Jason Field, BrainStation’s Founder and CEO, spoke to hosts Rob Hayes and Tom Creighton about the development of Synapse, the world's first data-driven student learning platform.
BrainStation has now been part of the Toronto tech community for seven years, and in that time, the city has grown into a legitimate tech hub with global aspirations – one only has to look at the shortlist for Amazon HQ2 for some compelling evidence.
But how did it get here? To appreciate just how far Toronto has come, we’ve taken a (not so brief) look back at some of the most important developments over the last seven years.
2012 – Building Something
Mike McDerment, the CEO and co-founder of FreshBooks, a Toronto-based online accounting company, said that for Canadian tech companies, 2012 had been “the best year ever, absolutely phenomenal.”
According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, Toronto led the Western world in high-rise construction, with 15 skyscraper projects, and more to come – some featuring an ambition that had previously eluded Toronto. In October, David Mirvish and architect Frank Gehry announced three 80-storey condo towers that would be like “sculptures for people.”
A large portion of the city’s development projects were clustering around King and Spadina, which was also seeing new co-working spaces and start-up incubators, including Driven and Garrison Health Technology Ventures.
Elsewhere, The Rotman School of Management launched Creative Destruction, a seed-stage program that provides mentorship; capital; advice on technology roadmaps; and business development support.
Similarly, Hacking Health hosted its first hackathons in 2012. The organization, which sought to increase collaboration between healthcare professionals and technology creators, had an accelerator program that offered up to $50,000 in funding.
The Investment Accelerator Fund (IAF), meanwhile, awarded funding to 12 Ontario companies that year, with eight based in Toronto. The IAF, which is funded by the Government of Ontario, provides up to $500k in seed funding to qualified emerging companies.
On the funding front, WattPad – an online community of readers and writers – announced it had raised $17.3 million in USD in Series B funding. The funding round was led by Khosla Ventures of San Francisco, with partners Union Square Ventures of New York and Golden Venture Partners in Toronto.
The fact that two top-tier US funds were investing in a Canadian-based consumer company was unusual, but there was good reason for the funds’ optimism: At the time, Wattpad hosted over five million user-generated stories, and its users spent 1.7 billion minutes on the platform each month.
“We see tremendous opportunity in this space and believe that Wattpad is fundamentally changing the way readers and writers are connecting, sharing stories and building audiences,” said Khosla Ventures partner Andrew Chung.
On the acquisition front, Toronto-based Kobo (owned by Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten), announced the acquisition of Aquafadas, which “helps publishers produce digital content without knowing how to code.” The U.S.-based Ceridian Corp., meanwhile, acquired Dayforce Corp, a workforce management software firm for an undisclosed amount.
And perhaps most notably, California-based Oracle acquired the Toronto-based Eloqua, a marketing automation platform, for a whopping $871 million. Eloqua had gone public just a year earlier.
All of this was starting to be noticeable to the outside world – Compass’ Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking had Toronto at number 8 in 2012. At the same time, the inspiration for BrainStation took root.
“It was apparent that there was no such thing as a technology industry anymore. Every company was becoming a tech company, and it was clear that those with digital skills were going to be positioned to take advantage of the opportunities ahead,” Jason Field, BrainStation Founder and CEO told Techvibes.
“The problem was, there were no institutions that provided hands-on digital skills training that could keep up, so we wanted to build something that would let professionals realize their potential. This is where the idea for BrainStation came about.”
2013 – Agile Learning
BrainStation’s first steps into the world of digital skills training began with a workshop in a co-working space above The Hoxton. Demand was such, though, that BrainStation would host four more workshops within a month. This persuaded Field to recruit a team of web and mobile development instructors, and start developing the company’s own curriculum.
“The Minimum Viable Product approach was being used in software, but we wanted to apply it to learning. We called it “Agile Learning,” and with that, we ran workshops for non-technical professionals, making changes on the fly,” Field told Techvibes.
