From mental health and medicines to spikeball and cosmetics, startup founders sought to impress judges with their innovative ideas at a recent pitch competition hosted by The Hub, an entrepreneurial incubator at the University of Toronto Scarborough.
“This year’s pitch competition really showcased innovative solutions to some of the world’s most common challenges,” says Donovan Dill, who leads operations at The Hub. “We are very proud of this year’s cohort, who are now in residence at The Hub.”
Here are some of the entrepreneurs who walked away with cash prizes to help build their budding businesses.
Meds for Less
“Like Amazon for medicines”
Aliya Ali Shaikha's start-up Meds for Less, which won $10,000, created an app that lets users order drugs from pharmacies in India.
Aliya Ali Shaikha didn’t realize how expensive medicine can be until her father had to reduce his health insurance – but she spotted an opportunity when she discovered the drugs he needed were almost 70 per cent cheaper if ordered and shipped from India.
“People are literally suffering because medicines are so expensive,” says Shaikha, a third-year neuroscience student at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the founder of startup Meds for Less. “If we can connect them to Indian pharmacies, it’s a game-changer.”
Meds For Less has an app featuring 140,000 Indian drugs that are at least 50 per cent cheaper than those at the non-Indian pharmacies Shaikha researched. Within roughly 72 hours of uploading a prescription, a partner pharmacy in India fills the order and the drugs arrive at a customer’s doorstep.
“We are like an Amazon for medicines,” says Shaikha, an international student from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The company is currently operating in the UAE and is targeting Canada next, with a goal of reaching any place in need of affordable medicine.
“I came to Canada because I heard about free health care, but I learned that provincial health insurance doesn’t even cover prescription drugs,” says Shaikha. “We want to make sure that no one has to compromise on their health because of cost.”
A straightforward spikeball solution
Shayne Gryba demonstrates his spikeball net at The Hub's annual pitch competition.
Playing roundnet, a sport commonly known as “spikeball,” involves hitting a ball onto a trampoline-like net until the ball touches the ground or the net’s rim. Things get complicated when players hit a pocket – the slightly saggy part of the net next to the rim.
“In other sports the boundaries are clear; in tennis there's a two-inch white line and ping-pong has the edges of a table. For spikeball, the boundary is fuzzy,” says Shayne Gryba, who recently finished his PhD in theoretical physics at U of T.
Gryba’s solution? He developed a net with a uniformly bouncy surface and no pockets. His model can be put together 10 times faster than the traditional version without losing its consistent tension. It fits into a small backpack and the rim is outfitted with pieces that make a distinct noise when touched.
His start-up, Bash Roundnet, is looking for investors while he continues honing the model.
Proactive mental health chatbot
Chijindu Ukagwu drew on his experience as a mental health nurse to create his startup.
Chijindu Ukagwu, a mental health nurse, wants to automate mental health screenings without losing the feeling of conversation patients get from interactions with health-care staff.
So, he founded mhapy, a startup with a chatbot named Ruby that has open-ended conversations while subtly completing mental health status exams. Over time, Ruby detects a user’s baseline mood and symptoms. If the user’s mental health begins to worsen, the chatbot notifies their support system – be it a friend, family member or mental health professional.
“We are democratizing access to mental health chatbots,” says says Ukagwu, a master’s student at U of T. “With our software, any psychotherapist or mental health organization will be able to get a version of our chatbot and share it with patients.”
mhapy has been training Ruby on more than 2,000 conversations totalling more than 18,000 messages. The company is also working on a feature to connect users with similar symptoms, expanding their support network.
A smarter way to buy cosmetics
The Beau Beauty team, from left to right: Joshua Raphael, Kritika Pandey, Didier Ramazani and Benny Liao.
Some cosmetics retailers let customers “try on” makeup using virtual filters, but the team at Beau Beauty hasn’t been impressed with the accuracy of these simple overlays.
“Especially for people of colour, the virtual makeup try-ons are mismatching skin tone and colour,” says Joshua Raphael, a graduate of the bachelor of business administration program.
The team is training an AI model to better recognize skin qualities and facial features and use augmented reality to show what products will really look like on faces. Users will be able to try on multiple cosmetics at once, get recommendations and add products straight to their cart.
The potential impacts aren’t skin-deep – the team’s research found one in four product returns are for cosmetics, which end up in landfills.
“There are developing countries where people are living next to piles of makeup returns,” says Kritika Pandey, who graduated with a degree in finance and statistics. “We can make sure people get the right product.”