In the face of the global chip shortage, Canada’s only lab and incubator for the development and commercialization of hardware and semiconductor solutions, ventureLAB Hardware Catalyst Initiative (HCI), has received $4.73 million in additional funding from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario) to expand its scope.
The funds will allow the lab to virtualize and expand its testing capabilities, extending its reach beyond Ontario and supporting innovators across the country.
“In 2019, this industry generated $210 billion of revenue. And today, in light of COVID-19 and the rapid digital transformation that the pandemic has prompted, we know that the sector is only going to grow, and it’s going to help us build a more resilient, a more sustainable, and a more digital economy,” said the Honourable Mary Ng, Minister of Small Business and Export Promotion and Member of Parliament for Markham–Thornhill during the funding announcement. “And to make this happen, and to support the Canadian businesses driving this innovation, we need a strong base of domestic semiconductor firms.”
HCI Lab opened in February 2020, kick-started by a $5 million investment from the Government of Canada, hosting its first cohort of innovators. Since then, the lab has doubled in size and acquired close to 25 international commercialization and manufacturing technology partners from the semiconductor space. These partners contribute multi-million dollars of in-kind, equipment, and expertise that levers up the investment that the Government of Canada has made.
New cohort announced
HCI Lab announced its second cohort of eight companies during the funding announcement. Minister Ng hosted a panel discussion with three of the cohort’s founders: Dr. Joseph Ma of Bionic-i, Brent Downey of Urban Stalk and Natalia Mykhaylova of WeavAir.
Downey noted that it’s all too easy for founders to be so wrapped up in their work’s technical components that they neglect the business side, and that’s where the mentors from HCI are beneficial.
“It’s really interesting to have the mentors from HCI come in and ground us, and look at the market fits, to look at the different investment opportunities and the networks that happen within those worlds as well,” he observed. “From a risk management perspective, as they have mentors that have worked in these spaces for so many years that really can advise us, to steer our designs and steer our innovations in the right directions, and really tailor them and target them to the right market. Places that otherwise would have taken us quite a lengthy time to go in iteratively, make those mistakes ourselves, and have to pivot several times. We’re almost avoiding those pitfalls as founders.”
“Having these experts on our team and advising us on how to think through that whole lifecycle of product development is really valuable. We are very much looking forward to going through the process,” she said.
Ma, whose company has already commercialized a product despite having to pivot after COVID-19 hit, noted the digitization of healthcare has greatly accelerated because of COVID-19. “Medicine is really ripe for a revolution, from both from the hardware side and the software side.”
He explained that the pandemic has accelerated the slow development of tools such as remote sensors for telehealth use.
“It’s fundamental because the hardware is fundamental for all software innovations,” he added. “So you have to have that out there.”
What about the first cohort?
Melissa Chee, president and chief executive officer of ventureLAB, reported during an interview that all eight members of the first cohort are still alive and well. However, several founders, such as Ma, have temporarily changed their focus to serve needs brought forth by the pandemic. Ma’s company Bionic-i Inc put aside its work on a surgically implantable device to augment vision and combat blindness to develop an AI-based autonomous disinfection device for clinical environments. It has since received a $200,000 grant from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Joule, and the Canadian Medical Association to accelerate the product’s commercialization.
“Because of the ventureLAB team, if we add up the numbers of chips that we have collectively actually shipped, it’s in the billions,” Chee said. “And so having that expertise of really being able to build this type of product at scale, in combination with the access to the tools and the manufacturing capabilities of the lab, I think is really what’s the differentiation piece that’s really reducing these companies’ times to market. Without HCI, a number of them would not have built their prototypes, it would have been too expensive for them to do it. And the founders have all said that.”
“ventureLAB, thank you. You’re leading the way,” Ng said. “You’re building up Canadian capacity, expertise and supply and preparing for the economy of the future.”
The Second Cohort
Braze Mobility– An affordable navigation solution for wheelchair users that automatically detects obstacles and provides intuitive audio, visual and vibration alerts to the wheelchair driver.
Enertics Inc.- Provides an early health monitoring, diagnostics and predictive maintenance solution of electrical assets.
Hyivy Health– Creates the first intelligent and holistic pelvic rehabilitation device for women experiencing symptoms from pelvic cancers and diseases.
Qoherent– Helps engineers harness machine learning and quantum computing power in the pursuit of intelligent radio technologies.
Scope Photonics– Builds tunable lenses that bring high-quality optical zoom to a compact form factor for use in smartphone cameras, depth sensors, microscopes and more.
SmartComm Technologies Inc.– Specializes in Wireless Baseband hardware IP and firmware for IoT.
Urban Stalk Inc.– Reduces food insecurity for at-risk and urban populations and the negative environmental impacts of agricultural activity.
WeavAir– Proactive end-to-end solution for air distribution systems that prevent the spread of contamination and infection while reducing operational and maintenance costs.