Skip to main content
rob magazine

At first glance, these companies don’t have much in common, but they’ve all discovered a way to keep growing through chaotic times

Open this photo in gallery:

Alex Lysakowski/The Globe and Mail

BlueDot | Toronto

3-year growth: +1,519%

Kamran Khan, an infectious-disease physician and professor in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine, founded BlueDot in 2013—but there was a decade of academic research behind launch day. “The global landscape of infectious diseases is changing in a number of key ways,” he says. “We’re seeing explosive outbreaks of diseases humanity has never encountered, and we’re also seeing changes in existing diseases due to factors like climate change.” Traditionally, it’s been up to governments to track and disseminate information about new and changing disease, but Khan contends we have evidence to suggest they can’t do it alone—from transparency and other political issues to lagging uptake of new technology. Khan created BlueDot to fix that problem and democratize infectious-disease intelligence.

BlueDot tracks and forecasts outbreaks using a combination of data analytics and human intelligence. Basically, AI finds the needle in the haystack, and humans with deep subject-matter expertise take the analysis further. If you’re wondering whether the system predicted COVID-19, the answer is yes. The AI system picked up an unusual respiratory illness in Hubei province in late 2019, about a week ahead of announcements from the WHO and CDC. BlueDot informed its clients—including Taiwan CDC, which used BlueDot to make its early decision to intercept travellers from Hubei. Hao-Yuan Cheng, of the Epidemic Intelligence Center in Taiwan, has credited the tech with helping inform the country’s early and highly effective response.

BlueDot’s first six years of growth were down to bootstrapping—Khan and his team had a strong sense that epidemics and pandemics were a growing problem, but the rest of the world didn’t clue in until early 2020. “COVID was the great awakening,” says Khan. “Before that, there was a conceptual understanding of the importance of preparing for disruptive epidemics and pandemics, but people hadn’t fully grasped what that meant in real terms. COVID changed all that and definitely gave us a boost.” So did a $7-million financing late in 2019 that propelled BlueDot out of quasi-academia into scalable business. It’s now a subscription-based product with clients across the public and private sectors, from governments to airlines to pharmaceutical makers.

Khan wants to further penetrate the private sector, with a focus on pharma and other life sciences. “The opportunity is very exciting,” he says, “because it’s a strategic part of what we’re trying to accomplish—to empower different segments of society to communicate and know exactly how to do their part.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Quill is a full-service production agency that creates branded podcasts founded by Fatima Zaida.ALEX LYSAKOWSKI/The Globe and Mail

Quill | Toronto

3-year growth: +1,104

In her former life, Fatima Zaidi was the head of sales for a marketing agency. Some of her clients were interested in launching podcasts, and while there was no lack of freelancers to hire for various parts of the production process, there wasn’t a one-stop shop. Zaidi saw a gap in the market for a full-service production agency that could create branded podcasts, so she bootstrapped one with $10,000 of her own money.

Today, Quill makes branded podcasts for Fortune 500 and 1000 companies, all the way from ideation through execution. But part of what differentiates the company, besides being one of the first on the branded podcasting scene, is that it doesn’t stop when a project hits the airwaves—its suite of services includes audience growth. “With us, your show doesn’t stand alone while you struggle to build an audience for it,” says Zaidi.

Quill launched right before the pandemic, which was fortuitous timing, since the medium exploded in lockstep with stay-at-home orders as many of us kept ourselves (relatively) sane listening to podcasts and pacing around the house. But Zaidi puts the company’s success down in large part to its innovative hosting platform.

When the firm launched, Zaidi realized she had some convincing to do when it came to justifying new podcast production budgets. It was still a relatively new medium, and large companies needed deeper analytics than download and listener numbers to loosen their pursestrings. In 2022, Quill launched CoHost, the world’s first hosting platform catering to companies that podcast. It was a product of necessity, funded entirely by the agency—and Quill itself was the platform’s first user. With CoHost, the data suddenly got a lot more granular, showcasing stats like age, gender, occupation and social media habits of podcast listeners so clients could prioritize their marketing efforts accordingly.

“CoHost is the first production platform built by a production agency. We were the case study, we needed the product, and when it worked for us, we knew it would work for others,” says Zaidi. When some of her competitors in the production space reached out to use the platform, Quill could have restricted its use to their clients and established a monopoly—but chose to go the product route, opening CoHost to the public via subscription model.

Next year, Zaidi wants to hit $5 million in agency revenue and 100% revenue growth in CoHost. It’s an aggressive target, and Quill’s clients are not immune from feeling the economic squeeze, but she’s hopeful that podcasting is a strong enough medium to attract plenty of new business. We’d call that solid ROI for an initial investment of $10,000.

Open this photo in gallery:

Alex Lysakowski/The Globe and Mail

Thigh Society | Toronto

3-year growth: +905%

It was the first hot day of summer 2008, and Marnie Consky was 10 minutes into a lunchtime walk when she started to feel it: the dreaded thigh chafe. She waddled (her words) into a drugstore for baby powder, and while it worked as an emergency stopgap, it was messy. The incident became Thigh Society’s founding “Isn’t there a better way?” moment.

Consky spent the next few months looking for long-legged women’s underwear that wasn’t shapewear—breathable, lightweight, seamless and moisture-wicking rather than constricting. From lingerie boutiques to the internet, Consky couldn’t find anything to fill the bill, besides a few cotton bloomers from plus-size brands. “I thought, This isn’t okay. Thigh chafing is a sweat issue, not exclusively a problem for plus-sized women,” she says. “People told me no one would buy my product—they thought it was unbelievable that women would forego shapewear for the sake of comfort. But I knew I wasn’t tugging on shapewear in 30-degree heat under a maxi dress.” Consky quit her government job and spent the next six months learning everything she could about garment manufacturing and e-commerce.

In June 2009, she released a small run of her first pair of shorts, with a personal investment of $8,000. For the next seven years, sales grew year-over-year, in part thanks to the influence of body-positive bloggers (this being the pre-Instagram influencer era). In the meantime, she went back to work as a career coach at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Consky reinvested all her profits into the business, and in 2016 she decided to go full time with Thigh Society. She’s risk-averse, and decided early on she wouldn’t go the typical startup route: borrowing lots of money, hiring junior employees and training them along the way. Instead, she drew on her consulting background (she used to work at Accenture) to hire freelance experts wherever possible and slowly grew the team.

Today, Thigh Society leads a category of products it invented. Consky initially intended the product as an anti-chafe protector on hot days, but her customers have discovered countless uses for the sweat-controlling garment: managing hot flashes during menopause, tucking insulin monitors into the handy pocket, or just as something comfortable to wear during a Zoom meeting—below camera level, of course.

Open this photo in gallery:

RVEzy co-founder and CEO Michael McNaugh and Will Thompson for online RV short term rentals.ALEX LYSAKOWSKI/The Globe and Mail

RVEZY | Ottawa

3-year growth: +286%

RVezy co-founder and CEO Michael McNaught spent 12 years as a police officer in Edmonton and Ottawa, but he always had an entrepreneurial bent. In 2015, he bought a motorhome at auction for $16,000. He planned to flip it and make a quick buck but decided to take his family out on a few summer vacations first, and rent it while he wasn’t using it. “I made $15,000 in one summer,” he says. “I was blown away. I couldn’t believe the demand.”

He talked to his friend Will Thompson about buying a small fleet of RVs and turning them into a rental business but put the idea aside. Then, McNaught was injured during an arrest, and he took four months of rehab time to focus on his idea, building a barebones website and establishing a presence at RV shows and festivals. The idea evolved—what if they built a way for other RV owners to rent out their vehicles, too?

There was a hitch: a lack of suitable insurance products. McNaught and Thompson weren’t the first to pitch an Airbnb for RVs, but they were the first to approach insurers with an existing website and list of potential clients. “We didn’t wait to have a perfectly polished product before taking this to the insurance industry, but we did have enough evidence to demonstrate a gap in the market,” says McNaught.

In 2017, they launched as Canada’s first insurance-backed, peer-to-peer RV rental website. Later that year, they got a major capital injection after a Dragons’ Den pitch landed them a deal with Michele Romanow. In 2020, they entered the U.S., where the year-round camper market helped stabilize revenues. COVID-19 initially stalled their launch but turned into a net benefit, since RVs became a safer way to travel.

