By JACOB SEREBRIN
Special to The Globe and Mail
Monday, October 17, 2016
There's a classic image of the tech entrepreneur - a young man dressed in a hoodie and jeans.
But as technology starts to play a bigger role in more and more fields, a new group of startup founders is emerging. They don't necessarily have tech backgrounds, but they are building tech companies to solve problems they were able to see only because of their experiences.
"A startup is someone with a great idea who wants to change the world," says Margaret Magdesian, a former university professor and medical researcher who founded the medical-tool startup Ananda Devices. "It can come at any age, to any person, from any background."
Professionals without tech backgrounds have been starting tech companies for years, says Aron Solomon, senior adviser for education technology at Toronto's MaRS Discovery District and innovation lead for the LegalX Cluster, which helps startups in the legal sector. He thinks it's becoming more common.
The most successful tech companies are founded by people who have a deep understanding of a problem, he says, and in areas such as medicine and law, that can come only with specialist knowledge.
Many of the tools released by tech startups with no first-hand knowledge of medical practice miss the mark, says Joshua Landy, the co-founder and chief medical officer of Toronto-based Figure 1, an image-sharing tool for doctors.
"These tools are only really good if they take something that you're doing that's hard and make it easy," he says, and the majority of apps aimed at doctors don't do that.
Still, according to Mr. Solomon, it's important for non-tech founders to have an understanding of technology.
"Even if they're not physically building it themselves, even if they're going to find a technical co-founder, they have to have an understanding of what they're doing because otherwise it's not going to work," he says.
Mark Hobbes, the chief executive officer and co-founder of Halifax-based FundMetric Inc., says that as a non-technical founder building a tech startup, he has developed a new level of respect for developers. But finding the right ones can be hard.
"You're relying on other people. The biggest challenge is you have to get someone technical to believe in you and you have to believe in them," Mr. Hobbes says. "You've got to take that leap of faith and you've got to share a common vision."
Allison Suter, the co-founder of Vancouver-based SimpleTax Software Inc., an online tax filing startup, says her business succeeded because of three key people. As a non-technical co-founder, she brought legal expertise, one of the co-founders brought business experience and the other brought technical skills.
"We happened to have the three right people at the right time, so there's an element of luck and then just sheer hard work," she says.
Here is how each of them got their start.
MARK HOBBES, CEO AND CO-FOUNDER OF FUNDMETRIC INC., HALIFAX
As a child, Mr. Hobbes attended an Easter Seals camp for physically disabled children. It was a life-changing experience. For some campers, it was the only week in their lives where they didn't feel different.
Later, as an adult sitting on the board of the group's Nova Scotia chapter, he says he wondered whether people who donated to the charity really knew the impact they were having.
At the same time, while he was working at a boutique advertising agency in Halifax, he noticed something; His business clients were increasingly using data to create more targeted campaigns.
His charity clients weren't.
They were raising money based on the old premise that to raise more money, you have to ask more people. "But what the data is telling us is that charities are going to have to know more about who their donors are, and why these donors want to give to that charity," he says.
That idea turned into FundMetric, which uses big data and predictive analytics to help charities learn more about their donors and automate the sending of targeted messages. A hospital charity could, for instance, send some donors messages about medical research, while others receive information about improvements to patient care.
Mr. Hobbes says a big part of the platform's appeal is that it allow charities to build and maintain relationships, especially with those whose donation was tied to an event, such as a walk or run. While those donors may be interested in a charity's cause, they don't usually come in contact with the organization itself, and thus end up being one-time contributors.
ALLISON SUTER, CO-FOUNDER OF SIMPLETAX SOFTWARE INC., VANCOUVER
When Ms. Suter left her job as a tax lawyer, she didn't realize that within months she'd be starting a tech company.
The co-founder of SimpleTax, an online tax filing startup, says that while she liked tax law, she didn't enjoy being a lawyer.
"I never really liked my job," she says. "Going into the office every day, I didn't love. I didn't love the very traditional atmosphere of a law firm, I've always been a bit more entrepreneurial than that."
After two years of practicing, she left the field intending to become a wedding photographer.
But, that first April, when she looked for tax filing software to use for her new business, she couldn't find anything she liked.
Everything on the market looked and felt, she says, like it had been designed in the 1990s.
