership with the city

City Hall faces many challenges: some huge and headline-grabbing, like improving a strained transit system. Some much more fine-grained and less noticed—but no less essential to the residents who rely on them.

Falling into the latter category is the logistical problem of distributing social assistance to individuals who, in virtue of their very need for that assistance, may be hardest to reach. Torontonians of all backgrounds receive help from Ontario Works, but among them are many who do not have basic logistical supports, like a bank account. Effectively supporting these people is one of the smaller-scale but persistent problems that vexes municipal governments.

Leading the way with an innovative new approach to handling this challenge: the City of Toronto, in conjunction with local company SelectCore, provider of cashless financial services to what it describes as "underserved markets." Together this month they announced the details of a new system for delivering Ontario Works. Called the City Services Benefit Card, the smart cards will replace cheques for recipients who don't have a bank account.

It's a system that, if all goes according to plan, will benefit everyone involved: the city will save on administrative costs, recipients will save on steep cheque-cashing fees and a local company will benefit from a deal that is expected to yield between $15 and $18 million in business during its initial 42-month term.

"The City of Toronto is really leading the charge" with this system, says Derek Robertson, executive vice-president of compliance for SelectCore. It is the first city in Canada, and possibly in North America, to move to this kind of paperless system. (A few cities in the United States use debit cards, but none that Robertson knows of use what we'll have here: EMV chip cards.) Any concerns that the residents who need to use these cards might run into trouble have quickly been allayed, says Robertson; since the cards were introduced in mid-July, the company "has not experienced a significant spike of customer service calls."

The company currently has about 50 staff, including some recently hired new information technology and account management staff to meet the demands of the partnership with Toronto. It will be, Robertson hopes, the first of many public sector contracts, as governments increasingly look to streamline their operations.

Writer: Hamutal Dotan
Source: Derek Robertson, Executive Vice-President of Compliance, SelectCore

Vaughan's Newtopia gets $250K, has added 7 staff this year, will add 10-15 more next year

Innovative Vaughan-based health and fitness company Newtopia will get an injection of almost $250,000 in capital to launch its service more broadly across the continent, thanks to the federal government's Economic Development agency, it was announced last week.

The company's approach is to use what founder Jeffrey Ruby calls an innovative "breakthrough in personal genetic testing" to come up with a personalized health and fitness coaching program for clients. Newtopia's services are delivered to clients live online through portals on the web and through mobile devices. Clients also get access online to real-time video chats with their coaches. The service was launched commercially in January of this year after two years of beta testing. Ruby says the company has seen between 20 and 30 per cent client growth each month. As for results, Ruby claims 80 per cent of clients report acheiving their weight loss or health goals and maintaining that success for six months. The service launched commercially in the United States in September.

Ruby says that since January, the company has grown from 18 to 25 staff—including both full-time employees and consultants. He anticipates adding an additional 10 to 15 new coaches to the team over the next year. The injection of funding from the government will help finance broader market deployment of the product—and not strictly because of the money itself. "It's a real credibility marker," Ruby says, "that the government of Canada is behind this approach."

Writer: Edward Keenan
Source: Jeffrey Ruby, Founder, Newtopia

GTA's PowerStream becomes first electricity company in Ontario to win two LEED Gold certifications

PowerStream, an electricity distribution utility jointly owned by the cities of Markham, Barrie and Vaughan, has become the first company in the 905 and the first electricity company in Ontario to have two different buildings certified LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold.

In announcing the new green credential at the company's south operations centre in Markham, president and CEO Brian Betz said the recognition was a tribute the company's commitment to "innovation and forward thinking."

The facility is home to more than 150 staff, about a third of the company's workforce. Among the sustainability innovations that earned the facility recognition were 16.5 kilowatts of solar energy generation capacity, along with a host of conservation features including a white roof to keep the building cool, drought-resistant landscaping to lower water usage, and heating and air-conditioning systems the company says are "free of harmful gases."

Markham mayor Frank Scarpitti, chair of PowerStream's board, says that the efforts put into the building show the company's dedication to innovative social and environmental consciousness. "This building's achievement of LEED Gold certification is consistent with PowerStream's corporate vision," he said in a statement, "committed to the environment and sustainable growth."

PowerStream's head office in Vaughan was certified LEED Gold three years ago.

Writer: Edward Keenan
Source: Eric Fagen, PowerStream Inc.

$50 million smart grid investment in Vaughan will lead to sustainable energy jobs

Late last month, Ontario Minister of Energy Brad Duguid appeared in Vaughan to announce a $50 million investment in a new Smart Grid Fund that the provincial government says will create jobs and build Ontario's capacity for sustainable energy.

