Busy Weekend in Montreal Sees Three Events Spurring Startup Community

Like telling a good wine by its scent, you can tell a lot about a startup scene by the events that are hosted. Montreal was a creative hive of activity this weekend, and I rushed from one exciting startup event to another, each time regretting the departure, and enjoying the arrival.

It started with FailCamp MTL, an event focused on destigmatizing failure by getting people who had gone through it to talk about how and why they failed, and more importantly how they learned from it to build anew. The room buzzed with energy as startup founders told their stories, and with a whimsical tone, painted a picture of a world where failure is accepted as the price for greatness, and where risks should be taken: the same startup world these founders had lived and breathed for years.

It was somebody from outside of the technology world that brought a more diverse perspective. The organizers of the camp had invited mayoral candidate Melanie Joly to talk about her story. Ms. Joly had run for mayor of Montreal, surprising everybody by jumping from obscurity to being second in the tightly contested mayoral race, taking a lean political startup with a few team members to the cusp of the mayor’s office. Her talk was given without any slides, and came from the heart. She talked passionately about stepping forward and taking on risks, and how one should not be afraid of failure, but rather prepare diligently to direct the perception of it.

It was a risk-taking mentality that would resonate with the students at McHacks, a McGill hosted event that billed itself as the largest Canadian hackathon. For hours at a time, participating students would huddle around their laptops striving to build out their new application ideas. The groups I talked with all thought large: they took on an abundant amount of risk for something they knew had to be built and judged within a few hours.

One group proposed organizing items for businesses with NFC tags, which could communicate menu items, or any sort of categorized information to one’s Android-equipped smartphone. Another wanted to build a crossword game for cross-language learning: while clues were posted in English, solutions would have to be provided in French. Finally, another team would parse menu text for restaurants, and have it displayed digitally. All of these teams demonstrated ideas that could have been business-ready with a few minor tweaks.

It was an ambitious effort for students, many of whom had never had a taste of startup life yet. Some had come from Montreal-area CEGEPs to participate, so you could imagine a group of students, some as young as 17, building great new ideas within a span of forty-eight hours.

They were not alone in this endeavour. The McHacks team had assembled an impressive array of sponsors, and a bunch of speakers came from all over the technology world to impart their knowledge. MongoDB handed out t-shirts, and reference guides for students as they worked. Others gave small mini-lectures about their technology, and how it could benefit students.

In the one talk I saw, Microsoft’s Rami Sayar talked about Windows Azure, Microsoft’s cloud hosting solution. He offered every student in the crowd a $220 trial credit so that they could deploy and host their applications on Azure. The students learned about the technology behind the platform, and what they could do with it to help deploy their projects faster. It was a good catalyst for the new ideas taking flight that weekend at McGill.

Only a few kilometers away at Saint-Justine Hospital under the banner of HackingHealth, a whole different set of ideas were taking flight for a set of problems in the healthcare sector. Hackers were working together with the hospital to create new ways of dealing with the pain points of healthcare practitioners and patients.

The teams on hand created an impressive amount of innovation by tapping into hardware-software interaction: one team created a motion sensor, that when attached to a child’s favorite teddy bear, could be shaken to change their parent’s smartphone color to red indicating that their child was in pain. Another team hacked into Google Glass to create a hands-free reference guide for surgeons.

A highlight of the night came when one team presented their treatment for cystic fibrosis, a disease that affects the lungs and creates thick secretions within the body. They created a game where children could blow into a pipe, removing the secretions, while controlling a spaceship through an obstacle course. It was a fun cure for a serious disease, delivered under 48 hours.

For this dynamic weekend, Montreal had come together to learn how to build something despite the fear of failure. Through the frantic pace of activities, a community of hackers, entrepreneurs, and established organizations had worked together to deliver incredible projects. As wine flowed from the different networking sessions, it gave off a distinct scent of creative energy.