For more than a decade, Daniel Laprade had been building his security business in Sault Ste. Marie — a city of 73,000 about an eight-hour drive north of Toronto.
Back when he started, there were no smartphones, just old fashioned calls and pen and paper reports.
He’d already been thinking about how to modernize when out of the blue last May, he got a call from a Toronto-based tech company called RSPNDR. They wanted to know if Laprade would sign up his security firm, KC Security Services (voted the best security company in the Sault) with the platform that was described to him as security response marketplace similar to Lyft or DoorDash: A reliable, cut-out-the-middle-man way for guards to respond promptly to calls in their area and get paid quickly.
Access to more clients at absolutely no cost? For Laprade, the president of KC Security, it was a no-brainer. With the large telcos and alarm companies signed up with RSPNDR, it meant Laprade and his team would soon have access to a market that would’ve normally been served by larger, more centralized security providers. Because of RSPNDR, he was now able to stay competitive.
“We joke that we’re way behind because we’re not in the GTA area — that’s kind of where everything [in tech innovation] is centred. People often forget about Northern Ontario,” he said. “It’s great to be able to bring this kind of technology here, because it’s something we can sell to our customers, too.”
RSPNDR started its alarm response marketplace in Toronto, but it is rapidly expanding to serve markets outside of major metropolises — places like the Sault and small cities in southern Ontario, like London and Chatham. Their major national clients wanted their help improving the experience for home security customers in rural areas and RSPNDR seized on the opportunity. They’re now branching out to the east coast, beginning in Halifax, Moncton and St. John’s.
The tech sector is sometimes mistakenly thought of as city-centric, but many OneEleven startups are solving pressing problems for those outside of urban centres: Creating jobs, access, improved service and giving small businesses the ability to compete in an increasingly digital world.
Improving customer experience for Canadians across the country has also been a massive focus for life insurance startup PolicyMe. The company is modernizing the way life insurance is purchased and doled out: Customers who aren’t super rich can often be oversold policies by local brokers who need to make a commission. And rural areas often have a limited broker presence, meaning residents may not always have access to quality life insurance advice.
“More than 50 percent of our users live outside of major cities,” said CEO Andrew Ostro.
The company uses an algorithm to help potential clients find out what life insurance plan is best for them — or whether they need one at all (that’s right, they’ll tell you if you don’t really need one – something a broker is less likely to do).
The zero bricks and mortar factor means they can support consumers anywhere, Ostro said, so long as they live in a province where PolicyMe is licensed (so far that’s six of them).
While cities are buzzing in a way that makes many people think of technological advancement, tech platforms are also helping tiny municipalities transform the way they do business.
Robert Cripps left his job in technology at Queen’s Park in the heart of downtown Toronto to create GoEvo, an asset management platform that helps governments manage and spend taxpayers’ money.
Through their platform, they can log reports for things like fixing a pothole. It helps with accountability (should there ever be a lawsuit over said pothole, the town’s got documentation) and it helps with efficiency (much less paperwork to keep track of).
“What we’re doing at the end of the day is changing the way they operate,” Cripps said. “They’re used to doing things by pen and paper. So it’s a cultural shift.”
It’s a shift many of these small communities — GoEvo serves some as tiny as 3,000 people — are more than ready for. There usually aren’t a ton of taxpayer dollars to throw around in small towns, so efficiency is all the more important. GoEvo’s platform is also available offline, which is crucial in communities with Internet dead zones, or for municipalities who can’t pay for data plans for all of their workers.
But as rural broadband becomes more widely available, the possibility of remote work opens a lot of doors to employment for people who’ve been shut out of the job market.
Fable, a startup devoted to making the Internet a far more accessible place, knows that the only way to make the digital world more inclusive is to tap into the expertise of people with disabilities. They’ve hired a large network of assistive technology users nationwide in small towns and cities, to help companies like Telus, Shopify and Slack ensure they are doing digital accessibility right.
“The experience of living with a disability in Canada is one in which you can expect to be underemployed, especially in tech,” said Fable co-founder and chief operating officer Abid Virani. “This has nothing to do with a lack of skills. It has to do with old ideas of employment that if you want to work in tech you have to work 60 hour weeks in an urban area. That’s restrictive to so many people.”
According to Statistics Canada, 20% of working-age adults in Canada live with a disability, and 38% of seniors, many of whom live in rural areas. That’s a figure set to massively increase in the coming generation.
“By making it easier to engage people with disabilities in the technology sector, we’re also future-proofing technology for an aging population,” added CEO Alwar Pillai.
Beyond creating employment opportunities outside of cities, some OneEleven companies are actually keeping entire networks of support going in these areas.
In the summer of 2018, Maple — a telehealth platform and OneEleven alumni company — was approached by Alberton Hospital on Prince Edward Island for a solution to their physician shortage.
“[They told us] ‘We’re at the point now where we’re struggling to provide necessary care and we may be forced to shut down the hospital — can you help?” says co-founder and COO Roxana Zaman.
Maple tapped into its technology and its network of virtual physicians and piloted what became Canada’s first tele-rounding model. Doctors appear via videoconferencing at the bedside of patients to provide necessary diagnosis and treatment. Maple also enables the remote physicians to collaboratively care for patients with nurses and other hospital staff.
“Our virtual physicians have kept the hospital open for over a year now,” Zaman said — and what started as a six-month pilot is now an ongoing contract.
“We’re going to have to rely on technology like this to think through creative ways of making our healthcare system use resources more effectively,” she added. “We can’t have hospitals and clinics shut down if it can be prevented.”
Siri Agrell, the Executive Director of OneEleven, said it’s important to recognize the positive impacts Toronto technology companies are having across the country.
“Our companies are based here but the platforms they’ve created are making things easier no matter where people live,” she said. “I love seeing the impact they’re having in smaller towns and regions, where creating jobs and opportunities to stay competitive can be a real game-changer.”
Photo courtesy of KC Security Services, Sault Ste. Marie