It was a problem her husband, Jonathan Suter, had noticed as well. A mutual friend who had a background in video game design, Justin Reynen, was also looking for a new project.
"We had a product background, that was my husband; we had a development background, that's Justin, our partner; and then my tax background. We were like, it can't be that hard to develop tax filing software," she says.
Having a subject matter expert on the team was essential, she says.
"Tax law is extremely complicated. I think we would have needed an accountant or a lawyer, somebody familiar with reading the income tax act and deciphering the jargon."
KEVIN FORESTELL, CO-FOUNDER OF DOZR, GUELPH, ONT.
Mr. Forestell says his business had a problem - the snow removal side was growing faster than the summer landscaping work.
That meant he had front-end loaders and other pieces of heavy machinery sitting idle for more than half the year. It was "costing us a huge amount of money," he says.
He entertained a few ideas to solve the problem, but none of them seemed quite right.
"We were away on vacation and we were sitting on a beach in Florida and had a rental house through one of the sharing companies, similar to Airbnb," he says. "We were just sitting there, thinking about how great this was, and we realized, hey we should be doing this with our equipment."
That idea led to Dozr, the twosided online marketplace for construction equipment rentals that Mr. Forestell founded. It allows contactors, landscapers and construction companies to rent equipment they're not using to their industry peers.
He knew his company wasn't the only one that sometimes had a mismatch between how much equipment it needed and how much it had, he says.
Sometimes, contractors will purchase a specific machine for a single job. "It may sit for a year or two before the next job comes that they need that type of equipment again," he says.
And some pieces of equipment could be used by varied businesses - a tractor used for snow clearing can work just as well on a farm.
"Being a contractor, and knowing the problem so well, made us be able to come up with the solution," he says.
MARGARET MAGDESIAN, CEO AND FOUNDER OF ANANDA DEVICES, MONTREAL
Ms. Magdesian was frustrated. Then a researcher at McGill University's Montreal Neurological Institute, she was having trouble with the spinal cord cells she was studying.
The only way to grow them was in a petri dish, but the cells don't grow in a dish in the same way they grow in the human body.
Instead of growing straight, they get tangled. It made her work harder, slower and more prone to error.
Her solution was to build a silicon mould with channels for the cells to grow in, similar to how they grow in the body. Her idea worked. "Instead of having one or two good cells, I had 120 and I could finally perform a lot of work," she says.
When she presented her idea, other scientists became interested.
"I started giving them away and, after a certain point, we decided to start selling them so that we could cover the costs. In one year I sold 2,000 units," Ms. Magdesian says. "Then a company called me and said they would like to buy 10,000."
That was when the university told her that if she wanted to keep selling the moulds, she would have to start her own company. It was the first time she'd ever thought of starting a businesses.
But, she says, she soon realized that by helping other scientists accelerate their work, she could have a bigger impact. "My mom died of cancer very early, and she had a lot of pain," she says.
"Whatever I can do to help accelerate research, I will do."
JOSHUA LANDY, CO-FOUNDER, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER, FIGURE 1, TORONTO
Doctors have been sharing medical cases since the beginning of the profession, Dr. Landy says.
"You buy old medical textbooks and it's just stories about all the different types of diseases people had," he says.
Historically, cases have been written up in medical journals and presented at conferences.
But young doctors are sharing cases through text messages and social media. "Now, that everyone's armed with an interconnected device with a camera, these sharings have become much more commonplace."
The startup Dr. Landy cofounded, Figure 1, shares pictures of medical cases in a way that protects the privacy of patients and complies with privacy laws and regulations.
Dr. Landy says he started thinking about the way doctors use social media when he was doing research about young doctors and medical education at Stanford University in California. But it was at a dinner with friends that the idea of a case-sharing network became a business idea.
Two of those friends became his co-founders. "It was serendipitous," he says. "Two weeks later they had pretty much dropped everything to focus on this one project, as had I."
Dr. Landy still practises medicine, working as a critical care physician in a Toronto hospital.
Balancing the time is a challenge, but he says it's worth it.
"Having these two careers is symbiotic," he says.
"Certainly, I could not do this job without having my medical career."
Margaret Magdesian was a medical researcher who came up with a new way to grow spinal cord cells. She then founded a company, Ananda Devices.
CHRISTINNE MUSCHI FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL