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Canada’s East Coast entrepreneurs aim for global growth

Leah Skerry, (Foreground) and Julia Rivard (Background) the Halifax Central Library on Monday July 27th, 2015.

Scott Munn/The Globe and Mail

Burgeoning tech companies are on the rise in Canada. Our occasional series explores how each locale nurtures its entrepreneurs, the challenges they face and the rising stars we're watching.

Eyeread chief operating officer Julia Rivard is accustomed to setting global ambitions.

The former Olympian, now Halifax-based entrepreneur, wants to teach the world's children to read and she approaches her goal in much the same way she earned her spot on Canada's national sprint canoe team at the 2000 Sydney Games.

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"When I was at the Olympics, I realized that no one was better than anyone else there," she says. "The ones who got on the podium were just more confident. That confidence piece is huge."

Since launching Eyeread in January, Ms. Rivard and her partner, Eyeread chief executive officer Leah Skerry, have been moving quickly, attracting investors and accolades to their company, which is pioneering the use of artificial intelligence to track children's eye patterns on computers and tablets and pinpoint specific reading challenges.

In the past few months, Ms. Rivard and Ms. Skerry have pitched investors across North America, including San Francisco, and this past spring became one of 200 companies vying for Elon Musk's $15-million (U.S.) Global Learning XPrize.

Ms. Rivard credits Atlantic Canada's close-knit business network with helping to launch Eyeread and for guiding its growth.

"I am one phone call away from [Nova Scotia seafood baron] John Risley or even [Nova Scotia Premier] Stephen McNeil. People want to help and they will – if you have the balls to reach out."

Growing up and out of Atlantic Canada is the only way to succeed in a global economy, says Rob Barbara, who, along with childhood friend Patrick Keefe, manages the $65-million (Canadian) Build Ventures, the region's largest early-stage venture fund.

"Companies that think regionally are not of interest to us. We have to be thinking globally."

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It isn't just the private sector that's thinking that way these days. Build Ventures was created in 2013 with an initial $32.4-million from the governments of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI to help early-stage companies in the region. "Governments realized that direct investment by government wasn't working so they put capital in the hands of private sector managers," says Mr. Barbara, who, like Mr. Keefe, is also invested in the fund. Build Ventures' current portfolio includes six startups from around the region, most notably Fredericton-based IntroHive, which earlier this month announced $7.3-million (U.S.) in series B financing.

"As an investor, you're always looking for opportunities to find undiscovered companies because that gives you a leg up on other investors," Mr. Barbara says. "We are here because we know we will discover great companies, and for other investors, Atlantic Canada is still largely undiscovered."

In addition to its portfolio of companies, Build Ventures also sponsors the region's network of tech hubs, such as Planet Hatch in Fredericton, Venn Garage in Moncton, Volta Startup House in Halifax and Startup NL in St. John's.

Startup NL co-founder Jason Janes says Atlantic Canada's success is predicated on the four provinces' technology and business networks deepening connections.

"We may have different tech hubs but the people within it must start thinking as one."

That is the mantra of Propel ICT, which runs Launch36, the region's largest startup accelerator program, which began life in Saint John, N.B., in 2003. Founded by former telecommunications executives Gerry Pond, Curtis Howe and Jeff White, the trio knew that to build successful high-performing companies in Atlantic Canada, entrepreneurs and mentors would need to be fiercely collaborative.

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In March, 2015, the Business Development Bank of Canada named Mr. Pond the first-ever BDC Entrepreneurship Champion for his leadership as both a mentor and angel investor. Technology news site Techvibes and accountancy KPMG had earlier recognized Mr. Pond as Canadian Angel of 2011 for his early investment in New Brunswick companies Radian6 and Q1 Labs, which were bought by and International Business Machines Corp., respectively, for a total of $1-billion.

The two deals brought an estimated $300-million into the region and helped to seed the latest round of startups.

Mr. Pond has long championed the combined power of Atlantic Canada's business network and today PropelICT draws on a network of close to 100 mentors and coaches who meet up with entrepreneurs in communities around the region to offer advice and to open doors.

Mr. Janes has felt the power of that network first hand. He and business partner Sarah Murphy are alumni of Launch36 via their wearable safety technology startup, Sentinel Alert.

"I see Atlantic Canada as an example for the rest of Canada and North America to follow," Mr. Janes says. "We have this key differential here because we have this large geographic distance. St. John's is far from Saint John. We have to think more about ways we can connect people through networks rather than a single physical space."

Cathy Simpson, chair of the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation, which funds early-stage startups and applied research activities in the province, agrees.

"There is no shortage of ideas or energy in our region but once they get started, how does the ecosystem come together to help them grow?" asks Ms. Simpson, who is also a vice-president of mid-sized information technology consultancy T4G.

Ms. Simpson says building international sales capacity is an acute need for local startups and a problem she and other IT leaders are trying to grapple with, including Mr. Pond, who in February, 2015, offered $500,000 (Canadian) to any university or other body in Atlantic Canada to establish an international sales program.

"The components to build large global players are here but I do think we have to work harder because of where we are," says Ms. Simpson, adding that while she and her colleagues in the tech sector have built export-focused companies that do little to no business in the region, they remain fiercely committed to working and living on the East Coast.

The mantra in Atlantic Canada is this: As long as you live here, you have a responsibility to make it better.

"For all of us, our business is outside the region but we do come together to help build it up," she says. "We really love working in our own backyard."

Five east-coast companies to watch


St. John's

A pioneer in producing software to create scripts, storyboards, schedules, budgets and cast and crew reports for media productions, such as film and theatre. It has about fourmillion users. In February, 2015, it raised $3.3-million.



Tracks children's eye patterns on screens and pinpoint specific reading challenges. Founded in 2015 by an alumnus of Dalhousie University's LaunchPad Accelerator, it is in the midst of a funding round.

Karma Gaming


Leading developer of online digital lottery games. Has a distribution agreement with global leader OpenBet Ltd. Raised $5-million in 2013; investors include the former president of Electronic Arts and former chief technology officer of Groupon.

Resson Aerospace


The company integrates large-scale, cloud-based data analytics with sensor fusion and robotic platforms for agricultural purposes. Raised $3-million in 2014 and counts McCain Foods as an early customer.

RT Tech Software


Internet of Things startup that can pinpoint when industrial systems use excess energy, and a second product that can identify the cause of downtime and improve manufacturing processes. Raised $3-million in a series A financing in February, 2015.

Lisa Hrabluk is a freelance journalist and founder of Wicked Ideas Media, a PropelICT alumnus.

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