RVezy projects it’ll end the year with north of $50 million in top-line revenue. “What makes us different is that we’re not just two opportunistic entrepreneurs,” says Thompson. “We are RVers and outdoor enthusiasts ourselves. That passion and experience has a big influence on how we approach our product.”

Open this photo in gallery:

East Side Games of Vancouver caters to mobile gamers.ALEX LYSAKOWSKI/The Globe and Mail

East Side Games Vancouver

3-year growth: +212%

The word “gamer” might bring to mind a homemade PC rig complete with a headset and customized keyboard, but when Josh Nilson started East Side Games Group, he bet on the idea that if you have a phone, you’re probably a gamer, too. “It’s not just people with consoles—we wanted to make casual games accessible to people who wouldn’t necessarily identify as gamers,” says East Side’s CEO. Of course, there’s a plethora of mobile games out there, but the company’s offerings rely on the synergistic relationship between gaming and cult-status content. Initially, the firm made games for Facebook but moved gradually into the mobile realm around 2014—about the time Google and Apple’s third-party game hosting took off.

Partnering with the owners of valuable intellectual property like The Office, Archer and Trailer Park Boys, Nilson’s team centres gameplay around stories and tropes that would delight fans of a particular show or movie. The content lends the games instant recognizability; meanwhile, the value proposition for IP owners is players’ continued enmeshment with a given universe. The games are free to play; the revenue comes from ads or in-game purchases.

And because the games are designed to “idle” or progress while you’re not playing, and won’t punish you if your attention is suddenly called elsewhere, they’re ideal for quick slices of engagement while you wait for a coffee or sit on the bus after work. “We only work with IPs we absolutely love. When you’re playing and you’re a fan, you’ll notice all these Easter eggs and be laughing throughout,” says Nilson. Narrative drives the experience, with challenges following storylines from the original content. “Let’s say with The Office, we want you to feel like you’re in the show. We have a lot of fun with that.”

Today, East Side is focusing on providing more content for regular players of existing games and breaking into new verticals. The company made its fortune catering to niche audiences, and Nilson believes that’s where East Side’s future lies. He doesn’t entirely rule out developing more traditional games, like first-person shooters—but really, how can a game get more thrilling than helping Jim, Dwight and the gang keep Dunder Mifflin afloat?

Open this photo in gallery:

Alex Lysakowski/The Globe and Mail

Mecademic | Montreal

3-year growth: +121%

Mecademic initially meant to anchor its tiny robots in the academic market, envisioning a future where every student’s desktop had a bot of its very own. When that market didn’t prove as robust as expected, the company pivoted to the industrial sector, which had a serious appetite for diminutive robots—the flagship Meca500 Robot Arm weighs just 4.6 kilograms and is roughly half the size of comparable options—with precise applications.

Mecademic’s initial target market had a big impact on its growth trajectory. Generally, industrial robots have bulky components and training-intensive operational specs. But Mecademic’s robot was designed to plug into regular wall outlets, and to be small and approachable enough for student use—with a much less intimidating price tag. That means everyone from watchmakers to medical-device manufacturers, plus giants like Apple, NASA and Facebook, saw the benefit of working them into their R&D.

Unlike most industrial robots, Mecademic’s don’t run on a proprietary programming language, making them far more flexible and easier to deploy. There’s a slight trade-off: They aren’t “smart”—that is, they can’t operate autonomously and need to be controlled by an external device. But for handling test samples in a lab or aligning parts inside a laser, that’s not an issue.

Since Mecademic is its own manufacturer and tester, its ability to rapidly produce prototypes and sizeable runs give it an edge relative to rivals who rely on outsourcing—especially in extreme conditions like pandemics. In September, it was set to launch the next-gen SCARA, a tiny pick-and-place robot optimized for packaging. The idea is to plant deeper roots in the industrial market with a slightly simpler, less expensive machine than the six-axis Meca500; in the past year, the firm doubled its sales team to grow its footprint. And in the next three years, it hopes SCARA and other products in the pipeline will help it hit $30 million in revenue.


Canada’s Top Growing Companies: You can grow your own way

Canada’s Top Growing Companies 2023: Meet 425 businesses that will give you expansion envy