This enterprising spirit seemed to run through Toronto at the time; the city remained atop the rankings of North America’s high-rise construction, with an astounding 130 projects. Among them were plans for a redevelopment of the Toronto Star building. Pinnacle International had bought the site in 2012 and hired the renowned Toronto-based Hariri Pontarini Architects to prepare a concept for five new towers, the tallest of which would be 98 storeys.
This development was not happening in a vacuum. Toronto was now the fourth largest city in North America, and growing at an annual rate of 38,000 people. To handle this, City Council endorsed a new economic growth plan, which set targets to improve job quality, and harmonize city policies for business and investment.
“We have taken significant steps forward in 2011 and 2012, and we expect our new growth plan to increase the momentum,” said Councillor Michael Thompson, Chair of the City’s Economic Development Committee.
In April, Twitter announced it would be opening an office in Toronto, with Kirstine Stewart, the former head of CBC’s English services, leading its Canadian operations. At the time, her hiring had some suspecting a move into content creation. Officially, however, the focus was on building advertising and corporate partnerships.
Towards the end of the summer, 500px announced $8.8 million in Series A funding, led by Andreessen Horowitz and Harrison Metal. The photo sharing service intended to use the funding to triple their 25-person team, and start a premium online marketplace for stock photos.
The same month, Interaxon successfully raised $6,000,000 in a Series A funding. Interaxon developed the Muse, a headband that translates brainwaves into digital signals, allowing users to control things with their minds. This sci-fi-esque product had already won over crowdfunding site indiegogo, where it raised $287,677. Now it was being backed by Horizon Ventures, OMERS Ventures, A-Grade Investments, ff Venture Capital, Felicis Ventures, and Bridge Builders Collaborative.
“We were drawn to InteraXon for their engaging applications, domain expertise, and thought leadership in their market space,” said George Babu, Director at OMERS Ventures.
This was not the only Toronto-based company getting attention. In November, Shopify acquired Jet Cooper, a user experience and design firm, for an undisclosed sum.
Two years earlier, Jet Cooper founders Satish Kanwar and Verne Ho launched the Design in Residence program with Montreal’s FounderFuel, Waterloo’s VeloCity, and Toronto’s MaRS Commons. The program provided early stage companies with user experience design mentorship. Now, they would be sharing their expertise with one of Canada’s fastest-growing companies.
“We could never find quite enough designers,” Tobias Lütke, Shopify’s Co-Founder and Chief Executive told the Financial Post, explaining how Jet Cooper would allow every e-commerce shop to look “like it was custom built by an expensive design firm.”
Around the same time, the Canadian Digital Media Network (CDMN) held their annual digital media forum in Toronto – the first time the conference had been in the city in its five-year history.
“Staging CDMN in downtown Toronto will…put us at the heart of Canada’s largest city. where there is a concentration of ‘digital natives’ who want to…influence the future of digital media,” said Kevin Tuer, CDMN Managing Director.
In December, Dr. Joshua Landy, Richard Penner, and Gregory Levey launched Figure 1, an online social networking service for healthcare professionals that has been dubbed “Instagram for Medicine.”
The company launched with $2 million (CDN) in seed money, with Rho Canada Ventures and Version One Ventures leading the investment. Despite criticism of “gross” and “gruesome” content, Figure 1 is now used by more than two million healthcare professionals.
2014 – A New Home
In 2014, BrainStation continued to develop part-time courses for working professionals, and demand surged, forcing the company to find new flex campuses across Toronto. This, however, was only temporary.
In November, Konrad Group acquired BrainStation, with the aim of accelerating growth and expansion.
“It instantly pushed us to the next level, allowing us to hire managerial, educational, and technical staff across North America,” Field said. The company also moved into Konrad Group’s national headquarters at 445 King Street West.
