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Tech Kings - Toronto Life Article

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Polar Mobile featured in the Toronto Life October 2010 Magazine.

Polar Mobile featured in the Toronto Life October 2010 Magazine.

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    Tech Kings - Toronto Life Article Tech Kings - Toronto Life Article Document Transcript

    • Why bother with a boring office job when you can share code at networking parties, design games for smartphones and sell your idea for a fortune? Meet the army of tech geniuses who are turning Toronto into Download the new Silicon Valley My By K atrina App Onstad PhOtOgraPhy By daniel ehrenwOrth
    • Peter KieltyKa and Jeff Brenner NuLayer makes Crowdreel, an app that collects and categorizes photos uploaded onto Twitter. Photos processed: 100 million. November 2010 toronto life 43
    • A 20-something dressed in jeans and a T-shirt enters a stern, early-20th-century brick build- ing near King and Yonge and gets on an elevator. He stands beside suits who spend their days plying commercial real estate and trading securities. The man-boy stops at the sixth floor and enters a cloud blue–coloured lobby, pulls a magnetic security card from the wallet in his jeans and swipes his way in. He removes his ear buds, drops his backpack at his desk and picks up a bagel in the kitchen, passing the room with the ping-pong and foosball tables and another room with the staff Xbox. Then he returns to his desk and becomes one face in a sea of young, so-nerdy-they’re-cool Michael Cera types, though many of these Michael Ceras are Asian, and a few are female. They sit at rows of computers organized by platform, like a really cliquey junior high lunchroom at the world’s smartest school: there’s the BlackBerry row. Android. IPhone. The room reverberates with chatter that sounds, to an outsider, like the kind of talk on a TV medical drama that makes no sense but communicates urgency through tone: “Fleshing out amar Varma and sundeeP madra Extreme Venture Partners has invested in 14 tech start-ups, including Xtreme Labs (makers of apps for Urbanspoon, dictionary.com and the NBA) and software developers J2Play and BumpTop. Staff: 250. $35 million for BumpTop, another Extreme start-up. BumpTop’s founder, a U of T graduate named Anand Agarawala, had a simple but brilliant idea: a touch-screen app for tablet computers that imitates a real-world desk. His program can make the usual 2-D desktop graphics appear amusingly 3-D; with your finger, you can arrange objects in piles and even pin them to walls. Extreme also runs Extreme University, a training program for young entrepreneurs who want to prove they have what it takes to execute a tech idea that will attract investors or get bought for millions. Three teams of two to four people are selected for each 12-week session. Extreme gives them each $5,000 in seed money, and in exchange the company owns a piece of the project. The students work next to seasoned veterans—many only in their 20s—and attend a speaker series of business world rock stars who drop by to share their insights. “Mike McDerment was here,” one young developer told me during my visit, sounding like a 12-year- old girl who had just met Justin Bieber. (McDerment is the CEO of a Toronto-based on-line billing company called FreshBooks the photo imaging…test for download…integrated platform…” with 1.6 million users.) Extreme Venture Partners is one of the most innovative com- One team in the training program is led by Shaharris Beh, a panies remaking Toronto as a high-tech epicentre. It’s a new kind bass-voiced 26-year-old former VJ from Malaysia. He’s working of hybrid business that houses both the investors and some of on an app called Sunrank that aggregates popular opinions: if you the tech companies in which they invest. The idea is to fund the desperately need to find out whom the masses determine to be talent, pass on the knowledge that will see them prosper, and history’s Coolest Rock Chick, you can find a top 10 list immediately, increase the chances of a huge payday. Two hundred and fifty based on the users’ opinions of Joan Jett. Beh got the idea when he people work here. Two years ago, there were 25. Two years from was watching the spread of iPhone fever. “I kept thinking, OK, now, the plan is to have 2,500. yeah, everyone knows what the number one phone is,” he told me, Extreme has had good fortune with the 14 companies it’s invested “but what’s the second most popular phone?” He’s devoted to in so far. The biggest in the current portfolio is Xtreme Labs, which Google’s Android and hates Apple. “I’d rather slit my wrists than builds apps for smartphones. Its apps for BlackBerry (10 million use something that hipsters buy to express