We build champions – Meet the AC grads winning awards and creating the future

Jackie Gill - December 1, 2020 Ecopia AI, Arylla and Intellijoint Surgical are just three examples of Accelerator Centre grads raking in awards this year

Ecopia AI is on a mission to digitize the world by leveraging AI to convert high-resolution images into commercial-grade digital maps.

Intellijoint Surgical helps improve quality of life for patients undergoing total hip and knee replacement surgery by providing surgeons with effective, easy-to-use technology.

Arylla fights fashion fraud via an invisible ink that uses nanotechnology 1/10,000 the size of a human hair.

What do these three businesses have in common? They’re the Accelerator Centre alumni. They’re growing quickly. And this year, they’re being recognized as some of Canada’s most innovative companies.

“Our grads come out ahead because they have incredible ideas and they work hard to bring those ideas to life,” says John Stevens, interim CEO and vice-president of strategy and external relations at the Accelerator Centre.

John Stevens, interim CEO and vice-president of strategy and external relations at the Accelerator Centre, says the AC’s success is tied with its grads’ success.

This year, Ecopia and Intellijoint join the Globe and Mail’s top growing companies list and Deloitte’s Technology Fast 50 program. Ecopia also landed on Deloitte’s North American Technology Fast 500 list, the INSURTECH100 list and was named a CIX Top 10 Growth inductee. Arylla, too, made its debut at CIX as one of their Top 20 Early inductees.

These awards are a meaningful signal that they’re moving their businesses in the right direction; and for John, seeing so many grads find success signals that the AC is moving in the right direction, too.

“It’s validation for what we’re doing. It proves that we’re running the right program and supporting the companies in the right way,” he says. “It underscores what we know – but proves it elsewhere – that our alumni represent some of the biggest names in tech, not just in Waterloo but across the country.”

Here’s how far these companies have come since they started, where they’re going next, and how their time at the AC has helped them get there.

READ: How does the Accelerator Centre builds world-famous startups?

Mapping the world with Ecopia

Imagine you’re testing an autonomous car and you need to capture all the signage and geometry your vehicle will need to orient itself on the road. Or you’re an insurance company that needs to know how close a building is to an adjacent flood plain so you can calculate your risk and offer a competitive price. Or you’re a government in a developing country that needs to map buildings for an upcoming census.

Emily Jackson, vice-president of communications with Ecopia, says the Accelerator Centre gave her company a strong foundation.

“Rather than sending somebody out into the field to collect and do that analysis one street at a time, we’re able to do it in one fell swoop and provide that data,” says Emily Jackson, vice-president of communications with Ecopia.

Ecopia’s journey started in 2013, stemming from the PhD research of co-founder and CEO Yuanming Shu in geomatics and geospatial imagery at the University of Waterloo. Since then, they’ve provided high-definition vector mapping solutions to customers in organizations ranging from telecommunications to insurance, government and even non-governmental organizations, across more than 100 countries, using their proprietary AI algorithms and high-resolution data captured from aerial, street view and drone imagery.  

Their strong start was thanks, in part, to the Accelerator Centre, which gave the company a solid foundation early on, from sales and finance to marketing and HR, she adds.

And, as a business with global aspirations from the onset, advice from mentors who could help them brainstorm became an invaluable asset. “Having access to an advisory team that can help with challenging conversations and challenging issues that you navigate of course at the beginning of a business, especially a business that is so global in focus, was one of the biggest assets,” Emily says.

“Having access to an advisory team that can help with challenging conversations and challenging issues.”

– Emily Jackson, vice-president of communications with Ecopia

As for what’s next, “we have aggressive plans for continued international expansion and product-line growth,” she says. “We are always setting our sights to push the technical envelope further, so you’ll see new products, new solutions, new layers hit the market – there is so much opportunity in this space.”

READ: Why Waterloo – and the AC – are hubs for AI leadership

Moving forward with Intellijoint

Andre Hladio, co-founder and CTO of Intellijoint, describes a recent opportunity to shadow an orthopedic surgeon in Chicago as “eye-opening.” Not because he witnessed any surgeries; it was the doctor’s clinic day and he witnessed the struggles his patients faced every day.

“[There were] patients who were young and maybe wanted to have families but were concerned about their mobility. I remember one woman with rheumatoid arthritis who just broke down and cried because of the pain that she was in,” he remembers. “We can easily take the ability to move for granted… But when our mobility is challenged, it really hurts our quality of life.”

Andre Hladio, co-founder and CTO of Intellijoint, remembers looking up to other Accelerator Centre successes while his business was in its early days.

Intellijoint is the company behind Intellijoint HIP® and Intellijoint KNEE™. Think of their products like a smart sensor system backed with purpose-built software that surgeons use in the operating room during total hip and knee replacement surgery that precisely measures the positioning of bones and instruments.