Right around the corner, Decentral opened a 5,500-square-foot innovation hub for “disruptive and decentralized technologies,” namely fintech, blockchain, and cryptocurrencies. Decentral was home to Canada’s first two-way Bitcoin ATM, and it organized the Bitcoin Expo 2014, which was, at the time, the biggest cryptocurrency event in Canada.
Fittingly, the Thiel Fellowship and the World Technology Award for 2014 was awarded to a Toronto native: Vitalik Buterin, the co-creator of Ethereum and Bitcoin Magazine. The 20-year-old, who received $100,000, beat applicants that included representatives from 44 countries and every US state.
2014 gave us the first-ever Toronto Tech Summit, which brought together some of the city’s most forward-thinking tech innovators. Toronto also hosted WEST, North America’s first Wearable Tech & Entertainment conference, which would soon be complemented by We Are Wearables (WWTO), a monthly meetup held at the MaRS Discovery District. Wearable tech also played a role on the runway, as it was featured prominently at the city’s first Startup Fashion Week.
On the startup front, The Founder Institute, the world’s largest startup accelerator with over 1,100 graduate companies, also announced the launch of its first chapter in Toronto.
“It is long overdue that we launch a chapter in Toronto, which is truly one of the best places in North America to launch a technology company,” said Adeo Ressi, Founder Institute CEO and Founder.
#paid, a platform that matches marketers with content creators, provided a case in point. Founded in 2014. The company joined the accelerator program at Ryerson DMZ, and ended up signing clients like Audi, Toyota, Microsoft, and Airbnb.
Elsewhere, Toronto-based Scribble Technologies Inc., announced the acquisition of content engineering platform CoveritLive. CoveritLive’s engineering team had already based out of Toronto, and could now be integrated with existing staff.
Meanwhile, DataWind Inc., the maker of UbiSlate tablet computers, raised $30 million through an initial public offering (IPO) on the Toronto Stock Exchange. DataWind was also named one of 2014’s 50 Smartest Companies in MIT Technology Review’s annual list of innovative tech companies.
Not to be outdone, Wattpad raised $46 million of Series C funding, led by OMERS Ventures, but also including August Capital, Raine Ventures, and Northleaf Venture Catalyst Fund.
CEO and founder Allen Lau told Techcrunch that the focus was on hiring in Toronto, which he felt was uniquely positioned to help the company’s international expansion. TechCrunch pointed out that “Toronto offers an extremely diverse and multilingual talent pool to draw from to make that happen.”
If focusing on Toronto might have once seemed like a sign of limited intent on the part of a growing company, this kind of thinking was on the way out. After all, the city continued to grow at an astounding rate, which some took to calling a kind of “Manhattanization.” It was hard to fault that moniker, particularly after a two-day span where city council approved 18 new buildings downtown, including three office towers. This worked out to 755 additional storeys, or 6,887 units, which were to be added to the 70,000 units already under construction across the city.
“Downtown Toronto is growing four times faster than the rest of the city and has a quarter of all of the office development in Canada,” said then Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat.
The funny thing was, there was more to come.
2015: A Breakthrough Year
2015 was the year of what many call the biggest moment for Toronto’s tech scene in recent memory: Shopify raised a whopping $131-million in its initial public offering on the New York and Toronto stock exchanges. The Ottawa- and Toronto-based company was the first tech IPO to debut in Toronto since DataWind’s deal the year before.
“With an IPO and a liquidity event, you have a new generation of angel investors, product managers, software developers, engineers, that have been brought up by that company that can then start promoting and fostering new ideas and concepts and businesses and the ecosystem in the city,” said Daniel Mulet, the associate director for the Creative Destruction Lab at the University of Toronto.
“With an IPO and a liquidity event, you have a new generation of angel investors, product managers, software developers, engineers, that have been brought up by that company that can then start promoting and fostering new ideas and concepts and businesses and the ecosystem in the city,” said Mulet, the associate director for the Creative Destruction Lab at the University of Toronto.