their ‘quirky, unique downloads and counting) include NBA Game Time, where basket- identities and personalities,’ ” he says. ball fans feed on live scoring and video highlights; Urbanspoon, Another team is building an app and a Web site that designs which lists the best restaurant near where you’re standing; and the perfect date, offering advice on wine bars and relationships dictionary.com, the biggest word definition app out there. Another through your phone. “We used to be called cheapdateideas.ca, but investment, a company called J2Play, created a popular framework we’re rebranding,” says Will Lam, who is 28. With the air of an for multi-player games and was bought out by Electronic Arts last inventor pulling back the curtain to display his latest brainstorm, year for a rumoured $2 million. Google is said to have paid he says, expectantly, “It’s getdateideas.com now.” Lam left a full- 44 toronto life November 2010
    • JOsh daVey and daVe seniOr Burstn makes a program that enables smartphone users to instantly upload photos to social media sites and to follow the photo feed of friends. In the first month after its release, it was downloaded more than 1,000 times. Kunal guPta and michael russO Polar Mobile’s 40 staff develop apps for more than 150 companies, including Sports Illustrated, Time, CNN, CBS and the Food Network. Their apps have been downloaded six million times and counting. time position in the fraud investigations unit at BMO to perfect his Toronto, while Madra, who is 32, works out of Extreme’s office in app. One of his two partners, 30-year-old Matt Read, quit his job Palo Alto, building a bridge between these budding Toronto developing insurance rating software at the Markham company companies and potential venture capitalists and buyers in Cali- Camilion Solutions; the third partner, 27-year-old Irene Kuan, one fornia. (The two men, proudly frugal despite their recent suc- of the few women in the office, is a journal- cesses, crash on each other’s couches when ist on leave from the news agency Reuters, they travel.) making the leap from old media to new. they’Ve grOwn uP in the “Semiconductors cost tens of millions “Three years ago, we never would have to develop, but apps can be made for very left our jobs. It would have been completely shadOws Of the BilliOn- little,” says Varma. He wears white linen stupid,” says Read. “But now you see your pants and loafers, and speaks in a languid, friends out there taking risks, and you don’t want to get left behind.” dOllar cOnquests By the relaxed voice. “All you need to build an app is a computer and creativity.” “The whole city is enrolled in Entrepre- neurship 101,” Kuan adds. liKes Of thOse PuBescent In Toronto in the late ’90s, pre–tech crash, there were a handful of tech com- That enthusiasm, harnessed by the panies as revered as Extreme. Those right kind of audacious investors, has the faceBOOK fOunders. nO start-ups also had offices containing foos- potential to make many people very, very ball tables and gaming rooms, and manag- rich. But tech ventures have no guarantee wO nder t he y ’re qui t t ing ers who insisted that work wasn’t just of return, and Toronto is not known as a work, but an extension of one’s rec room. city of risk takers. Had the young people their day JOBs and BecOming Yet even then, the high-tech moniker was in this room been born 10 years earlier, more rightfully applied to Waterloo, home many of them would have gravitated toward tech entrePreneurs. gOOgle of RIM; Toronto’s techies mostly congre- jobs on Bay Street. Instead, they believe gated in consulting and marketing, help- our city’s long-delayed future as a high- was Just a few PeOPle in a ing other companies get big, but rarely tech hub has finally arrived. In universi- starting their own shops. When the money ties, think-tanks and private companies, garage 12 years agO. why disappeared at the turn of the century, and tucked away in their parents’ houses, the consultants were the first to go. After young developers are making this bet not nOt them? the crash, software developers went in- necessarily—or not only—because they house, retreating to banks and manufac- have dollar signs in their eyes, but because they have been living turers. No one spoke of foosball anymore. inside their own private tech boom their whole lives. Then, two years ago, Apple opened its on-line app store. At first, no one knew whether the public would pay money for apps. Now Amar Varma and Sundeep Madra, the founders of Extreme, met BlackBerry and Google’s Android have their own stores, too. An while working in Silicon Valley in the semiconductor industry. app can be anything—news, weather, GPS, goof-off game—and They returned to Toronto in 2007 because they saw a city of untapped there’s an appealing inborn democracy in the app world: anyone talent and a global hunger for a new, cheaper kind of tech. Varma, who can build one can submit it to Apple, where it’s reviewed and who is 34 years old, now spends roughly three weeks a month in then posted. Today, Apple displays more than 250,000 apps. Any- November 2010 toronto life 45
