Many successful businesses start with a great idea. But how can you tell whether yours will work?
It might help to look at what others have done. We asked a trio of startup incubators and accelerators to identify some up-and-coming businesses.
Here are the companies they picked, with thoughts on why they might be great.
Jay Shah, director, Velocity, University of Waterloo
Marlena Books: Rachel Thompson saw there were few recreational options for people with dementia. If they wanted to read books, for example, they had to settle for products originally intended for children.
In 2015, the University of Waterloo graduate sought to remedy that by founding Marlena Books, which publishes age-appropriate stories for adults. Last year, the company won $25,000 in the Velocity Fund pitch program.
“She picked up on a really high degree of need, but a low degree of service,” Mr. Shah says. “A lot of those ideas are exactly that – serving a part of the market that is completely underserved or has been overlooked for whatever reason.”
Epoch: Companies often want employees to engage in charitable work within their communities. Non-profits, meanwhile, are often clamouring to find such people. Despite that, the two often have trouble finding each other.
Waterloo students Jade Choy, Keith Choy and Kai Gandhi last year formed Epoch with an eye to fixing that problem. Their service connects companies with charities in an effort to properly deploy volunteers. They also won $25,000 through the Velocity Fund last year.
“There were a couple of unmet needs and they found a way to line those up,” Mr. Shah says.
Sampler: We’ve all experienced it – someone on the street randomly hands us a sample bottle of shampoo with hopes that we’ll try it, like it and buy it. But those companies have no idea whether we will ever use their freebies.
That uncertainty was the motivation for University of Ottawa graduate Marie Chevrier to start Sampler in 2013. The company uses data from social media networks to put samples into the hands of the people who are most likely to use them.
Toronto-based Sampler isn’t a Velocity company, but Mr. Shah likes its approach nevertheless. The company has netted customers such as Nestlé and L’Oréal.
“Sometimes there are old, tired business practices that have become the status quo, and if an outsider looks at them, it just looks bizarre and antiquated,” he says. “It takes an outsider to look at it and change it.”
Krista Jones, managing director, MaRS Enterprise, Toronto
Future Design School: Serial entrepreneur Sarah Prevette has long focused on encouraging entrepreneurial skills, which is why she founded the Future Design School in 2015. The company, which is advised by the MaRS Discovery District, works with high schools to develop entrepreneurial courses for students.
The difference between Future Design School and similar efforts is that Ms. Prevette is succeeding in having her programs incorporated into school curricula rather than offered as extracurricular options. That means the programs are available to all students, rather than mostly those from wealthier families, who are better able to afford them.
“It’s in the core of the system so that all kids have a chance,” Ms. Jones says.
#Paid: Influencer marketing via Instagram, YouTube and other social media platforms has emerged as a major promotional channel, but a sparsity of verification tools means companies are often hard-pressed to determine whether their efforts are netting results.
Founders Bryan Gold and Adam Rivietz launched #Paid – or hashtag paid – in 2014 as an effort to remedy the situation. The company, which is also advised by MaRS, uses both data tracking and employee verification techniques to keep tabs on influencer campaigns to see if they’re really working.
The approach is succeeding for the company, which announced $9-million in Series A funding earlier this year.
“There have been a lot of issues with that marketplace. It’s over-served, nobody trusts that it’s authentic,” Ms. Jones says. “But it’s still a very valuable community that can translate into profits for companies.”
Delvinia: Though the Toronto-based company has been around since 1998, it has recently started to grow in the United States with the launch of Methodify, the online market research tool it launched in 2014. The portal is similar to AskingCanadians, which allows companies to gather data and conduct surveys without the big expenditures required by larger consultancies.
The tool itself is the result of development by Delvinia to serve its purposes. Ms. Jones says it’s a good example of a company turning its own problems into products that it can sell to others.
“They realized the need inside their business, so they went out and created this survey tool,” she says. “This is a really great story of how you turn that into a growing and scaling tech business.”
Hussam Ayyad, senior director of programs and partnerships, Ryerson University’s DMZ, Toronto
Casalova: Co-founders Ray Jaff and Curtis Layne may not have deliberately set out to create the Uber of renting and buying homes when they started their company in 2015, but Casalova does bear some resemblance to the ride-sharing app.
Casalova’s service connects buyers and renters directly to real estate agents in short order, cutting the communication time between them from hours to seconds. The success, Mr. Ayyad says, comes from applying a proven business model to a market that’s ripe for innovation.
“These guys were very aggressive in their mindset on building something that dominates and that creates value for Canadians long-term,” he says.
EnergyX Solutions: Managing utility bills isn’t exactly sexy, which is why Nishaant Sangaavi and Alex Corneglio founded their company in 2016. EnergyX offers businesses an online platform through which they can monitor their utility usage and goals, with an eye toward streamlining the process.
The Toronto-based company, which has been supported by the DMZ, in September announced it had raised $1.3-million in funding for expansion in the United States.
“It’s a great example of a company that will be a global company that’s based in Canada,” Mr. Ayyad says. “This is one of those sectors where there’s a lot of market capitalization to grab and value to create.”
Smart Cane: Fifteen-year-old Riya Karumanchi has grabbed headlines with her invention, a “smart,” sensor-laden cane that can help blind people navigate. It can detect objects and has “GPS navigation functionalities to direct a user to their destination through vibrations and audio feedback.” She spent the summer developing her company at the DMZ and has raised $56,000 in funding from investors, including Microsoft.
Ms. Karumanchi is proof there’s no age limit – too young or too old – for coming up with great business ideas.
“Riya motivates and inspires people at a young age to entrepreneurship,” Mr. Ayyad says. “She shows a lot of wisdom beyond her years.”