The idea came from the father of co-founder and CEO Armen Bakirtzian. As an orthopedic surgeon who sometimes had challenges aligning components during surgery, he challenged his son to come up with a solution. That became Bakirtzian’s fourth-year design project in the University of Waterloo’s mechatronics program.

They garnered enough interest in the project to keep it going during evenings and weekends, and even won a pitch competition through Ontario Centres of Excellence. But in their early days, the team of engineers didn’t know how to start or scale. That’s why they sought help from the Accelerator Centre.

“There was a well-rounded mix of structured programming, lots of opportunities for informal interactions and opportunities to bring in external advisors,” he remembers. “One of the benefits is also the community. I remember there were companies that we would look up to, and then once we got there ourselves, we took to heart that we wanted to help out companies who would follow in our footsteps.”

“We took to heart that we wanted to help out companies who would follow in our footsteps.”

– Andre Hladio, co-founder and CTO of Intellijoint

Since graduating, they’ve released their knee product and are paying their success forward to startups embarking on a similar path by launching the Medical Innovation Xchange, a medtech hub where startups can receive tailored mentorship from experts that specialize in the medical space.

As Hladio puts it, “I think this is a bit of a testament to our experience at the Accelerator Center.”

Getting fashion smart with Arylla

What if your jacket could tell you whether it was a fake? What if your shoes could share where they’ve been? And what if it were as easy as scanning a label with the apps you already have on your phone?

“For the longest time, there really hasn’t been a great solution to IoT for apparel, mostly because other technologies are mainly rooted in semiconductor chips that you would have to embed in the clothes,” says Perry Everett, CEO and co-founder of Arylla. But with their solution, there’s no chip required – just a bit of ink, imperceptible to the human eye but detectable on a smartphone camera. Simply use that ink to print a code onto a clothing label at the manufacturer level, and customs agents, retail partners and even second-hand sellers can easily verify and trace those products at low cost.

Perry Everett, CEO and co-founder of Arylla, says making the CIX Top 20 Growth list is a long-sought-after accomplishment.

Perry and his partners built the technology during their time at the University of Waterloo’s nanotechnology program. They found lots of potential applications of their technology, from pharmaceuticals to automotive parts, but fashion brands had the greatest appetite of all the markets they investigated.

The funding provided by the Accelerator Centre’s AC JumpStart Program – and opportunities to connect with other quality investors – caught the young company’s attention, but they were pleasantly surprised by all the support they received. “We found the mentors and advisors to be helpful, especially as a tech team that was building a business,” Perry says. “You don’t really know what you don’t know until you have like a seasoned sales executive tell you.”

Their time at the AC also helped them access lab space through its partnership with Velocity. “Those resources were significant because someone just graduating could not get access to that kind of lab space unless they were a professor or they had hundreds of thousands of dollars to invest.”

“You don’t really know what you don’t know until you have like a seasoned sales executive tell you.”

– Perry Everett, CEO and co-founder of Arylla

Their recent induction onto the CIX Top 20 Growth list is particularly exciting for the team, but it’s not their only accomplishment. They received the Fashion Innovation Award in Lugano, Switzerland and recognition as an LVMH Innovation Award top 30 startups among others. They’re also currently part of the Y Combinator program.

“I think that the AC helped us build a really strong foundation and helped infuse that first sense of business acumen,” Perry adds.

READ: Sales? Not a dirty words, says AC mentor Kevin Hood

Building champions every year

In a way, this year is like many others for the AC.

“It’s very exciting: A couple of times a year, we get a wave of incredible recognition for our clients and grads,” says John. “Sometimes they’re the same companies that continue to thrive. Other times, it’s new companies that are scaling and starting to be recognized … There’s never an end to the pipeline of good news.”

That kind of success comes from a program that’s focused on one thing: helping businesses scale, he says. Whether it’s advising on intellectual property, validating the best markets or building an effective sales process, the AC aims to help its clients do things right, right from the beginning – not fix things years down the road when they become problems.

“It’s the clients that are driving their own success, and our role is to be there to help along the way.”

-John Stevens, interim CEO and vice-president of strategy and external relations at the Accelerator Centre

And support doesn’t stop once companies graduate. “Right now, we have postgraduate program that allows our companies to continue to tap into that mentor network whenever they hit a bit of a bump in the road,” he says. They also offer programming more informally through touchpoints and fireside chats designed to share insights within their peer-to-peer mentor network.

That support is important, John says. It’s just part of the story as companies move out of the AC and continue to grow. “The ability to scale and support rapid growth is built into our program. Once startups leave the AC, we continue to support them however we can. All of the credit goes to the entrepreneurs who are taking the risk,” he says. “It’s the clients that are driving their own success, and our role is to be there to help along the way.”

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