Meet Ottawa’s 2020 Forty Under 40 recipients: Technology

Forty Under 40

The tech leaders on this year’s list of Forty Under 40 recipients range from creators of trailblazing artificial intelligence software to marketing gurus who have spearheaded internationally recognized promotional campaigns. In doing so, they’re making a major impact on the broader community both here in the National Capital Region and around the world.

In this group of Forty Under 40 profiles, we meet this year’s recipients from the technology sector:

Solon Angel

Solon Angel, founder, MindBridge Ai

When you’ve launched a company that gets mentioned in the same breath as Airbnb, Google, Spotify and Twitter, you know you’ve made it.

That’s exactly what Solon Angel has accomplished with MindBridge Ai. The five-year-old artificial intelligence firm makes fraud-detection software that can read years of audit reports in a fraction of the time it would take a single set of human eyes. 

MindBridge’s technology quickly captured the attention of major financial institutions such as the Bank of England, and today the Ottawa company has more than 300 customers in 14 countries. The firm recently earned a coveted spot on the World Economic Forum’s list of 100 technology pioneers from around the world, joining an elite group of past honourees that includes the aforementioned tech giants.

To date, MindBridge Ai has raised more than $40 million in venture capital and now employs in excess of 100 people. It’s safe to say none of that would have happened with the sound leadership and guidance of Angel, who was recently named one of the 100 most influential people in accounting by website Accounting Today.

Before founding MindBridge in 2015, Angel was a senior executive, owner or founder of several tech ventures in Europe, the United States and Ottawa. A passionate backer of the local business community, he helped launch Fresh Founders, a group that brings entrepreneurs together to share ideas, and is an active mentor to younger members of the capital’s startup ecosystem.

Graeme Barlow

Graeme Barlow, CEO, Iversoft

In his four years at Ottawa-based digital consulting firm Iversoft, Graeme Barlow has steered the company through not one but two key pivots.

As chief marketing officer from 2016-19, the serial entrepreneur played an integral role in the fast-growing company’s shift from primarily an app and website developer to a “one-stop shop” that also offered a range of digital marketing services. Along the way, the firm acquired two companies, quadrupled its headcount to 40 employees and consistently achieved triple-digit annual revenue growth.

After being named the company’s first chief executive last November, Barlow focused on building partnerships as part of the firm’s expansion push into new markets such as Toronto and New York. But when the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into the global economy, Barlow made a decisive move to pare down the company’s business model and spin off its marketing arm helmed by fellow 2020 Forty Under 40 recipient Shawna Tregunna. In addition, the company responded to the new economic challenges through such initiatives as adopting a remote-first work environment for the remainder of the year and implementing an optional four-day work week.

In addition to co-founding several multimillion-dollar companies over the past 20 years, Barlow has also been an active adviser with organizations such as Founder Institute North America and the University of Ottawa’s Startup Garage pre-accelerator program.

Erin Blaskie

Erin Blaskie, director of marketing, Fellow

Erin Blaskie’s impact on the Ottawa tech community might be best illustrated by the outpouring of support she received earlier this year after announcing she was leaving her job as director of marketing with Kanata-based accelerator L-Spark for a similar role at up-and-coming startup Fellow. Among those bidding a fond farewell was L-Spark’s Leo Lax, who called Blaskie a “guiding light” over her three years with the organization.

A big part of her new job is building up a network of managers to share best practices through multimedia projects such as podcasts and other social-focused initiatives – skills Blaskie has demonstrated in abundance not only at L-Spark but in her own brand and the business she ran for 14 years before that.

While at L-Spark, Blaskie spearheaded the growth of the organization’s signature SaaS Showcase event to nearly 500 attendees and more than 30 exhibitors and built up a network of corporate partnerships with entities such as BlackBerry, TELUS, Solace and Queen’s University.  

A vocal advocate for mental health initiatives, she also launched a series of events called L-Spark Unplugged that focused on the importance of mental wellness in the lives of entrepreneurs – a program that drew the attention of the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Business Development Bank of Canada.

A sought-after mentor, Blaskie has contributed articles on thought leadership to publications ranging from OBJ to the Huffington Post. Active in organizations such as Women in Communications and Technology, she’s also been an instructor in the Telfer School of Management’s digital marketing certificate program.

Jeremy Francis

Jeremy Francis, chief operating officer, Rebel.ca

In less than five years, Jeremy Francis has helped transform a company that was barely breaking even into a money-making enterprise – achieving the web-hosting firm and domain name registrar’s goal of turning a profit within five years two years ahead of schedule.

In the words of Rebel.ca marketing director Taryn Manias, Francis is the guy “doing the real gritty work” that’s fuelled the firm’s recent run of success.

