We are wearables

We are wearables

Canada is ground zero for the smart-tech revolution. Here’s how a bunch of homegrown start-ups are changing the way we interact with technology

When Kitchener-based start-up Thalmic Labs opened its headquarters in a deteriorating, decades-old building across from a local bus station, it seemed an unlikely hot spot for tech innovation. “It used to be for off-track betting,” smiles Sameera Banduk, the marketing director for the two-year-old firm that has become a darling in cutting-edge tech circles. “It’s been turned over a lot in the past 40 years.”

A few renovations later, however, and the office is now all exposed beams and industrial chic – the perfect home base from which to launch the company’s invention, the Myo. An armband that looks like it could be a sleek, chunky bracelet and is lighter than the average stainless steel men’s watch, the Myo senses gestures, allowing its wearer to control computers, PowerPoint presentations and other devices with a wave of the hand or a wiggle of the fingers.

Thalmic Labs is just one of the growing group of players in Canada’s expanding wearable technology industry, a corridor stretching from Kitchener-Waterloo to Ottawa, and Toronto to Montreal. Many have raised $10-million to $15-million plus in their first few rounds of financing, and most have no plans to move stateside. “It’s always something people ask: ‘Are you going to move your office to San Francisco?’” says Banduk. “That just hasn’t been a focus. We’ve had someone move from San Francisco up here.”

When most people think of Canadian technology, they think of Nortel – a once-towering company that ran into some equally gigantic issues. Actually, Canada is a hotbed of innovation with many smaller start-ups leading the way in what’s currently the hottest sector in tech: wearable technology.

Wearables are gadgets worn on the body that can handle everything from reading emails and recording runs to tracking calories and calming the mind. They are one of the fastest growing areas in the mobile device space. Juniper Research estimates that retail revenue from the wearable tech market will skyrocket from $4.5-billion this year to $53.2-billion in 2019. Research firm Gartner predicts that by 2017, wearable devices will account for fully half of all app interactions, becoming a newly dominant platform for data exchange.

The theoretical uses for wearables are almost as endless as app-developers’ imaginations, and the products currently being invented by Canadian companies – heart rate programs, mind-soothing software, devices that can open door locks – represent a range of different ways to interact with the world and with people’s own bodies and minds. What many people in Canada and abroad don’t realize, though, is that this global market has evolved thanks, in large part, to a number of homegrown entrepreneurs.

Made in Canada

“It’s refreshing that people no longer ask about my mayor when I say I’m from Toronto. They say, ‘Oh, Toronto! Wearables!’”

Canadian companies Bionym, InteraXon, OMsignal, Kiwi Wearables, Mighty Cast, PUSH and Thalmic Labs have all been recognized as innovators in this space. Although it moved to Palo Alto in 2010, Waterloo-born start-up Pebble is largely responsible. It was one of the first companies to create a smartwatch, and why people are talking about wearables in the first place. Its device was one of 2013’s top five products in the fiercely competitive smartwatch market (alongside Samsung, Nike, Sony and Garmin), according to ON World, a smart technology-focused business research firm. Canadians aren’t just making waves in the start-up world either. Google Glass has a transplanted Canuck as its head of business operations – Chris O’Neill, who sits on the board of Tim Hortons and whose previous credits include Canadian Tire, his family’s retail business.

Canada is a far cry from San Francisco, where a single wearable incubator can contain 15 start-ups, yet firms from Ontario and Quebec are emerging as contenders. “It’s refreshing that people no longer ask about my mayor when I say I’m from Toronto. They say, ‘Oh, Toronto! Wearables!’” laughs InteraXon co-founder Ariel Garten, who has heard these kinds of comments while in Singapore and Shanghai. The accolades are well-founded. While people may turn their attention to more mainstream devices, such as the Apple Watch (expected spring 2015 release), in the coming months Canada’s companies will be revealing devices that do a lot more than open emails and Twitter messages on someone’s wrist.

InteraXon, for instance, has developed the brainwave-sensing Muse headband, a device that uses biofeedback to teach users how to calm and focus their thoughts. It’s shipped tens of thousands of units during the first few months it’s been on the market.

These products aren’t part of a niche fad – the Muse has been available at Indigo since August, and it hit Best Buy’s shelves in November. It also counts the likes of Ashton Kutcher and Reebok as fans. Thalmic Labs’ $199 Myo armband is being tested by renowned DJ Armin van Buuren, who uses it to tweak the lights and stage effects at his shows, and more than 10,000 developers have signed up for early versions of the device so they can build apps for it. Montreal firm OMsignal, inventor of intelligent garments that monitor biometric information such as heart rate and calories burned, is partnering with major clothing labels, including Ralph Lauren. The two companies launched an exclusive Polo Tech shirt during the U.S. Open in August that garnered both businesses big-time publicity.

The little country that could

As more people get wind of Canada’s contribution to this sector, the more people wonder how our country, which isn’t known for being a hotbed of innovation, has become a mecca for wearables. The answer has nothing to do with patriotic duty; these businesses are taking advantage of a near-perfect ecosystem, says Toronto’s Daniel Debow, senior vice-president of emerging technologies at tech giant Sales Force, and yet another Canadian who’s becoming a big player in the wearables space.

