November 5, 2014 1:06 pm
Updated: November 5, 2014 3:03 pm

From e-transportation, to virtual reality health care: How Toronto is fostering high-tech start-ups


TORONTO – Toronto has made a name for itself in many industries; from entertainment to health care.

But Canada’s largest city is also fostering a healthy technology sector, one that has been somewhat overlooked in favour of neighbouring Waterloo, Ont. – long considered Canada’s tech capital and home to companies like smartphone maker BlackBerry.

In fact, some of Toronto’s most notorious issues have helped to inspire inventions that are garnering a lot of attention.

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Take for example Sojourn Labs – a University of Toronto-based start-up that aims to solve Toronto’s transit and traffic woes with its electric car-bike vehicle.

“We’re trying to develop the future of transportation,” said Jonathan Lung, one of the founders of Sojourn Labs. “We’ve created is a prototype of a vehicle that we think will be the way that people will get around in cities in the future.”

The electric vehicle – which Lung described as the “Goldilocks of transportation” – is powered by a motor and a battery, which drivers can charge by peddling the bike pedals in the front of the vehicle. Solar panels on the top of the car-bike provide extra power.

Jonathan Lung, one of the founders of Sojourn Labs, takes the car-bike for a spin. (File/Global News)

The idea is to target Toronto’s road congestion issues by create smaller, single occupant vehicles that take up less space and don’t give off any fumes, all while providing covered winter-friendly options for cyclists.

READ MORE: Silicon Valley-based entrepreneurs return to Toronto to invest in rich talent pool

“As someone who lives in the suburbs, I think the TTC is great for the resources it has but it doesn’t always suit my needs. So a vehicle like this fits in great for urban commuters like myself,” Lung told Global News.

“We think it’s a great substitute for cars, those who don’t bike, or those that do but want something more convenient or effortless.”

Lung and his co-founder Phil Lam hope to have a market-ready prototype available sometime in the next year – but to do so they need to acquire funding. Luckily they have the support of the University of Toronto’s Impact Centre, a multidisciplinary research and development institute that helps nurture start-ups.

Listen: The Morning Show’s Liem Vu and Nicole Bogart discuss some of the start-ups features in Wednesday’s event

As part of its Techno program, the Impact Centre helps to foster science and engineering entrepreneurs who create technology-based companies.

Ninety-five per cent of start-ups that work with the centre have secured sales or funding.

On Wednesday, Sojourn Labs will join more than 40 companies for the “Techno Showcase,” where start-ups participating in the program can show off their ideas to industry experts and try to spark interest from investors.

“One of the driving forces behind the Impact Centre and this event is to highlight how university research can result in products that improve our quality of life and we want to encourage people to experience these exciting technologies first-hand,” said the Impact Centre’s Scott McAuley.

“It also helps the start-ups by raising their profile when reaching out to potential customers, partners and investors.”

From health care solutions, to virtual reality gaming

Toronto’s transport issues aren’t the only thing inspiring entrepreneurs.

The city is also known for its highly specialized hospitals, such as Toronto General where many of the world’s first successful organ transplants took place.

Spinesonics Medical, created by PhD candidate Amir Manbachi, is a medical start-up aimed at making the jobs of spine surgeons easier. Their device resembles a small screwdriver with an ultrasound on the end to give surgeons a real-time image of where they are placing an implant.

“Given the age and technology [we are in], the common practice in spine surgery is that surgeons feel underneath their hands where screw implants are going,” Manbachi said.

“We are coming up with a way that uses ultrasound technology to help surgeons understand the [bone] boundaries so they can place the screw implants.”

The company has raised over $500,000 in funding to date and hopes to move into limited human trials soon.

Just down the street, Martin Labrecque and his team at Breqlabs have developed a sensor driven glove aimed at making computer use easier for patients with mobility issues.

The wireless glove is loaded with sensors to track the users hand movements in real-time. Once strapped on to a patient’s hand they are able to control the mouse with little movement, tapping their finger to click the mouse.

“The computer keyboard and mouse haven’t evolved in a long time;  we feel there’s a lag in terms of technology. We need more natural ways of interacting with computers and a hands-free approach is definitely the best,” said Labrecque.

“It’s still early on in our trials but we feel Parkinson’s is going to be a big area for us, alongside seniors and anyone with hand tremors that makes it difficult to use a mouse.”

Breqlabs has also used their technology to create a virtual reality gaming glove, which allows users to interact with a game like a scene out of Minority Report.

All three start-ups will have their inventions on display Wednesday from 3:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at the MaRS Atrium during the University of Toronto’s Techno Showcase.

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