As COO, Francis oversees all of Rebel.ca’s business operations. Under his steady guidance, the company has steadily increased its subscriber base and has achieved a domain renewal rate of 89 per cent. 

Meanwhile, the company has also gained a strong reputation as an employee-friendly enterprise – last year, Rebel.ca was named one of the country’s top workplaces by Toronto-based Best Places to Work Canada, thanks in part to initiatives Francis spearheaded such as regular employee happy hours, a tradition that’s continued during the pandemic via Zoom.

When he’s not focusing on his thriving tech career, Francis enjoys coaching hockey and soccer and serves on the board of directors of the Downtown Rideau BIA.

Alex Gray

Alex Gray, corporate controller, Fullscript

Being in charge of a company’s financial processes is never an easy job, but doing it at a firm that’s perennially on the list of Ottawa’s fastest-growing enterprises poses even more of a challenge.

But that’s exactly what Alex Gray has done, rolling out new finance and accounting processes and shaping key financing systems at Fullscript. The online platform that helps health-care professionals to prescribe natural health supplements has grown from 20 employees to more than 350 over the past several years, and Gray has played a major role in the firm’s rapid ascent.

The firm’s 2018 merger with Arizona-based Natural Partners required Fullscript to adopt new financial reporting policies, a process overseen by Gray. His strong stewardship helped lay the groundwork for a US$25-million series-B venture capital round the following year, when he helped integrate financial data from both companies and produced revenue and profit forecasts that were essential to landing the deal.

Gray has shown a knack for finding efficiencies as well – for example, implementing an integrated software system that calculates, collects, stores and files income tax from 47 different U.S. states.

A commerce graduate of the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management, Gray has also displayed strong community spirit outside of the office. He and three buddies organized Typically Canadian, a year-long fundraiser that saw volunteers cycle across Canada to raise more than $150,000 for cancer clinics and research.

Shan Gu

Shan Gu, CEO, Foci Solutions

In just five years, Shan Gu has built Gatineau-based IT firm Foci Solutions into a tech consulting powerhouse.

Since founding the company in 2015, the Carleton University engineering graduate has inked lucrative multi-year contracts with a number of federal government agencies and cannabis producer Hexo as well as a deal with a major international internet security firm. Under Gu’s guidance, Foci Solutions has grown its revenues by an average of 40 per cent annually and tripled its net income in the last year.

With Gu at the helm, the 14-employee company has also become known for its innovative HR practices, such as its open vacation policy, that have helped keep its staff turnover rate well below industry standards.

The CEO’s business acumen has been on full display during the COVID-19 crisis. Even before the virus hit North America, Gu proactively launched a social media campaign to generate new leads in anticipation of a slowdown – one of which he converted into a major contract. When the coronavirus lockdown began to upend the local economy, he worked with various government agencies and financial institutions to line up bridge funding for the bootstrapped enterprise. 

The father of three is also a bit of a renaissance man – a jazz saxophonist who has performed at music festivals throughout Europe, Gu captained Carleton’s varsity fencing team and is an accomplished chef who once took over the kitchen at one of Ottawa’s top restaurants during an industry night pop-up.

Nathan Hall

Nathan Hall, CEO, Simple Story

Although Nathan Hall runs a video marketing agency that specializes in telling other people’s stories, he’s got a pretty inspirational narrative himself.

After more than a decade as a marketing and product manager with various Ottawa IT, e-commerce and software companies, Hall took the helm of Simple Story in 2018. The company he inherited was bleeding cash, suffered from a “toxic” work culture and was steadily losing the clients it had.

Under the Hall’s leadership, Simple Story’s turnaround has been worthy of a Hollywood screenplay. 

The University of Ottawa graduate rebuilt the company from the ground up, overhauling its marketing, sales, finance and product management teams while securing new financing and negotiating deals to provide video for big-name local tech conferences such as SaaS North and AccelerateOTT. In Hall’s first year on the job, revenues doubled and the firm exceeded industry-average profit margins.

Simple Story, which has made animated and live-action videos to promote global brands ranging from Coca-Cola and Walmart to Pfizer and Ottawa’s own Shopify, was named one of the city’s small business of the year at the 2019 Best Ottawa Business Awards. Based on this success, Hall was asked to join the Forbes Agency Council, an invitation-only organization for prominent executives of public relations, media strategy, creative and advertising agencies.

Amanda Holtstrom

Amanda Holtstrom, marketing product manager - Dashboard, Ross Video

As an engineer who also earned a degree in English literature, Amanda Holtstrom has always been fascinated by how people interact with technology. She’s employing that unique skillset to its fullest at Ross Video, an Emmy-award-winning producer of equipment and software used in the production of live events.

At Ross, Holtstrom helps ensure that the firm’s technicians and developers can communicate effectively with each other via a platform called Dashboard that allows one person to manage various software systems, often for an entire stadium.