    • OliVer taBay, Jeff zaKrzewsKi, trOy huBman, ameet shah Five Mobile’s 40 staff develop custom software for such companies as Rogers, Disney and Sony Pictures. Their BlackBerry apps for The Score alone have been malgOsia and downloaded more than JOhn PhiliP green six million times. Learnhub is an international social networking site that helps students choose between school programs, prep for tests and plan careers. Users: 430,000. one who submits an app prays that theirs might follow the trajec- a day, seven days a week, is a gathering place for tech entrepreneurs. tory of something like Tap Tap Revenge, a Guitar Hero–like game And at an OCAD building at Richmond and Duncan, a big, sunny involving tapping and shaking the phone while avoiding falling office now houses four mobile start-ups in their own version of arrows. Made by a Palo Alto company called Tapulous, Tap Tap Extreme University. Smaller colleges are beginning to offer train- Revenge has been downloaded millions of times, contributing to ing in mobile development. MaRS, the tech innovation centre, was its more than $1 million in sales a month an early partner of Sysomos. Everyone is (split 70-30, with the 30 per cent going to inspired by Waterloo’s RIM, and many of Apple). This past summer, Disney bought the wired generatiOn isn’t the city’s young programmers have passed Tapulous for a figure said to be north of through the company’s doors. $20 million. The two Tapulous CEOs are now happily working for The Mouse’s maKing tOrOntO a tech The critical mass of talent is encouraging venture capital firms on both sides of the mobile gaming division. There are an estimated 200 mobile hOtBed Out Of ciVic Pride, border to sniff around the city. One of the most prominent is Bridgescale Partners, development companies in Toronto and a Silicon Valley–based fund with $160 mil- another 750 companies that are launching But Because they genuinely lion to invest. Since setting up a Toronto their own mobile divisions. Venture capi- office nine months ago, Bridgescale has talists and angel investors have begun dOn’t recOgnize BOrders. invested in three Toronto companies: jumping into the game. Part of this is a Rypple, Dayforce and BlueCat Networks. monkey-see, monkey-do phenomenon, or, silicOn Valley is less a Place “It’s low-hanging fruit up here,” says the more flatteringly, a halo effect: if investors Bridgescale partner Howard Gwin. The see an invention like BumpTop bringing t h a n a s tat e O f m i n d, s O young Toronto companies, he says, “have in $35 million, they want in on the next shown moxie, shown that they understand BumpTop. Last summer, a company called why n O t s tay i n a l i Va B l e that model, shown the ability to grow; now Sysomos, which makes software to ana- they just need leverage to get to maturity.” lyze conversations on social media, was cit y w i t h e x c e l l e n t B a r s In August, Bridgescale spearheaded a sold to the news service Marketwire for a $10-million investment in Dayforce, a work- reported $35 million. “These kinds of and rel at i V ely che aP re al force management software company that acquisitions loosen the purse strings,” has offices at Yonge and York Mills, as well says Varma, who spends much of his time estate? as in Georgia. pounding the pavement for capital. People in tech love to talk about “seed- Some of the world’s most respected tech ing the ecosystem.” In Silicon Valley, inves- schools are in or near Toronto, churning out talented programmers tors have been seeding for years: the guys who made millions in by the hundreds. The majority of Extreme’s interns and employees the early days of Google and PayPal continually sink their money come from the computer departments at Waterloo and U of T. back into start-ups. Toronto may finally be flourishing because Ryerson’s new Digital Media Zone at Dundas Square, open 24 hours a few pioneers are following their lead. For instance, the birth of 46 toronto life November 2010