The fund will invest in local projects that either build the capacity of the network or demonstrate a new smart grid technology. "Smart grid" is a term used for a set of technologies that use monitoring and communications to allow the electrical system to run more efficiently and sustainably.

A spokesperson for the minister's office dis provide a specific estimate for how many jobs this investment would create, but noted it is part of a green energy plan that has already created 13,000 jobs and is expected to create 50,000 in total. But the jobs will likely be mainly in the field of engineering and technology, supporting the development and commercialization of new technologies that monitor and manage electrical generation and could include electric car charging stations.

Writer: Edward Keenan
Source: Gloria Bacci, Media and Issues Officer, Ministry of Energy

Electric car demo centre--and 8 charging stations--now open in the GTA

The California-based company Better Place, who promote the use of electric vehicles, officially opened their Toronto operations earlier this month.  As of March 4, the company is operating a electric vehicle demonstration centre at Toronto's Evergreen Brick Works in the Don Valley just east of Rosedale, where members of the general public can learn more about electric vehicles and see a sample of a charging station.

The project, which received $1 million in funding form the provincial government, also includes eight GTA charging stations that will mostly serve participating corporate partners for now, located in Barrie, Toronto, Bowmanville, Markham, Vaughan and Ajax.

Better Place's North American VP, Jason Wolf, says in a statement that this type of project is part of setting the stage for "mass adoption" as the first-generation of electric vehicles rolls off the assembly lines. "This project highlights some of the key building blocks to get there: government leadership; public education; and a smart network system that scales and delivers benefits to the grid, rather than strains it." In addition to the provincial government, Better Places is working with the City of Toronto and regional utilities in the suburbs.

Writer: Edward Keenan
Sources: John Proctor, Better Place; Leigh-Ann Popek, office of the Minister of Economic Development

Upstart mobile services provider Mobilicity continues to grow, hiring 7 in GTA now

In May last year, Mobilicity launched as one of a couple new wireless carriers in Toronto, aiming to squeeze traditional juggernauts Telus, Bell and Rogers in the mobile market. Mobilicity's pitch was simple: unlimited plans on a 3G network, all pre-paid, with no contracts.

Just over half a year later, the Vaughan-based company is showing significant growth: they are currently hiring seven staff in the GTA on the heels of announcing a new Facebook app that promises to give smartphone capability to regular phones.

After launching in Toronto in May, the company expanded to Vancouver, Edmonton and Ottawa in November. By December of last year, the company claimed that it expected to add more than 50,000 subscribers in one quarter, a roughly 10 per cent share of new business in Canada.

In 2011, Mobilicity is scheduled to expand its service to Calgary. As it builds up to its Alberta launch, the company is hiring in Calgary and continues to hire in Vancouver, in addition to the seven new positions being added at the Vaughan, Ontario headquarters.

Writer: Edward Keenan
Source: Sheryl Steinberg, Mobilicity

Social Graph Studios reaches 8 million Facbook users, looks to hire 2

If you are a Facebook member, and you almost certainly are, then you likely saw a lot of Social Graph Studios in your news feed earlier this month -- though you may not have noticed. They're the Thornhill-based application developers behind the "My Year in Status" and "My Year in Photos" apps that, for the second year in a row since their development, attracted millions of seasonal users as the calendar turned from 2010 to 2011.

Founded in 2009 by Oz Solomon, under the motto "The shortest distance between friends is laughter" with the mission of creating applications that bring people together to have fun, the local company has exploded into one of the more successful application developers. They boast the evergreen products "Status Shuffle" and "Status Statistics," as well as "xo Hearts xo" alongside their grand-slam holiday season favourites in their suite of products. They have earned the top satisfaction rating for Status Shuffle of any application on Facebook, which the company claims makes them a trusted venue for advertisers.

In all, the company claims 8 million users ("and we've only just begun," they say), and is growing rapidly. Right now, the company is looking to add two developers to their staff to accommodate that growth.

Writer: Edward Keenan
Source: Oz Solomon, Social Graph Studios

Korean-born Jeffrey Min expands Galleria grocery chain, creating 120 jobs, wins New Pioneer Award

Korean-born busniessman Jeffrey B.H. Min founded his first Galleria Korean supermarket in North York in 2003, which now (moved a block north into Vaughan) employs 120 people, and in November of last year opened a second location at Don Mills and York Mills, which created 120 new jobs. Between those milestones, Min has earned plenty of recognition: Grocer of the Year awards from the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers in 2009 and 2010, a Business Leader of Character Community Award in 2007 and the Ontario Newcomer Champion Award in 2008.

Min gets still more much-deserved recognition this spring, when he'll be awarded a New Pioneer Award for entrepreneurship from Skills for Change at a ceremony this March. The awards, known as the "Oscars of diversity," have been given out annually for the past 19 years to recognize the phenomenal achievements of Canadian newcomers in a variety of fields.

