Toronto startups kick off Elevator World Tour at CN Tower

Mejuri topped a large field of startups to win the first elevator pitch contest held atop Toronto’s CN Tower on Thursday.

The Toronto startup, which incorporates crowdsourcing into its online jewelry business, beat out 99 other emerging firms in the unique pitchfest. Each company had to impress judges during a 58-second ride in the CN Tower’s elevator.

The main goal of the event wasn’t to have a startup do a million-dollar deal based solely on their trip up the tower, but to give entrepreneurs a chance to polish their pitches and make key connections, said Mark Relph, an executive with event sponsor Microsoft Corp.

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“It’s an amazing event because the backbone of the this party is that we’re here to help Canadian startups, to give them opportunities and help them grow,” said Toronto-raised Relph, who is based in Redmond, Washington as senior director of startups and VCs for Microsoft’s Strategic and Emerging Business Team.

Grant Hall of Ottawa startup Nuvyyo tried to keep the goals for his pitch from getting too lofty before heading up the tower.

“I don’t expect anyone to write (us) a cheque tonight,” said Hall, CEO of the two-year-old firm whose JetStreamHD technology allows people to watch video, TV or music content on any device via Wi-fi . “Getting out and talking to people is incredibly important for a consumer product. You’re always looking for investors so any opportunity to pitch and make some connections is a win-win.”

Victorious startup Mejuri, a part of the Digital Media Zone program at Ryerson University, runs a Web site where jewelry designers can upload their original designs. The most popular designs – determined by crowdsourced votes – are then manufactured, marketed and sold by Mejuri with designers earning royalties on sales.

Mejuri walked away with a prize pack that includes free passes and paid travel to the International Startup Festival coming up in Montreal this July. They’ll compete there against winners from other cities slated to hold similar contests. The global series of events, dubbed the Elevator World Tour, is being organized by the Montreal-based festival.

Toronto was the first stop on the Elevator World Tour.

Other world famous skyscrapers set to host pitch contests as part of the tour are New York’s Empire State Building, Chicago’s Sears Tower, Paris’s Eiffel Tower, the Seattle Space Needle, Taipei 101 in Taiwan, Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the Hammetschwand Lift in Burgenstock, Switzerland. Additional cities can be nominated at the Elevator World Tour Web page.

Entrepreneurs who can’t afford to jet off to all those events can just wait for the documentary. American filmmaker Ondi Timoner was at the CN Tower on Thursday shooting some of the action for A Total Disruption, a documentary she’s putting together on the startup world. Timoner has won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival twice.  

The CN Tower event generated unique fears among some contestants: besides worrying about jittery nerves or tough judges, some wondered aloud if they’d be struck by vertigo or claustrophobia during the 22 km per hour ascent 1,815 feet above ground. And although the CN Tower is no longer the tallest freestanding structure in the world, it’s still high enough to cause safety concerns.

Strong winds that swept through the city on Thursday kept event organizers on high alert.  In gusty conditions, the CN Tower’s elevators are deliberately slowed down to prevent the building from swaying excessively. That stretches the usual 58-second elevator trip to three minutes, a pace that would have thrown a logistical wrench into plans to get all 100 pitches done in just two hours. But in the end, the event went smoothly.

Despite the flurry of startup events that have cropped up in Canada over the past few years (including Startup Weekends held in eight Canadian cities last year and others planned for new cities this year), there’s still room for more, Relph said, adding that they give investors, incubators and accelerators a chance to see fresh, innovative, Canadian ideas on a regular basis.

“We want to be where startups are,” said Relph, who heads up Microsoft’s efforts to scout startup talent through programs like its BizSpark initiative for software entrepreneurs.

After the 100 initial CN Tower pitches, six other startups made it to the final round where Mejuri prevailed: Dandy.co, Insta Radio, Sensor Suite, Shelf Life, Hover and Revelo.

Judges at the event were angel investors Austin Hill, April Dunford, Jonas Brandon and Rory Olson, venture capitalists Chris Arsenault (iNovia Capital), John Ruffolo (OMERS Ventures), Roger Wilson (BDC Ventures), Roger Chabra (Rho Ventures), Mark MacLeod (Real Ventures) and Kerri Golden (JOLT Fund LP), and Jason Bailey of Vancouver accelerator GrowLab.