There were other highlights too, with social media giant Twitter moving into a Toronto office on King West. The office was a north-of-the-border headquarters the American company now calls a “destination for the biggest names and best talent in the country.”
2015 saw a big acquisition — mobile payments company Square acquired Toronto-based Kili Technology. Kili would remain in Toronto, and serve as the second Canadian office for Square (the first was in Waterloo).
The year, however, was marked by a number of upstarts. In all, seven Toronto-based companies made the year’s Canadian Innovation Exchange List of innovative tech companies: ThinkData Works, Synbiota, Statflo, Rubikloud, Q4 Web Systems, Plooto, and Aislelabs.
To keep this growth going, the city launched the Startup EcoSystem Strategy to establish Ontario’s capital as a global leader in business growth and set the “ambitious vision of making Toronto the startup capital of the world.”
“Toronto is a dynamic, global city that has cultivated an internationally recognized startup ecosystem,” reads the strategy report. “Ranking 8th worldwide, Toronto’s startup ecosystem is home to some of the most cutting-edge early-stage companies in the world.”
The city would soon also be home to The One, a proposed tower at the intersection of Yonge and Bloor Street, that once constructed, will be Canada’s tallest building (apart from the CN Tower). The project features 72 levels of apartments on top of an eight-level luxury shopping mall.
“This is for global retailers,” developer Sam Mizrahi told the Globe and Mail, “who haven’t been able to bring their vision to Toronto because the space they need doesn’t exist.”
BrainStation faced a similar problem in 2015. Just six months after first offering part-time courses in the Konrad Group offices, BrainStation was now bursting at the seams. The solution was to open its own downtown campus, a 20,000 square-foot space at 460 King Street West.
Originally a hotel in 1873, the heritage building had an interesting past, including stints as The Spadina Hotel and Global Backpackers Village hostel. To give it a new lease on life, BrainStation turned to Reflect Architecture and designers MAAST, who created bright, cutting-edge classrooms and event spaces, while still retaining the building’s character.
The building features a flex community space that houses Quantum Coffee (a sibling company to BrainStation in the Konrad Group), and over 50 industry events per month.
“All told, between Quantum Coffee patrons and BrainStation learners, tens of thousands of individuals enter our campuses on a monthly basis,” Field recently told Techvibes.
“We wanted to provide the very best possible learning experience, and this meant creating a space that people would love, which I think we achieved – it’s hard to get our students out of the classroom.”
2016: A Blossom State
By 2016, Toronto’s tech scene was in a “blossom state,” according to the Globe and Mail’s Shane Dingman.
“The Canadian unicorns – Shopify, Kik, Hootsuite and D2L – have satellite offices in Toronto, as do U.S. giants IBM, Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter,” he wrote. “But some of Toronto’s largest homegrown startup employers are not household names in the city. In a business community defined by Bay Street, even fast-growing tech companies such as FreshBooks, Wattpad and Influitive can find it hard to stand out.”
Despite the growing pains, the seeds being planted really began to sprout with the arrival of big players, and some notable investments and acquisitions.
In March 2016, Fortune published a big exclusive: Messaging startup Snapchat had agreed to acquire Bitstrips, the Toronto-based maker of “bitmojis” — which wound up leading to a more than $100 million purchase.
On the funding front, Vena Solutions, a cloud-based corporate performance management software provider, led the way, raising $30 million. Funding was led by Centana Growth Partners, a growth equity firm that specializes in high-growth financial services firms.
Chefs Plate, a subscription service that delivers recipes and fresh ingredients, announced $6 million in new funding. This round was led by Acton Capital Partners, although existing investors Emil Capital and BrandProject also participated.
FlashStock, which provides custom footage and photos for brands, raised $1.5 million in funding from angel investors. Up to that point, the startup – which counted 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies as clients – had already raised $3 million, with investment from Bill Campbell, former CEO of Citigroup and Operating Partner of Vedanta Capital, and Chris Burggraeve, former CMO of AB InBev.