In their award citation, Skills for Change notes that Min overcame his initial lack of English to learn the Canadian business culture and create a bridge between Korean and Canadian markets. In addition to his supermarkets themselves, Min has created a Korean importing business and launched his own brand of Korean food products; innovated in the grocery business by developing a customer service management system that connects customers directly to suppliers in Korea, a real-time sales reporting system, and an inventory control system that links his stores directly to his warehouse.

Min is also active in community service, both for his employees who benefit from language and cultural training programs, and to the broader community, who have access to Galleria events spaces for community events.

The Skills for Change New Pioneer Awards take place on March 3 at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel. See their website for more information.

Writer: Edward Keenan
Source: Jessette Nepomuceno, Skills for Change

Vaughan-based Lunch Lady grows from one mom to employ 235 franchisees and staff

Ruthie Burd had an autistic son, with all the attendant scheduling challenges that entails. So, back in the early 1990s, she was looking for a business she could do from home, in the afternoons and around his schedule. She remembers reading about a New York entrepreneur who bought sandwiches at delis and delivered them to offices, and wondered if she could do something similar for children's lunches.

She set up shop as The Lunch Lady in 1993, offering to make lunches for schoolchildren, though she says it was nearly two years before she got into a single school as a provider. Today, the business she launched in Vaughan -- she started selling franchises when it got too large for her to manage in 1999 -- has 47 franchises across the country, employs about 235 people, and provides healthy meals in 824 schools as we talk this week (a gain of five schools since just last week).

Burd says that when she started, people didn't really think what she was offering was valuable, but in the intervening years awareness about healthy eating for children has led to rocketing growth. "I think we were a little ahead of the curve. People's attitude to food is changing, and we're really now attracting customers, staff and franchisees who are passionate about eating healthy."

Writer: Edward Keenan
Source: Ruthie Burd, The Lunch Lady

$1 million innovation investment in Teknoscan will create 20 new jobs in Vaughan

Vaughan-based TeknoScan Systems Inc. will build a new manufacturing plant in the city to make its developmental technology for quickly scanning cargo containers for explosives at shipping ports. Over the next year, the new plant is expected to create 20 new jobs in engineering, manufacturing and sales.

The new plant will be financed in part with the help of a repayable grant of $1 million from FedDev Ontario, the federal government's local economic development agency. In making the announcement last week, Minister of State for Democratic Reform Steven Fletcher said, "Our investment in TeknoScan Systems Inc. is helping the company to expand its business and market its products around the world... This investment will create approximately 20 new jobs here in our community and commercialize state-of-the-art technology that will benefit world markets."

Sam Hyams, president and co-CEO of TeknoScan, said that global marketing of the GTA-born technology will be a big part of the immediate growth plans.  "Our goal is to develop and deploy a fast, cost effective system for screening the millions of containers that presently go unchecked," he said. "Designed to test for the presence of drugs and explosives in air samples, our technology offers the potential for 100% cargo screening sought after by security forces the world over. This investment will bring us significantly closer to achieving that goal."

Writer: Edward Keenan
Source: Office of the Honourable Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for FedDev Ontario

Got an Innovation & Job News tip? Email edward@yongestreetmedia.ca.

New juice-cleanse delivery business goes from 1 to 3 staff in first year, sees rapid growth ahead

In Toronto -- and in cities across Canada and North America -- a growing concern about healthy eating and a craze for juice cleanses presents many opportunities for starting a business. For Toronto entrepreneur Rebecca Malen, a particular aspect of juice cleanses stood out. "Juicing sucks. It's difficult, annoying, makes a mess, and when you do it yourself it's hard to get much juice out of a piece of fruit."

A year ago, she started Total Cleanse out of her home, offering enthusiasts the chance to have detoxifying drinks delivered to their door first thing in the morning. She found a ready market. "People love it," Malen says. "They're obsessed with it." Since launching by herself in July 2009, she's grown Total Cleanse to employ three full-time staff and moved the business from her home to a professional office and kitchen space. Last month, the business took its delivery network national -- in an age of overnight national couriers and online ordering, Malen says a business like hers is able to scale up in short order without investing in much infrastructure.

And Malen sees huge growth ahead. She says that aside from some social media marketing, the business has been built almost exclusively on word of mouth -- and one year in, she feels Total Cleanse has just scratched the surface of the potential national market.

Writer: Edward Keenan
Source: Rebecca Malen, Founder and CEO, Total Cleanse

Got an Innovation & Job News tip? Email edward@yongestreetmedia.ca.
21 Vaughan Articles | Page: | Show All
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