    • nilesh Bansal Sysomos makes programs for corporate clients that Ken and garry setO analyze conversations Endloop created iMockups, on Facebook and Twitter. a program designed Bansal, with company for the iPad that helps co-founder Nick Koudas, developers make their own sold Sysomos to the news apps. It earned $100,000 service MarketWire last in the first four months summer for a reported after its release. $35 million. daVid stein and daniel deBOw Rypple is a Web-based program that integrates with smartphones and office e-mail to help managers monitor staff performance—they call it “coaching.” It’s a favourite of tech companies, such as browser maker Mozilla. a handful of Toronto’s present day tech companies can be traced movies they watch. They see the holes in the Internet—Why can’t to the sale in 2007 of a management software firm called Workbrain I easily find all the hockey photos on Twitter? Why can’t I play a for $227 million. Three years later, much of the capital from the game involving werewolves and tambourines and lassos?—and Workbrain sale is now spread across several new companies, includ- try to fill them. And they’ve grown up in the shadows of the on-line, ing Dayforce, Rypple and Versant. All are housed in the GTA and billion-dollar conquests by the likes of those pubescent Facebook buoyed by this shared experience of taking a company from noth- founders. No wonder they’re quitting their day jobs and becoming ing to the pinnacle, a level of expertise the city hasn’t seen before. tech entrepreneurs. Google was just a few people in a garage 12 Toronto’s attractiveness to start-ups is due in part to a govern- years ago. Why not them? ment tax credit called SR&ED (Scientific Research and Experi- The wired generation isn’t making Toronto a tech hotbed out of mental Development, pronounced “shred”) and to grants from a civic pride, but because they genuinely do not recognize the borders federal industrial research assistance program. In 2010 and 2011, between Toronto and anywhere else. Silicon Valley North, Silicon the program will hand out $90 million in stimulus dollars to small- Valley South—it doesn’t really matter when the entire world is and medium-size Ontario businesses. connected. Silicon Valley becomes less a place than a state of mind, These kinds of economic incentives stimulate new companies so in that case, why not stay in a livable city with excellent bars and may keep more established ones from leaving Toronto. Polar and relatively cheap real estate? The tech boom is part and parcel Mobile, one of the city’s fastest growing new companies, builds of what Richard Florida (and Jane Jacobs before him) has been apps and develops software for 150 clients in 10 countries, but saying about Toronto for years: the city is attractive because it’s a mostly in the U.S. (Time and CNN are two of its most prominent bastion of diversity, culturally and creatively. customers). Polar creates a product that barely existed when its Many of the tech start-ups have congregated in Liberty Vil- CEO, Kunal Gupta, was a first-year student at Waterloo in 2004 lage—with its mix of offices in renovated 19th-century factories, (he won’t reveal exactly how young he is, possibly to avoid freak- new condos and brunch restaurants—precisely for those reasons. ing out his blue chip clients), but is now in high demand. Earlier One company, NuLayer, was launched in 2007 by Jeff Brenner and this year, his company, which has 40 staff members, was dealing Peter Kieltyka, two university friends best known for Crowdreel, with a tidal wave of business, and briefly considered outsourcing an app that organizes Twitter photos. The owners of Twitter were its R&D to China or India. “We looked into it,” Gupta says, “but so impressed by Crowdreel that they tried, unsuccessfully, to between the talent that’s here and the tax credits, we realized it persuade Kieltyka and Brenner to move to California to work for was cheaper to do it in Toronto.” them. “We love Twitter, but we just couldn’t do it,” says Brenner. “We see ourselves as artists—the goal is to write our own products.” The new generation of techies was born suckling the computer Kieltyka adds, “We don’t want to work for other people. It’s the teat. They’ve spent a lifetime in a constant state of connection and difference between playing weddings and writing your own songs.” conversation, ever since they could click a mouse (mice! How 2000!). This fall, after landing the contract to develop an app for the Toronto Familiarity has made them fearless; computers and mobile devices Star, NuLayer and its staff of eight moved out of their $1,700-a- are simply in service to their endless conversation. They jailbreak month shared office in Liberty Village into a new, bigger, solo space their iPhones to add the apps that Apple doesn’t want them to add. around the block, complete with wood beams, big windows and They download all the music they listen to, books they read and an all-whiteboard think-tank room. November 2010 toronto life 47
