Richard Chénier is sometimes taken aback by the number of applicants at Centech. “I don’t know why they choose us because we don’t do promotions,” says the director-general of the Montreal-based incubator and accelerator.
The fact that word of mouth is enough to fill their ranks is a clear testament to Centech’s success. Established in 1996, it is in fact one of the oldest incubator/accelerators in the country. Over those 20-plus years it has grown to become one of the largest tech company launchers in the country and has been ranked among the top 10 accelerators in the world according to University Business Incubator.
Up to 2015, applicants were exclusively students from its founding partner, the École de technologie supérieure engineering school. At that point it opened its doors to any applicants, and is now home to technopreneurs from 26 universities in 11 countries. Projects range from smart lighting and 3D modelling for industrial applications to medical cannabis and monitoring tools for turtle nests.
Centech’s main focus is on hardware and deep tech. According to Chénier, 100 per cent of solutions developed there have software and 85 per cent of those have software embedded in an object.
“We don’t create startups,” he says. “We launch businesses. That’s a different mindset from other accelerators. Even when a company has significant seed round financing, they still need to know how to spend that money and build their business in terms of legal, cash flow and pipeline building.”
Locketgo, a provider of temporary lockers for transporting to and from large events, is a member of the Centech two-year Propulsion Program. Since starting the company, Gabrielle La Rue has become a fixture on the startup scene.
Despite being a native of Montreal, La Rue says when someone recommended she apply to Centech, “My first question was, what is Centech? I had never heard of it.”
La Rue, who has extensive connections with the entertainment and event industry, realized Centech was the perfect place to build up expertise in the technology needed for her product. While the concept resonated well with customers, she says, “We were far from knowing what we were doing and weren’t even close to understanding the technology we needed to build our systems properly. I talked to Centech on a Friday and joined their Acceleration Program on the Monday.”
After completing that program Locketgo was accepted into the Propulsion Program. “The first stage taught me everything about running a business – how to pitch, future planning, etc. The next stage really gave us the strength and knowledge we needed to build the company.” Now, she says, they have a much bigger team and a new and improved product that is ready to launch.
One advantage of her time at Centech is that she can tap into a wide range of engineering talent. “Everyone here has their strengths. That helps a young company like ours shape where we want to go.”
Isabel Galiana, CEO and co-founder of Saccade Analytics, was equally surprised to hear about Centech during her business’ formative years. “When someone told me to apply to Centech, I had no idea what it was.”
Saccade was founded with the intent of commercializing 30 years of medical research into the neurophysiology of eye movement done by Dr. Mimi Galiana at McGill University’s Department of Medical Engineering; she is also a co-founder and chief science officer of Saccade. Unlike Locketgo, engineering technology was not as much of an issue as expanding its network of connections beyond academic circles, Isabel Galiana says.
In simple terms, the software, which can be embedded in off-the-shelf virtual reality goggles, evaluates brain functions based on eye and head movement. It’s a technology that can be used to diagnose abnormalities from concussion, neurological disorders or other causes.
Typically patients have to wait months for an assessment, which can take up to two hours and requires heavy, expensive equipment. Saccade’s software can complete a test within seven minutes and generate a report in about 30 seconds.
Galiana says Centech has pushed the team to build a company while growing a network with key contacts including medtech companies, healthcare organizations and sports associations. “Here we are not treated as a startup but as a company. The key is the security and support Centech provides. That’s very rare in every other aspect of an entrepreneur’s existence.”
The security means a great deal in terms of keeping innovation in Canada, Chénier believes. “When they leave Centech, they are autonomous and ready to grow. In our minds that’s the best way to create a future for our economy.”