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Lessons from successful businesses across Canada


Boisbriand, Que.

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Build robots, but don’t forget about the humans. This design ethos, laser-focused on the end user, is behind Kinova’s growth (along with an aggressive export strategy—it established a customer base in the Netherlands before its domestic market). Kinova’s first product, launched in 2009, is a robot arm called JACO that helps people with limited upper-limb mobility do everything from open doors to brush their teeth and play with their pets. The project was inspired by founder Charles Deguire’s uncle, who had muscular dystrophy and fashioned himself a makeshift arm to help with everyday tasks.

Kinova’s human-focused approach has propelled it into developing robotics for industrial uses, along with medicine, education and research. “We’re gearing up to launch our next generation of collaborative robots for small to medium-sized manufacturers,” says Deguire. “Productivity boosts are a given. The real challenge is making sure the robots empower humans, that they improve the lives of people on the factory floor.” Their latest launch, in January 2019, was the Kinova MH7, a surgical-grade robot arm for the U.S. market based on the same precise gripping and manipulation technology that underlies JACO. Its foundational principle, as always, is human-centric—"augment human capabilities, not replace" is the product’s catchphrase. MH7 has performed more than 1,000 surgeries since its launch.

Olsa Tools

Nisku, Alberta

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Cut out the middleman, but don’t cut corners—that’s Olsa Tools' simple formula for explosive growth. Founder Charles Marois, a DIY auto mechanic (or self-described car tinkerer), got into the tool business when he couldn’t find a quality product to organize his screwdriver bits for a reasonable price. A frustrating Amazon search led to a little market research, which revealed that the middleman was the problem. Olsa Tools manufactures its own line of hand tools, accessories and organizers, and sells directly to its target market, which spans DIY and professional mechanics.

“It’s all about taking pride in the quality of design and functionality of our products,” Marois says. “When developing a new product, we always ask, is it high-quality, beautifully designed and durable? If so, we proceed to the next step.” His team works closely with several professional heavy-duty mechanics to test their products before manufacturing. Prices are lower than those of big-name manufacturers thanks to the aforementioned lack of middlemen, a strategy supported by the company’s heavy use of e-commerce for distribution. Olsa Tools grew 1,968% in the past three years, and Marois says they’ve done it all with no debt or external investment. Score one for dedicated tinkering.


Kitchener, Ont.

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Jerry Seinfeld once wondered aloud whether traffic would one day get so bad that it would have to start moving backward. Miovision, a Kitchener-based traffic data company, is here to save us from that particular nightmare. Cities face an increasingly urgent congestion problem, but many still count cars with 20th-century methods like pencils and clipboards. Miovision’s founder, Kurtis McBride—a University of Waterloo grad with a master’s degree in computer vision—saw another way.

Scout is essentially a weatherproof camera rigged out with Miovision’s proprietary AI. The system, trained with massive quantities of video data through a process called deep learning, gives a comprehensive picture of traffic going through at a given location. It can recognize and count cars, trucks, bikes, pedestrians and even e-scooters in real-world conditions like rain and fog. Plus, it syncs up with DataLink, a one-stop web portal that makes for seamless collaboration between transportation professionals.

While the firm has enjoyed healthy growth, McBride says widespread adoption of high-tech traffic solutions is partly a matter of politics. “The best thing federal and provincial governments could do to supercharge the civic tech economy is to enable municipalities to modernize their civic infrastructure at a national scale,” he says.

Partake Brewing


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Most varieties of non-alcoholic beer are an unconvincing offshoot of the real thing—an estranged third cousin more than a sister product. Ted Fleming, the founder of Partake Brewery, lamented this when he quit drinking in 2015. He was a bona fide beer guy who regularly sampled craft brews before a Crohn’s disease diagnosis forced him to give it up.

Being his own target market turned brewing non-alcoholic beer into a passion project. Focusing on aroma, finish and the fine flavour notes that concern craft brewers, he developed a four-ingredient, 10-calorie can of non-alcoholic IPA and successfully pitched it on Dragons' Den. He’s since launched four more styles—including a malty red and deep brown stout—entered Ontario’s Beer Store and major grocery chains, and won four international awards for taste. “We’ve revolutionized the industry with our laser focus on simplicity,” he says.

The Unscented Company


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Anie Rouleau started The Unscented Company with a blank sheet of paper in a coffee shop. She wrote down her mission statement—reduce our collective plastic footprint and help stop single-use plastic packaging—next to her vision and values. That piece of paper remains the foundation of her business. As the name indicates—streamlining clearly being among Rouleau’s strengths—the company makes unscented home and body care products such as soap, laundry detergent and deodorant. The product line is also biodegradable, refillable and locally manufactured.

When it comes to The Unscented Company’s rapid growth, Rouleau is the first to admit that timing was key. She had always been intolerant of fragrances and knew she wasn’t alone in that regard. She was also acutely aware that the demand for climate- and health-conscious products has never been higher. “Before moving forward with any new product idea, we always ask ourselves the same question: Is this new product coherent with our company mission and vision? Not many products move past this stage,” she says. “But if they do, it means local manufacturing is available, sustainable packaging is possible, and most importantly, this new product will have a positive impact on the world.”

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