Toronto hosts Collision amid global acclaim for U of T startups

A biomedical firm whose drug discovery platform is used by 16 of top 20 pharmaceutical companies. A quantum computing startup whose machine recently outperformed the world’s most powerful supercomputers. A genomics company whose cloud-based software enabled better data-sharing and analysis during the pandemic – and earned plaudits from the World Economic Forum.

BenchSci, Xanadu Quantum Technologies and DNAstack are just three local tech companies that have helped solidify the University of Toronto’s reputation as Canada’s top engine for research-based startups while contributing to a tech boom that has attracted talent and investment to the Toronto region.

The spotlight on Toronto’s tech scene will shine especially brightly this week as the city hosts Collision, North America’s fastest-growing tech conference. More than 35,000 attendees – including startup founders, business leaders, investors, scientists, journalists and celebrities – are expected to participate in the in-person gathering, which was held virtually for the past two years due to COVID-19. That’s up 40 per cent from the last time the event was held in-person in Toronto.

“There is more than two years of pent-up energy for Collision, and we are seeing strong interest across the entire U of T community as well as international delegations that are keen to re-engage with our city and our university in person,” says Jon French, director of U of T Entrepreneurship.

“Our innovation ecosystem continues to enjoy incredible growth, and Collision is an excellent opportunity to shine a light on this momentum and the impact our entrepreneurial ecosystem is having globally.”

Several U of T founders are scheduled to speak at the conference. They include Liran Belenzon, CEO of BenchSci, which Belenzon and three U of T alumni co-founded in 2015 with support from U of T’s Entrepreneurship HatcheryHealth Innovation Hub (H2i) and the Creative Destruction Lab at Rotman.

The topic of his presentation? The importance of culture in hyper-growth startups – a subject Belenzon knows intimately. BenchSci raised $123 million in funding from a who’s who of investors and expanded its team from 50 to 285 in the last three years (with plans to keep growing).

“When you navigate a completely white space with no blueprint, and you’re doing something that no one has ever done in the past, culture is crucial,” says Belenzon, who earned an MBA from U of T’s Rotman School of Management.

He adds that BenchSci sought to nail down its culture early on by integrating it into every aspect of its operations – a task that is now being bolstered by Jessica Neal, former chief of talent at Netflix who recently joined BenchSci’s advisory board.

The company even has a 55-page “culture deck” that lays out its values, rules of engagement and leadership manifesto. It includes innovative ideas such as paying a recent hire an extra month’s salary if they quit within the first three months – a policy aimed at ensuring that employees who stay on feel that the job is right for them.

“Culture is how we do things around here,” says Belenzon. “For us, success is not only what we accomplish but how we accomplish it – how you do things, how you communicate, how you make decisions, how you treat each other and how you move forward together.”

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By Rahul Kalvapalle

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