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Accelerator centre for women draws startups from across Canada

Accelerator centre for women draws startups from across Canada

Posted by PanamericanWorld on October 17, 2016

Kaleah Baker works on her laptop in a corner area of an old industrial building that is dedicated to the country's first technology accelerator for startups founded by women.

Baker was living in Calgary this past summer when she heard about the Fierce Founders Accelerator that Communitech was opening in the Tannery in downtown Kitchener. She packed her car and drove across the country to be part of it.

"I knew it was something I could not pass up," Baker said.

Baker and her partner, Mallory McEwen, met while doing their MBAs at Wilfrid Laurier University. After graduating, McEwen thought a startup that rents bridesmaids' dresses, saving young women the huge expense of buying one, might be a good idea.

"Men have been able to rent taxes forever, why would you not be able to rent the dresses as well?" Baker said.

Baker and Mallory built a bare-as-bones website to test their idea. It had no pictures of the dresses. But it still generated a huge amount of traffic, and bridesmade.ca was born.

"We got something like 2,000 leads within a matter of days," Baker said. 

Now they are heads-down, working on their technology, products, website, marketing and getting mentored by women who have founded and led successful startups.

"We have been here for three weeks and I feel like we have done more in the last three weeks than we have done in the last year," Baker said.

Using the BridesMade website today is easy. After browsing the selection, you can opt to buy or rent a dress. It is delivered to your door. When you are finished, you put the dress in the return package that is provided.

There is an accelerator in Calgary, but it is not as advanced as Communitech's programs. So Baker did not hesitate to come back to this region to help build BridesMade. It is among nine startups admitted into the first cohort of the Fierce Founders Accelerator. There was a lot of competition to get in — 56 startups applied.

During the summer of 2015, Ottawa's economic development agency, FedDev, told Communitech it would provide the funds for an accelerator program for startups founded by women. Men outnumber women about three-to-one in the tech sector. The Fierce Founders Accelerator is one way for Ottawa and Communitech to address that huge imbalance.

Baker and McEwen are working in a corner area on the second floor of the Tannery. Nearby are Borealis Wind, Oneiric, Navi, Squiggle Park, Think Dirty, Hal Cal, This Space Works and Binary Tattoo.

The startups are building technology to solve a diverse set of problems — removing the ice from the blades of wind turbines, increasing mobile traffic to websites, keeping visitors on websites for longer, and helping young children learn to read.

A pair of young women who are enthusiastic about playing hockey developed pants that can be quickly pulled on by young players in busy dressing rooms, reducing the time needed to suit up. The pants form a base layer and increase protection for players. Another startup is working on an app that details the toxic ingredients in cosmetics.

Leah Skerry is the co-founder and CEO of Squiggle Park, a software platform that helps children — junior kindergarten to Grade 3 — learn to read. This is Skerry's third startup, and she also sits on the board of Volta, the startup accelerator in Halifax. 

Skerry and her partner traded the award-winning waterfront in Halifax for the stormwater management pond in Victoria Park because the accelerator programs here are more advanced, and there is a growing density of companies working in the same space, ed-tech.

"We didn't move here for the nature," Skerry said. "The value for me in ed-tech is the number of other successful ed-tech companies here. And that's been so beneficial."

Squiggle Park is a game children play on an iPad that also teaches them 100 words, the same words that make up 50 per cent of the text in children's books. The game also teaches children the sounds for different letters.

"Phonological awareness we believe is the best way to teach children," Skerry said. 

As a child masters different levels, the squiggles, or characters, uncover books and morph into words and letters. Teachers can follow a student's progress. Based on the words and letters a child has mastered, a story evolves.

"So as they complete worlds, this magical story continues to evolve," Skerry said. "As that's happening, teachers are seeing this in real time on the data. So, children play in class and at home."

Squiggle Park is tackling a huge problem. In this region alone, 67 per cent of Grade 3 students meet the provincial standard for reading and writing. That is significantly below the provincial average of 72 to 74 per cent of students who meet the standard. By Grade 10, at least 19 per cent of students in this region do not meet the provincial standards for reading and writing the first time they take the standardized test.

"So what happens often is kids get to third grade, 30 per cent of them cannot read even at the basic level, and they have to use that as a foundation to learn other things," Skerry said.

Her passion for teaching children to read comes in part from the time she spend teaching elementary school in Uganda.

The startups in the Fierce Founders Accelerator will change every four months. Overseeing it is Danielle Graham, who has the perfect resumé for that job. Graham is a daughter of veteran aid workers in Africa. Her father is the country director for Save the Children in Ethiopia.

After completing a degree in international relations at the University of Toronto, Graham did a master's in African history at Dalhousie. Then she did a MBA at Wilfrid Laurier and was in the university's startup incubator, Laurier Launchpad.

Her startup, Criowater, uses reverse osmosis to purify drinking water in a household. It is developing three advanced prototypes. 

Then she went to work for the consulting arm of Deloitte. She travelled all over North America working on change management for big organizations. Her focus was diversity and inclusion.

"I was living in hotels for eight months straight at one point," Graham said.

During the summer of 2015, Graham organized Communitech's first boot camp for women entrepreneurs — a short, intense period of coaching and mentoring for early stage startups. And she got her employer to sponsor it.

When plans for the Fierce Founders Accelerator came together, she jumped at the chance to head Communitech's Women in Tech program. She organized the second boot camp this past summer for the Fierce Founders program.

More than 100 startups applied to be in the boot camp this summer, and last summer. And 56 applied for the Fierce Founders Accelerator. Having an accelerator for startups founded by women encourages them to apply, she says.

"I think part of it is really that social-cultural piece of really feeling included, and that is a very human trait," Graham said.

"When you do create that environment where people feel included, they are here, then they are part of it," Graham said. "I think it is really exciting."

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