New companies shine at University of Ottawa's biggest Startup Weekend yet

A number of promising new startups formed after a long 54 hours at the University of Ottawa's 2016 Startup Weekend event.

Safety Net won the general and mobile health categories with its concept for a wearable technology to reduce casualties in the emergency room. VirtuaLens took the makers category with its VR app to reduce the fear of public speaking through a simulated experience, while myCity won the social impact category with its app to connect citizens to the city and its services.

Over 120 entrepreneurs took part in the university's third Startup Weekend, its largest yet. The event began with pitches on Friday night, and over the course of the weekend, teams each built businesses around the most popular pitches.

As successful as the weekend was for Safety Net, the entire company almost didn't happen.

"I almost didn't go," says Alex Steeves, who originally pitched the idea for Safety Net.

He says he finished up some work on Friday and decided to walk over 20 minutes before the event started. "I knew nothing about it."

Steeves says it was only after arriving there that he realized participants were giving 60-second pitches. On a whim, he pitched a low-cost wearable that would allow users to check-in with friends and family in an emergency, taking inspiration from the Syrian refugee crisis and the recent Laurier bridge collapse in Ottawa.

The idea was a popular one, and a five-person team joined around him to found the company. After that, though, the company pivoted significantly, eventually coming up with a cloud-enabled smartband that could track heart rate and wait times so as to avoid casualties while patients wait for attention in the emergency room.

“That was the biggest thing I learned, how to pivot." Steeves says. “We had a team motto: ‘Change the plan, not the goal.’”

The team was essential to the startup's success, Steeves adds. While he's heard the cliche of a "team effort" in the past, he believes that without the participation of each of his four co-founders, Safety Net would not have been possible.

“It’s amazing what you can do when you take five passionate strangers, put them into a room, and see them co-mingle and somehow come to a fantastic outlook and product," Steeves says.

Elad Tzemach, who pitched VirtuaLens and then founded it with partner Midia Shikh Hassan, agrees that the enthusiasm of people in the room impressed him.

“(The University of Ottawa) has a great entrepreneurial (community),” he says. “It's really great to see we have that vibe going on here.”

Tzemach pitched VirtuaLens with the idea of targeting an enormous market: people with a fear of public speaking. He and Shikh Hassan are now looking at accelerators such as the University of Ottawa's Startup Garage to take their concept to the next level.

“We’re definitely going to push this forward … It’s something that’s important to me, it’s not just going to fade away," Tzemach says.

Safety Net is continuing forward as well. The company is also looking at accelerators and early-stage incubators to take the concept to the next level, as well as the prospect of a pilot program beginning in Q2 2017.

“Everyone is chomping at the bits to keep working on this. We haven’t stopped talking since last night," says Steeves.

The event's kickoff on Friday night featured Aydin Mirzaee, co-founder of Fluidware, who offered his top five tips for successful startups. Chief among his tips was this: "Just get started," advice he also shared with the Hack to Startpodcast earlier this month.

Hanan Anis, the University of Ottawa's NSERC chair in entrepreneurial engineering design and co-ordinator of entrepreneurship and innovation, says that while spawning startups is a great aspect of the event, she sees the weekend as an opportunity for participants to think like problem solvers.

“That entrepreneurial mindset is the most important thing. Essentially, it is thinking outside of the box. It is challenging the status quo, and understanding the customer need. That would be useful no matter what they choose for their careers,” she says.