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19 Canadian Start-ups That Are Out to Change the World

AI recruiters, DNA devices and soilless gardens: Meet the homegrown innovations that are changing the way we live.

Travel app

Travel is getting far more accessible

“People still have these baked-in assumptions that someone with a disability is not powerful or doesn’t have anything to contribute to society,” says 28-year-old Maayan Ziv. “But I love challenging people’s assumptions.” And so in 2016, the Toronto-based entrepreneur – who lives with muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair – launched a crowd-sourced interactive app that maps the accessibility of places all around the world.

Born out of Ziv’s frustration that she couldn’t determine if a bar – or concert venue, or museum, or shop, or tourist attraction – was truly access-ible until she showed up there, AccessNow allows users to rate locations and search for spots with the accessibility features they require. It’s now expanded to 36 countries; when Ziv went to map an inclusive beachside restaurant in Tel Aviv last summer, she discovered she’d been beaten to it. “It shows you the power of the community,” she says. “People live everywhere, and they should be able to travel everywhere.”

Smarter ways to grow food

We’re finding smarter ways to grow food…

Last year’s landmark IPCC report from the United Nations confirmed what farmers already knew about climate change: Wildfires, drought, torrential downpours and extreme temperatures are devastating crops. These four start-ups have spearheaded new solutions for how – and where – food is grown.

…on farms

Dramatic and unpredictable weather swings are a serious headache for farmers. But digital tools from Winnipeg-based Farmers Edge use data from daily satellite imagery and close-range sensors to flag potential concerns – drainage issues, disease, nutrient problems – and feed that information straight to farmers’ smartphones.

…in water

Growing fresh produce and getting fresh fish in a chilly, landlocked city like Calgary is no cakewalk. Deepwater Farms found a workaround: At their facility, giant tanks house thousands of sea bass, which then fertilize racks of leafy greens like baby kale and arugula. It’s a closed-loop, water-saving, year-round system – the largest of its kind in Alberta – that produces about 500 kg of greens and 250 fish for local markets and restaurants each week.

…in the North

Students from St. John’s Memorial University tapped agriculturists and engineers to help them build SucSeed, a tool box-sized, nutrient-rich garden for growing everything from peppers to lettuce to strawberries indoors – without soil or sunlight. SucSeed’s food-sharing gardens are now running in Nunavut and Labrador, and Tim Hortons has come on board to put a box inside every elementary school in Canada.

…anywhere at all

NASA may have first used LED lights to grow plants back in the 1980s, but Nova Scotia’s TruLeaf takes that technology to new heights. On its indoor farms, which can be built in dense urban centres or remote northern climes, artificial intelligence scours tens of thousands of data points to determine the best light spectrums, environmental conditions and amount of recycled water to help grow heaps of plants.

Robotic legs for kids

More kids can walk…

For Manmeet Maggu, who as a kid liked taking things apart and really, really liked Iron Man, studying robotics was a no-brainer. But then, in his last year at the University of Waterloo, he learned that his nephew, Praneit, had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, so he got to work on a different suit of armour. With friend Rahul Udasi, Maggu designed fully powered robotic legs that attach to a walker and strap on to a child’s ankles, shins and thighs.

“The right leg bends and takes its first step, and then the left bends and takes a step, and then you’re off,” Maggu explains. Their company, Trexo, just wrapped a project with Y Combinator, the top start-up accelerator in the world; families across Canada are now leasing their system. But Maggu’s proudest moment came in 2018, when his nephew and family flew over from India to try the legs out. Praneit took 250 steps that day. “It’s not the robot we’re building; it’s the magic of watching a child take his first steps,” Maggu says. “That’s the most amazing feeling.”

Educational tablets

…and more kids can learn

Access to education is hugely important in battling everything from income inequality to civil strife to maternal death. So Toronto start-up Rumie Initiative loaded solar-panelled, touch-screen tablets with high-quality lesson plans – no Internet connection required – and put them in the hands of more than 35,000 people. Now those tablets are helping learners of all ages in Ethiopia (where 2 percent of the population has Internet access), in Sierra Leone (where the female literacy rate is 24 percent), in Canada’s Indigenous communities (where 51 percent of students drop out of school) and across the world.

Better medical tests

Doctors are saving lives…

…with better tests

Prostate cancer affects one in seven Canadian men, but the path to diagnosis is tricky, painful and unreliable. The current blood test has an 80 percent false positive rate, which means unnecessary biopsies that can lead to life-threatening infections. Good news out of Edmonton, then: The CEO of Nanostics, Dr. John Lewis, and his team have developed a far less invasive test, one that only requires a few drops of blood.

