TORONTO — Canada's technology sector was a hotbed of activity this year as investors circled a new generation of startups in hopes of getting in early for the next rising star. The steep decline in crude oil prices has offered extra incentive to get behind a different sector in 2016 in the hunt for the next Shopify success story.
Here are four growing Canadian tech companies that have the potential to grab plenty of attention next year, from both investors and consumers:
WHO THEY ARE: With a Canadian at the helm of this New York-based company, and half of its 22 employees in Kitchener, Ont., Zootly is making noise on both sides of the border. The startup wants to deliver a shot in the arm to the moving industry with an on-demand app much like Uber. Zootly works as a logistics operator, connecting reputable moving companies — which generally lack a strong online presence — with people looking to use their services.
WHERE THEY'LL GO: Zootly works in New York and the company plans to roll out across the United States and Canada starting in 2016.
WHY THEY'LL GROW: Unlike Airbnb and Uber, Zootly partners with movers rather than working against the existing industry, which means pushback should be minimal. So far, they have about 25 moving companies on their side in New York representing about 250 moving trucks.
THE HURDLES: Zootly planned to launch as a public company this year but hit a snag when its reverse takeover of Ethos Gold, a gold miner listed on the TSX Venture Exchange, fell apart in the final hours. The move would have sped up Zootly's IPO process and given the company an ability to use Ethos' former tax losses to its advantage. At this point, Zootly is looking at alternatives and still aims to go public next year.
WHO THEY ARE: Two women from Kitchener are the duo behind a subscription-based app designed to make communication easier for construction workers. Bridgit connects contractors and skilled labourers to a single platform to keep everyone updated on each step — and every hiccup — in a construction project. The app integrates text communications, images and other tools.
WHERE THEY'LL GO: Bridgit is already being used on condo projects in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. A beta launch in New York is leading up to a broader U.S. expansion in the new year.
WHY THEY'LL GROW: The construction industry can be a complex beast and communication has been one of its greatest challenges. Earlier this month, the founders won the top prize at Google's Entrepreneurs Demo Day for Women in San Francisco, a competition of 11 startups from around the globe, creating more buzz for what could an industry-wide solution.
THE HURDLES: Developers pay Bridgit a flat rate on a project-by-project basis, which means the founders will have to ensure there aren't any snags in its rollout that sour customers.
WHO THEY ARE: The Vancouver-based social media management developer has built a business on its computer "dashboard" software that links outlets like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn under one profile, making it easier to manage posts across various platforms. Consumers can use a free version of the dashboard while more serious users can upgrade to a premium account for a monthly subscription fee.
WHERE THEY'LL GO: Hootsuite is forging more partnerships, most recently with Microsoft's suite of business tools like SharePoint, Yammer and Dynamics CRM to enhance marketing on social media, offering new insights into consumer activity.
WHY THEY'LL GROW: The company is chasing business clients willing to fork out big bucks for the support of account managers and analytics data.
THE HURDLES: In early December, Hootsuite laid off about 20 employees in Vancouver, part of its international staff of about 1,000 people, sparking questions about whether the company was tweaking its business to look more attractive for an expected IPO. The company has 1,000 employees across North America. Chief executive Ryan Holmes has spoken about speeding up plans to go public, but so far that hasn't come to fruition, and representatives for HootSuite declined to talk about its future.
WHO THEY ARE: Founder Roger Hardy shifted his attention from heads to toes, selling off successful eye-care web business ClearlyContacts.ca and shovelling some of the money into shoes. He paired with a number of financiers to merge two e-commerce shoe retailers — ShoeMe.ca in Vancouver and OnlineShoes.com in Seattle — into a larger business that could trample the competition.
WHERE THEY'LL GO: Shoes.com is taking a page from traditional retail by opening physical stores in major cities across Canada. The company wants to mimic pop-up stores by stocking only one brand of shoes each month. Shoes.com is also expanding into new product lines through its acquisition of socks and underwear company Richer Poorer.
WHY THEY'LL GROW: Shoes are big business and Shoes.com prides itself in offering 450 brands, about double the selection of its major competitors.
THE HURDLES: Retailers who have expanded product lines too quickly often end up overwhelmed by complications. If Shoes.com strays too far from its business model, it might learn that lesson the hard way.
Follow @dj_friend on Twitter
David Friend, The Canadian Press