Meanwhile, Bayer AG and Versant Ventures dedicated nearly $300 million to launching stem cell company BlueRock Therapeutics — which included an R&D centre in Toronto. The announce, and investment, represented one of the largest-ever series A financings for a biotech company.
The year was also marked by some headline-making arrivals. First, cloud-based collaboration company Slack announced plans to open a Toronto satellite office on John Street.
“We looked at a number of potential locations, but Toronto stood out for several reasons: it is home to a vibrant and diverse community of educated people, it has competitive business costs, and it’s a great place to live and work. We are excited to be part of this innovative community,” said Ali Rayl, director of customer experience at Slack.
General Motors of Canada Ltd., meanwhile, purchased a site on the eastern edge of downtown to establish a Canadian head office for its Cadillac division. The “Toronto GM Mobility Campus” will also serve as head office for its Maven car-sharing service, and act as a sales and service centre for electric vehicles and e-bikes.
Thomson Reuters, meanwhile, announced plans for a new technology centre in downtown Toronto, which would create 400 jobs to start, and up to 1,500 in the future.
All of this growth meant an increased demand for digital skills training. To meet this demand, BrainStation continued to develop new courses and curriculum, with over 500 hours of new digital skills content.
By that point, BrainStation had empowered over 25,000 people with new digital skills, including corporations like Telus, AOL, and PayPal.
2017: Transformative moments
When Waterfront Toronto announced that Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs had landed the bid to help develop a new waterfront community in 2017, it marked a transformative moment in the Toronto tech industry — not just because a Google-affiliated player came on the scene, but because the partnership will physically change the face of the city.
And that was just the most visible piece of an ongoing trend last year. Ridesharing app Lyft also announced Toronto would become its first international market, while Nissan’s upscale auto brand Infiniti chose to put down startup roots in Canada with a new accelerator. There was also a notable acquisition, with Shutterstock buying Toronto-based Flashstock for $65 million.
“We’ve seen many of the large players — Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, the global players — invest significantly in Toronto-based operations, opening up R&D centres,” said Sean Mullin, executive director of the Brookfield Institute for innovation and entrepreneurship at Ryerson University. “It’s not a one-off. It’s a pattern where large companies are increasingly seeing the need to invest in technology as a means of staying competitive [and] coming to Toronto.”
The transformation didn’t just come from outside; made-in-Canada initiatives also made waves in 2017, particularly in the realm of deep learning, with Forbes magazine stating that an AI revolution was underway and “happening in Canada.”
The Vector Institute at the University of Toronto was announced that year, with a goal of producing more deep learning grads than any other institution in the world — and backed by more than $180 million in funding from both the federal government and corporate investors.
“A new wave of deep learning technologies are being commoditized,” said Mulet.
The tech push came from the provincial and municipal governments as well, who jointly announced the launch of a grant program (the Starter Company Plus — Digital Main Street Program) to help small Toronto businesses adopt digital technologies. The program will provide main street businesses, located in any of Toronto’s 82 Business Improvement Areas, with grants ranging from $2,500 to $5,000.
“Working to ensure Toronto’s small business community is embracing the latest in technology in order to grow their businesses is one way we are supporting the health of Toronto’s neighbourhoods,” said Chris Rickett, manager of entrepreneurship services at the City of Toronto.
With this kind of digital transformation in full swing, BrainStation created a suite of corporate training options, welcoming employees and private sessions from companies like RBC, Indigo, LCBO, Google, and Canadian Tire, to name but a few.
2017 was also noteworthy for companies expanding, or moving to Toronto: Top Hat, which creates cloud-based teaching platforms, moved its head office downtown, while OneEleven, which helps commercialize startups, opened a space on Front Street. Waterloo-based company Sortable, an ad optimization platform, announced it was opening a satellite office in Toronto as well, while the aforementioned BlueRock Therapeutics expanded with a new R&D hub at MaRS Discovery District.