The evolution of Canada’s wearables sector starts with school. The founders of many of these start-ups carry advanced degrees from domestic universities with top-flight computer science, engineering and math departments, such as the University of Waterloo (Thalmic Labs, OMsignal) and the University of Toronto (Bionym, InteraXon.)

Then there’s the Steve Mann effect. University of Toronto is home to the inventor whom many call the “father of wearables.” In the early 1990s, the computer engineering professor built, tested and wore his inventions, such as the EyeTap, a minicomputer that’s been installed in prosthetic eyes and can record video. He taught and influenced students who ended up founding or joining today’s wearables firms. Mann himself is chief scientist at augmented reality glass company Meta, a firm co-founded with a former student. “I’ve always watched what [Mann’s] done,” says Karl Martin, CEO of Bionym, the Toronto firm that has designed the Nymi, something of a wearable ID card. This device gives its wearer continuous, authenticated access to all password-locked gadgets by measuring unique signatures found in the person’s unique cardiac rhythm. “He’s a true inventor,” says Martin. “The genius he brings is, he can actually build things he can wear every day.”

They’ve also got a major leg up thanks to several government innovation grants. Bionym’s Martin and IntraXon’s Garten each won the $25,000 award from the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) for innovation this past October. Wearables firms also credit grants, such as the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) tax incentive program, as crucial support. These research and development programs have been key to growing a tech space involving hardware – not just software – and, in some cases, medical, neurological and textile research. “It’s not something you can do in your basement,” says Stephane Marceau, CEO of OMsignal.

Being located in Quebec has been particularly conducive to OMsignal’s development. The province’s history as a centre of textile production has made it that much easier for the company to connect with fabric experts. Concordia University also has a unique Design and Computation Arts program, which is chaired by futuristic fabrics whiz Joanna Berzowska. OMsignal hired her to be its head of electronic textiles.

Blackberry’s big contribution

The success of these companies is also thanks, in large part, to another mammoth homegrown technology: BlackBerry. The decline of the mobile giant over the past two years left many expert personnel adrift, looking for places to land that wouldn’t force them to uproot. At the same time, brand-new firms such as Thalmic, InteraXon and Bionym were appearing on the horizon and were long on ideas and ambition, but short on much-needed talent. Wearables firms needed specialized personnel who understood software and hardware as well as the world of retail. That conveniently describes the skills and background of many BlackBerry employees. Those three wearables firms all hired ex- BlackBerry people, many who now hold senior positions.

“You can’t throw a stick at these wearable companies and not find an ex-BlackBerry employee,” says Debow. That helped alleviate the problem of Canada’s relatively small talent pool, a major reason that domestic start-ups end up moving stateside, says Banduk. The prospect of hiring a few ex-Blackberry staffers promised a ready-made injection of experience to companies that, in some cases, were only a year or two old with founders in their 20s and 30s.

There’s one more reason why Canada’s been a hotbed of wearable innovation: We have a large and active wearables community. Every month for the past year, roughly 350 industry members and gadget fans have come together at the popular We Are Wearables meet up, held at Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District. There, attendees watch companies demo new products and give presentations. They get a chance to try out the devices and then network over drinks and snacks. Most people are in their 20s and 30s, but the age range goes into the 70s. “The meet up is poised to expand into Chicago,” says its enthusiastic founder, Kitchener-Waterloo native Tom Emrich, a tech blogger and consultant who interacts with wearables daily.

Emrich is often called a wearables evangelist: he’s adopted these devices as a personal lifestyle. Most of the companies send him beta versions of their products so he can review them. He doesn’t leave the house without his current favourites: an Android Wear smartwatch, and the Narrative Clip, a wearable “lifelogging” device that takes a picture every 30 seconds. He’s also a Google Glass Explorer, the term for an early adopter of the hot-button headgear. The blogger is a bridge between firms such as InteraXon, which displayed its Muse headband at September’s We Are Wearables meet up, and various industry members, marketing people and interested potential consumers. It is, in part, thanks to people like Emrich – passionate tech-heads who are encouraging Canada’s startups – why the space grew over the last year. “When we started doing this five years ago, the landscape was very different,” says Garten. “Nobody ever said the word ‘wearables.’ There wasn’t a community in Toronto.”

As exciting as the wearables space is, it’s also scary for these start-ups. No one yet knows how the buzz will translate into widespread consumer adoption. Google Glass has already faced criticism that its futuristic headgear hasn’t caught on beyond diehards. Smartwatches are predicted to be more user-friendly, but what about smart armbands and smart shirts? It’s hard to tell what’s destined to become the iPhone of the wearables industry.

One thing is for sure though: Wearable technology has gone from being a passion shared by dreaming geeks to an industry perched on the cusp of the mainstream. “These are powerful devices that are going to change the way we live our lives,” predicts Emrich, “and Canadians are leading the way.”

- Sarah Barmak