An AI solution to help lawyers draft contracts. Drone-mounted cameras that help farmers manage crops. 3D-printable soil. And gum that cleans your teeth.
These are the innovative ideas that underpin four University of Toronto startups that took home prizes at the annual Demo Day competition organized by the Entrepreneurship Hatchery, affiliated with the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.
The event, which took place virtually this year over the course of a week, is the culmination of the Hatchery Nest program, a four-month accelerator that connects student teams with experienced mentors and industry leaders to develop their businesses. A panel of judges and registrants viewed pitch videos made by 16 competing Nest teams, as well as four go-to-market-stage teams – startups that are further along in their businesses.
Joseph Orozco, executive director of the Entrepreneurship Hatchery, says although the pandemic made putting on Demo Day a challenge, it enabled students to pitch on the world stage.
“We received 2,900 votes and 1,800 views of [the] video pitches,” Orozco says. “These came from all over the world – San Francisco, Boston, Oxford and Mumbai, to name a few.”
Themis was among four companies to share a total of $42,500 in seed funding, composed of one $20,000 grand prize and two $10,000 runner-up prizes. A $2,500 Orozco prize is furnished through funds raised by the students themselves.
“I want to extend my congrats to all the participants in the Hatchery for your resilience and being able to pivot in these times. As one of the judges, I was amazed by the initiative, entrepreneurship, innovation and professionalism,” says Chris Yip, dean of U of T Engineering. “The Hatchery is the jewel in the crown of our startup ecosystem at the faculty, and has been such a huge attractor for students in choosing to go to U of T Engineering.”
Here are this year’s four startups to watch:
Themis ($20,000 Hatchery Prize)
AI-powered add-in simplifies contract drafting for lawyers
The team from Themis uses AI to create a Microsoft Office add-in that saves hours of time drafting legal papers. The students’ startup pitch took home the grand prize at this year’s Demo Day (photo courtesy of Themis)
Drafting a legal contract can take hours. With the power of AI, the team behind the startup Themis aims to simplify this process with the click of a button.
The startup’s Microsoft Word add-in streamlines the contract-drafting process for lawyers by automatically building a library of clauses from a lawyer’s own precedents and making those clauses conveniently available within Word.
“There are no competitors who provide this fully integrated solution out of the box. Our competitors generally either allow lawyers to manually add their clauses to a library or provide generic clauses, but do not provide a fully automated solution as Themis,” says Rishi Dhir, a corporate lawyer at Stikeman Elliott LLP who co-founded the company alongside fellow lawyer Jey Kumarasamy and U of T Engineering students Amardeep Singh and Cindy Chen.
Looking ahead, the team will beta test their prototype and look to partner with small law firms across Canada to gather feedback. The team plans to use their $20,000 prize to fund development costs and increase the number of clauses and definitions Themis can identify, as well as to support infrastructure costs.
“We are also very proud of ourselves for making it this far,” says Kumarasamy. “Each of our co-founders were either working or studying full-time during the summer and we had to be creative and disciplined to find the necessary time to work on Themis.
“It wasn’t easy but in the span of four months we successfully delivered a functioning, viable product.”
Indus ($10,000 Hatchery Prize)
3D-printed smart soil gives a novel, futuristic approach to growing root vegetables
The team behind U of T startup Indus is replicating the physical properties that enable root vegetables to thrive in hydroponic systems (photo by Patrick Diep)
Indus aims to manufacture 3D-printable “soil” to grow root vegetables within existing commercial hydroponic systems.
“Our competitors in this space have no efficient solution to grow a high yield of root crops, as they don’t have the technical ability to engineer their materials with specific fluid retention properties essential for important staple crops, such as root vegetables, to thrive in a hydro-culture environment,” explains Adnan Sharif, who studies cell and molecular biology in the Faculty of Arts & Science.
Hydroponics – a controlled, soilless method of agriculture still requires plants to be held within a porous material called “growing media,” which replicates the physical properties of soil.
The Indus team also includes Chihiro Tow, who studies architecture, Patrick Diep, who studies chemical engineering, and U of T Engineering alumnus Gamen Liu.
In one robust material, the co-founders are recreating the physical properties that root vegetables require to thrive within soil and optimizing the material to be applicable in widely practised commercial hydroponic techniques.
“Our team is confident that, with our technical prowess and connections within our respective fields, we’ll help to disrupt the hydroponics space within the decade with our engineered smart soil,” says Sharif, adding that winning the $10,000 prize is one big step towards meeting this goal.
Toothpod ($10,000 Hatchery Prize)
Triple-action chewing gum for cleaner teeth
Clockwise, from top left: Faculty of Dentistry Associate Professor Laurent Bozec, CEO Vishar Yaghoubian, Alton Rego, Lucy Chen, Jenise Chen and Nikhil Konduru (photo courtesy of Toothpod)
We all know we should brush our teeth regularly, but many of us don’t spend nearly enough time on oral health. Ninety-six per cent of Canadian adults have had at least one cavity, despite the fact that they are preventable.
Toothpod’s answer is a smart gum that cleans your teeth as you chew. It contains three different components to clean your tongue and mouth, and is designed for any situation where it is inconvenient to brush your teeth – on the go, at work, on an airplane, camping and so on.
“We worked very hard this summer to understand the customer need and develop Toothpod prototypes despite restricted lab access,” says Toothpod founder and CEO Vishar Yaghoubian, a U of T student studying health studies, global health and psychology.
“This award validates our mission and tells us we’re on the right track,” she says.
The team also includes Lucy Chen, Alton Rego and Nikhil Konduru from U of T Engineering, as well as Jenise Chen in the department of chemistry in the Faculty of Arts & Science.
“The most valuable part of the Hatchery process was hearing the comments from mentors on our pitch, and those of other startups,” says Konduru. “Many of the mentors are investors and entrepreneurs with decades of experience. They taught me a lot about what investors and key stakeholders care about when they put their trust and money behind you.”
Toothpod plans to use the seed funding to file their patent by the end of October and begin the process of getting the gum approved as a Natural Health Product by Health Canada in May. If all goes well, the product could be available in stores by 2022.
ID Green ($2,500 Orozco prize)
Aerial imaging and analysis for precision agriculture
ID Green’s prototype camera mounted on a drone over a field of potatoes near Otterville, Ont. The team aims to use the technology to provide new insights for farmers and crop advisers (photo by Ehsan Vaziri)
ID Green is leveraging precision agriculture to increase the profitability of small and medium-sized farms. Using drone-mounted cameras, the team analyzes images of crops in order to diagnose problems and recommend solutions.
“Our solution provides actionable data for plant counting, detecting disease, assessing the nutrient and water status, and predicting the yield,” says team member Ehsan Vaziria, a PhD candidate at the U of T Institute for Aerospace Studies. “Our cloud-based platform transforms complex data into easy-to-use insightful reports, which help crop advisers and farmers make precise and timely decisions.”
In addition to Vaziri, the team includes U of T Engineering’s Muhammad Omar Sawal and Eric Jiang of the department of computer science in the Faculty of Arts & Science. They are joined by precision farming specialist Mohamad Yadegari and hardware-software integration expert Samira Eshghi.
Over the next few months, the team plans to continue their involvement with the Hatchery, moving from the NEST program into the go-to-market phase for startups that are further along the path toward commercialization.
“Compared to where we were at the start of the NEST program, a lot has changed,” says Vaziri. “Our business model has flourished, and our mindset about the market has improved. This was all because of meetings with Hatchery connectors and the board members. We made a lot of valuable connections through this program.”