    • anand agarawala BumpTop produces a touch-screen program for tablet computers that imitates a real-world desk. Before Agarawala sold the company to Google for a reported $35 million, BumpTop had been downloaded over a million times. anthOny nOVac and suhail mirza Spreed makes a program that tailors newspaper content for smartphones. Its Globe and Mail app reports 16 million page views a month. All this youthful vigour can be comical to those a mere 10 years Extreme’s lawyers, lent the company space at its offices at the top older. Farhan Thawar, a 36-year-old VP and engineer at Xtreme of the Scotia Plaza tower. The graduates put on suits and skirts and Labs who runs the Extreme University program, recalls that dur- nibbled at tables of catered food. The city twinkled as twilight fell ing the Olympics, the staff was working on a Web site called across the floor-to-ceiling windows all around. They were told Athletes in Motion, posting films directed by famous actors. One there would be 100 potential angel investors there with their was by the former Beverly Hills 90210 hunk Jason Priestley. “I stood chequebooks. Be ready. up and said, ‘Who in this room knows Jason Priestley?’ And not Thawar pointed out to his students some of the significant play- one of them did. They just looked at me.” Priestley is as relevant ers in the crowd: JLA Ventures, RBC Ventures, Josh Sookman of as a cave drawing to these people, a few of whom were born in 1990. the BlackBerry Partners Fund, Scott Pelton of GrowthWorks, As if man has truly merged with machine in some kind of Video- investors in BumpTop. drome present, their real-life language is often on-line shorthand. One by one, each team went up onstage and demonstrated its “I’ll be talking to them, and someone will say ‘FML,’ ” says Thawar, technologies in real time on a computer. Chris Ye, a 23-year-old, “but you probably can’t print that.” and Mark Lampert, who is 28, unveiled the apps that they had On any given night in the city, there is probably a gathering of finessed over the summer. They were confident, almost cocky: after young developers in pubs like The Pilot in Yorkville, or any Firkin- all, they already had 100,000 active paying users. related watering hole. They gather over beer and talk program- The night of the presentation, wallets didn’t open for Ye and ming code at DemoCamp, Mobile Monday and GenYTO—net- Lampert, though in the weeks following, there were some calls working nights organized by local entrepreneurs and tech and meetings. Eventually, Extreme offered $250,000, and they activists and announced through Twitter. Some of these evenings chose to go with them. They thought that Varma and Madra best are about connecting generic small businesses (Sprout Up is one), understood their vision for the company, which contains the con- but many are more niche—code bugs are solved and programming tradiction of wanting to grow “by magnitude” while following the information exchanged. Every one of NuLayer’s employees was adage “We don’t make games to make money. We make money so found at a networking event. that we can make more games.” (To date, the three groups who Kunal Gupta, the young CEO of Polar Mobile, has watched the graduated from last year’s program have collectively raised $1.5 gatherings evolve. “It’s a sign of maturity. They’re splitting up by million in capital.) platform. There was a BlackBerry developers meeting last night, In the Extreme offices, Ye shows me one of the games he devel- and iPhone developers meet next week. This is something you oped for his iPhone. It’s a kind of retro cartoon role-playing game didn’t see a few years ago.” called Villains. What makes his and Lampert’s games unique is The result of this grassroots pioneering is that the world is that they’re ubiquitous in the mobile world, available across four now seeking Toronto talent in Toronto rather than luring it away platforms: Facebook, iPhone, Android and the Web, through from here. Polar Mobile just announced its Toronto offices will Facebook Connect. Almost no other gaming companies are blan- be making apps for several Asian newspapers. Start-ups in India keting in this way—not yet. and the U.S. are applying to Extreme University. At Xtreme Labs, Ye’s avatar in the game is a busty woman, the kind you’d see Thawar is preparing American visas for two developers, adding spray painted on the side of a van, named Superhugebrother. “Over to two other recent American hires. “We’re seeing reverse brain the past few days, all these people have attacked me, and I retali- drain,” he says. ated”—he taps the phone—“It’s text based, so there are statistics involved”—tap, tap—“Last week, Villains was ranked 13th most The finale of the 12-week Extreme University program is a Drag- downloaded app in the U.S.” ons’ Den–style event where the students present the results of their Ye looks up and offers his phone. On the little rectangular screen, work to a room of potential investors. Last year, Cassels Brock, large cartoon letters read “KABOOM! You won the battle!” ∫ 48 toronto life November 2010