Holtstrom’s 15-year career has seen her excel in the fields of logistics, insurance, transportation, entertainment, commodities, engineering and health care with development teams based all over the world. 

Before joining Ross Video last year, she had a successful career at OpenText, where she helped grow the company’s product design team from three people to more than 20 and was directly involved in the creation of more than 50 products.

An avid reader, Holtstrom also has a bit of an adventurous streak ​– she once climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. A highly sought-after public speaker at tech events, she’s also helped fundraise for Girl Develop It, an organization that encourages girls to get into coding.

Hesam Mahdavi

Hesam Mahdavi, co-founder and chief technology officer, Zodiac Light Waves

When Hesam Mahdavi came to Canada at age 14, he could barely speak a word of English. His entrepreneurial drive and talent was such that barely three years later, he’d launched a tutoring business that was so successful it paid for his first year of university.

After graduating from the University of Ottawa with a degree in electrical engineering in 2006, Mahdavi joined the family business, Zodiac Light Waves. He spearheaded a major new direction for the firm, transforming a company that installed security camera systems into a major provider of IT managed services for the health-care industry.

Thanks to Zodiac’s technology that integrates IT systems at retirement and long-term care homes under one platform, the firm has achieved triple-digit revenue growth. Under Mahdavi’s watch, the company has also branched out to provide phone services to its clients and recently launched a voice-activated nurse call system.

Away from the office, Mahdavi is an active member of the community. In addition to being a board member with the Orl​éans Chamber of Commerce for the past three years, he’s also volunteered with the Ottawa Police Service’s crime prevention program and helped organize events for the city’s Iranian community.

Michael McNaught

Michael McNaught, co-founder, president, RVezy

When former police officer Michael McNaught bought an RV for family trips a few years back, he quickly realized it was a lot of money to shell out for a vehicle that sat idle in his driveway 11 months a year.

Already an owner of rental properties, McNaught figured he could apply the same principle to his RV. The result is RVezy, an online marketplace for motorhomes, trailers and camper vans he launched with business partner Will Thompson about four years ago. 

The peer-to-peer site – which connects renters with RV owners through a secure platform and provides full insurance coverage – now boasts an inventory of more than 7,000 vehicles from coast to coast that were booked a total of more than 100,000 nights in 2019.

McNaught has turned his brainchild into a leader in its space, negotiating the first-ever RV-sharing insurance policy in Canada with Intact Insurance and developing profitable partnerships such as a contract with Ontario’s Boots and Hearts Music Festival that allows festival-goers to stay in RVs during the four-day country music event. The firm has landed millions of dollars in investment, including a deal with high-profile entrepreneur Michele Romanow of Dragons’ Den fame after McNaught appeared on the CBC pitch show in 2017.

The Ottawa entrepreneur also stepped up during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the lockdown caused cancellations to soar by 500 per cent, McNaught decided to put RVezy’s stable of vehicles to work in the fight against the coronavirus, waiving service fees for owners who wanted to rent their vehicles to frontline workers at reduced rates. Since then, hundreds of health-care workers and first responders have used the vehicles as a place to rest and recuperate.

Before building RVezy into a Canada-wide operation with more than 35 full-time employees, McNaught operated a successful home renovation company. In his spare time, he can often be found in local arenas, where he’s an assistant coach with the Cumberland Dukes minor hockey association.

Shawna Tregunna

Shawna Tregunna, principal, Shawna Tregunna Consulting

When fellow Forty Under 40 recipient Graeme Barlow and the team at Ottawa digital consultancy Iversoft were looking to expand into the marketing space a few years ago, they knew exactly where to turn.

Shawna Tregunna had become one of the city’s true digital marketing gurus, assembling a growing client base through her company ReSoMe. The agency was acquired by Iversoft in 2017, and Tregunna continued to expand her client portfolio as the head of Iversoft’s marketing and digital service arm.

Along the way, she built on her core expertise in social media marketing to include broader business-to-consumer and business-to-business marketing campaigns for major customers such as Farm Boy and others in industries including retail, manufacturing and e-commerce. As part of Iversoft’s senior management group, Tregunna helped spearhead the firm’s triple-digit revenue growth as it expanded into markets beyond Ottawa such as Toronto and the United States.

Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc with the economy, Tregunna has shifted gears once again and returned to her entrepreneurial roots.

As part of Iversoft’s move to spin off its marketing division, Tregunna has left the firm to launch her own marketing agency. Her firm will continue to work with Iversoft’s former marketing clients, many of which will also remain Iversoft customers for web and app development services.

In addition to her marketing acumen, Tregunna is also a sought-after speaker and a tireless promoter of the capital’s entrepreneurial community through her work with organizations such as the Founder Institute and Startup Ottawa.