“The tech ecosystem in Toronto has grown incredibly over the past five to 10 years. For example, just here at Top Hat, we’ve raised almost $50 million from leading venture capital firms, and had to go on a massive hiring spree to keep up with the demand and the need for innovation in higher education,” said Mike Silagadze, Founder and CEO of Top Hat.
All of this culminated in Toronto being named North America’s fastest growing tech market by real estate research firm CBRE’s annual tech talent report. The city landed the top spot largely thanks to its rapidly growing employment base, which jumped by 22,500 tech jobs between 2015 and 2016, according to the firm.
Fittingly, in October, Toronto Global (a not-for-profit organization) submitted the Toronto region’s proposal for Amazon HQ2, which highlights the city’s talent pipeline, diverse labour force, quality of life, competitive business climate, and world-class companies (including Vector Institute, Thomson Reuters, Uber, General Motors, and more).
2018: Opening up the Possibilities
2018 has been an important year for BrainStation, and it’s only half over. In May, we launched Data Science Full-Time program, the first full-time data science diploma program of its kind in Canada. We’re also launching own learning platform in 2018. Dubbed “Synapse,” the platform was built in-house, and it allows students to attend live lectures, interact with classmates and instructors, complete lessons, and access additional training resources – from anywhere in the world.
“The power and versatility of our platform really opens up the possibilities. It’s another way for us to put the client at the center of the best possible learning experience,” Field said. BrainStation wasn’t the only one thinking big, though, as the last six years have culminated in a banner year for Toronto’s tech scene.
According to a new report by CBRE Group, Toronto added a 82,100 technology-related jobs between 2012 and 2017, which is more than any other North American city. In all, more than 240,000 workers now comprise Toronto’s tech talent pool, which is a more than 50 per cent increase since 2012. This makes Toronto the fourth-ranked tech talent market in North America in CBRE’s analysis, behind only the Bay Area, Seattle and Washington, D.C.
The city also made the top 10 on a ranking of global cities “that have the future-proofing capacity for longer-term success” and was deemed one of the world’s leading technology innovation hubs according to KPMG’s latest Global Innovation Report.
“There’s certainly been a feeling, and evidence, that the last couple of years we’ve reached somewhat of an inflection point in the Toronto tech scene, that a lot of good work over a couple of decades developing this capacity has really started to pay off,” said Mullin.
That energy is drawing industry movers and shakers to the city in droves, from platforms like Lyft’s carpooling service to notable events.
Collision Conference — one of North America’s largest startup conferences, which has never before left the United States — announced it would be making this city the host the next year, meaning Fortune 500 companies, change-making startup companies and top-tier speakers will all be touching down in Toronto.
#movethedial, an organization aiming to advance more women into leadership roles in tech, is also hosting their first-ever Global Summit in Toronto this November, while The Wing — a New York-based co-working and social space for women — announced the city would be its first expansion into Canada.
TouchBistro, an iPad POS built to streamline restaurant operations, announced that it had raised $72 million in Series D financing. The round was led by OMERS Ventures and JPMorgan Chase, with participation from Napier Park Financial Partners, Recruit Holdings Co, Ltd, BDC IT Venture Fund, and Relay Ventures. This round brought TouchBistro’s total funding to date $117 million (CAD).
Other local companies were bought by big names — the augmented reality beauty company ModiFace by L’Oreal, VPN company TunnelBear by McAfee, and 500px, by Visual China Group, a public image licensing company based in Beijing.
With so much happening, “it’s a bit of a perfect storm,” said Krista Jones, managing director of enterprise at MaRS Discovery District, who has spent the last decade experiencing Toronto’s tech growth.
It’s no surprise, then, that Toronto is the only non-U.S. city to make the short list for Amazon’s multi-billion dollar second headquarters.
“Whether the Amazon headquarters comes here or not,” said Mullin.
“It really says something that a world-leading company like Amazon is considering this the world location.”