“Extracellular vesicles, or EVs, are tiny particles that shed from human cells,” he says. “Our tech-nology provides a new way to read and interpret the messages found in our bloodstream, measur-ing EVs from prostate cancer cells to more accur-ately identify people with aggressive stages of the disease.” That technology has been tested against more than 200,000 samples collected by Lewis’ team from over 2,000 men, and has proved to be 40 percent more accurate than the current blood screening. And Nanostics isn’t stopping there. “Our EV technology is applicable to other cancers and many other diseases,” Lewis says. Tests for ovarian cancer, transplant rejection and chronic lymphocytic leukemia are all on the horizon.

Medical tools

…and better tools

1 Want DNA results on demand? (Okay, okay, in an hour.) That’s no sweat for Spartan Bioscience: The Ottawa start-up has shrunk a whole lab into a four-inch-cubed device that can analyze a cheek swab for infectious diseases or drug resistance, and can even be used to test food and water safety.

2 It might look like a sleek pen, but ODS Medical’s high-tech laser can suss out cancer in less than a second. Healthy and cancerous cells reflect light differently, and this Montreal-developed tool can identify both during brain-tumour surgery.

3 It’s expected that by 2050, 152 million people worldwide will live with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Early detection is key to treatment, so Montreal’s Optina Diagnostics developed a simple eye scan that uses PET imaging and AI to catch key biomarkers of the disease.

Neuroscience tricks

…and better tricks

Even ace neurosurgeons can benefit from a Google Map for the brain. Toronto’s Synaptive Medical gives doctors high-definition 3-D visualizations that can lead to less invasive procedures and safer surgical routes – which in turn means fewer complications and faster recovery. Plus, the start-up’s automated robotic arm boasts stellar technology (truly: it was first developed for the International Space Station) and a powerful digital microscope to give surgeons unprecedented visibility into the human brain. That not only makes cranial surgery safer, it makes once unthinkable procedures possible.

Job diversity

Companies are looking a lot more like Canada

“There can be a huge difference in how companies approach, say, their marketing – using data, making strategic interventions, tracking progress – and their diversity, where they just want things to get better,” says Laura McGee. “We thought diversity should be treated like a business priority.” That’s why the Toronto-based founder launched Diversio, an AI platform that analyzes employee surveys, scores companies on metrics ranging from unbiased feedback to equal access to mentors, networks and sponsors, then identifies very specific tactics and policies to help companies improve. Companies are typically reassessed every six months to see how they’ve done and where they’re coming up short.

That doesn’t just make good ethical sense – it also gives a huge boost to any organization’s bottom line. Management consulting firm McKinsey found that companies with diverse executive teams are 33 percent more likely to lead their industry in profitability. “At Davos this year, we built a diversity calculator that determined the profit impact for a company if they were to add just one woman to the executive team,” McGee says. “It was a bit of a gimmick, but the CEOs loved it.” And they wanted in.

AI job recruitment

The hiring process is fraught with human bias: Harvard Business Review found that when there’s one female or minority candidate in a pool of four finalists, their chance of being hired is statistically zero. Toronto’s Knockri wants to make sure no one is missing out, so the team built an AI recruiter. It ignores attributes like race and gender, and instead uses facial and speech analysis to check candidates’ video interviews for skills like empathy and ability to collaborate, resulting in a shortlist of more diverse qualified applicants.

Innovative aircrafts

Hospitals can drop from the sky

Solar Ship’s Brantford, Ontario–built hybrid aircraft combine the nimbleness of a bush plane with the buoyancy of an airship. Physically, that makes them look sort of like a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man plane; practically, it means they can fly five tonnes of essential cargo into inaccessible areas in Canada and abroad. CEO Jay Godsall breaks down how one aircraft, the Wolverine, gets up.

“Even if fossil fuels didn’t pollute, putting heavy gasoline on an aircraft and flying it into a remote location just to burn it in an engine is a stupid waste of energy. This airship is full of buoyant gas, either hydrogen or helium, which gives it its lift.”

“Electric motors are really light and give you a lot of thrust. The Wolverine is taller than a 747, and we’ve spread 20 motors along the back and four in the front. That also helps you steer: Gun the motors on one side and leave the others at a lower speed in order to turn.”

“Cut the engines on a fat, draggy aircraft and it will come down fast, so it doesn’t need much runway. But its weight makes spaghetti out of any bush-plane landing gear. We use inflatable gear – it’s a big air bag that can take a pounding. It can also land on any surface.”

“The aircraft is loaded up with batteries that flow to the motors. To extend the range, up to 600 km, we add solar panels, which charge the batteries.”

“This can transport a 20-foot shipping container, which means it can bring housing supplies to the North, or help with disaster relief when climate change displaces people in Africa. You can pretty much drop off a hospital from the sky.”

Smarter cities

Cities are getting smarter…

Cities generate a massive amount of data, and although that data can have implications for everything from public health to infrastructure to economic development, it’s hard to keep track of it in anything approaching real time. Saskatoon’s Townfolio partners with municipal departments in 38,000 communities across Canada and the U.S. to provide up-to-date, hard-to-find data – like the number of home-care visits in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, or when commuters leave for work in Quebec City – to help cities make better and faster choices for their citizens.

…and they’re getting safer

The Parliament of Canada’s Peace Tower, the 1937 international Thousand Islands Bridge, the century-old Canada Revenue Agency headquarters – all are now considerably safer, thanks to the work of Montreal start-up Sensequake. CEO Farshad Mirshafiei’s team sets up super-sensitive wireless sensors to measure minuscule vibrations in a structure, then uses AI to analyze that data to find hidden defects or integrity concerns that become majorly vulnerable during an earthquake. Next up: nothing short of disrupting the whole civil engineering market. “AI can look at every possible design and material to select the most reliable and cost-efficient solution,” Mirshafiei says. “We want our software to go from seismic risk and structural monitoring to actually designing buildings for engineers.”

Removing carbon emissions

We’re mastering the elements…

…getting carbon out of the air

Concrete is strong, cost-effective and the most abundant man-made material on Earth. But it also requires a whole bunch of cement made from heated limestone, which is responsible for five percent of the world’s carbon-dioxide emissions. Halifax-based CarbonCure has found a way to reverse that cycle: “Liquid CO2 is added to the cement as it’s being mixed and then turns back into a mineral, so the gas is locked away forever,” CEO Robert Niven says. The start-up recently became a portfolio company of Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a $1-billion clean-tech investment fund financed by (among others) Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. “They’re scouring the planet for technologies that can provide 500-million tonnes of CO2 reductions annually,” Niven says. With BEV’s backing, CarbonCure is hoping to put its system into every single concrete plant on the planet.

Adding iron to foods

…and iron into food

Iron deficiency is one of the world’s most common nutritional problems, affecting 3.5 billion people – nearly half the global population. So in swims the Lucky Iron Fish, a small, boilable iron fish that’s the brainchild of a Guelph, Ontario, start-up. It can be chucked in a pot to release 90 percent of a family’s recommended daily iron intake, all without changing the taste or smell of the food being cooked.

What to do in Toronto

Three fully accessible – and entirely beautiful – picks from Maayan Ziv.

Best spot for a business lunch

Leña Restaurante has gorgeous interiors and is so versatile: breakfast, dinner, cappuccinos, cocktails. Over lunch, I order the empanadas – they’re really good!”

Best place to get some thinking done

“The spiral wooden ramp at the main entrance is just one example of how the Art Gallery of Ontario’s functional elements can be inclusive and beautiful.”

Best place to stop thinking about work entirely

“Taking time to be in nature is something I love, but it can be a challenge in winter using a wheelchair. Allan Gardens Conservatory is 100-percent accessible year-round.”

160 Gerrard St. E.

What to do in Edmonton

Healthy picks from Dr. John Lewis for when you find yourself in “Health City.”

Best outdoor spot for exercise

“The River Valley is great for hiking and biking. One of my favourite trails is Pipe Dream, which snakes along the south bank of the Saskatchewan River.”

Best indoor spot for exercise

“You can’t beat the Wilson Climbing Centre, one of the tallest indoor climbing walls in Canada, across the street from our R&D facility.”

Best restaurant for a (reasonably) virtuous dinner

“The winter squash soup at Noorish is awesome and the Butter Chickpea – their take on butter chicken – is my favourite.”

What to do in Montréal

Farshad Mirshafiei picks his spots to work hard – and refuel.

Best place to network

“There are workshops and events at the District 3 innovation centre, where you can meet Montreal entrepreneurs.”

Best place to celebrate some major funding

Les 3 Brasseurs is both a microbrewery and a restaurant. I like to celebrate an achievement with their Amber beer.”

Best 24-hour place for late-night sessions

“There are more than 30 types of poutine at La Banquise – my favourite is their delicious La Reggae with ground beef and hot peppers.”

What to do in Halifax

Robert Niven’s steps for giving potential investors an unforgettable night.

Start with a cocktail

Compass Distillers made the first gin with 100 percent Nova Scotia ingredients. I recommend the tasting flight of gins, rums and even aquavit.”

Mingle over dinner

“Across the street, at Agricola Street Brasserie, I usually get the fish special. You always know it was landed that same morning in a nearby harbour.”

Chuck an axe

“Darren Hudson is a Canadian log-roller champion who owns Timber Lounge. It’s surprising how quickly you can pick up axe throwing!”