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As the world rushes to protect data, Toronto emerges as a cybersecurity hub

Rob Douglas’s company, BioConnect, has emerged as a leader in Toronto’s burgeoning cybersecurity sector.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

In dozens of sports arenas across the United States, athletes unlock doors to secured areas with a biometric app on their mobile phones that recognizes their fingerprints, faces, eyes or voices.

The technology is part of a made-in-Canada product by BioConnect, a Toronto startup whose core offering is an intelligent platform that translates data from different biometric products into a single language.

"We created technology that takes data related to face, finger, voice or behaviour – whether it's coming from a mobile device or a fixed device on a door – and plugs them all into one platform to prove or disprove someone's rightful identity," says Rob Douglas, BioConnect's chairman and chief executive officer. "That's the problem we solve."

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BioConnect is part of an emerging cybersecurity hub in Toronto that industry insiders and observers say is bound to grow as more startups enter the space to capitalize on the burgeoning demand for data protection. In an October, 2016, report on Canada's cybersecurity industry, the research and consulting firm Deloitte found more than half of all cybersecurity firms in the country were bas-ed in the Greater Toronto Area.

While many of these companies are still in the startup stage, a few have begun to break away as leaders of the pack. BioConnect is among these leaders, as are SecureKey Technologies Inc., Rank Software Inc. and SOTI Inc.

"I've noticed in the last two years a very significant uptick in the building of the cybersecurity ecosystem in Toronto," says Mr. Douglas. "You're seeing on multiple levels of government and in industry a real commitment to making this area a centre of excellence around cybersecurity, and this is causing businesses to realize that this is an opportunity and they need to expand around it."

Toronto's rise as a cybersecurity hotspot comes as no surprise, says Roy Kao, senior advisor for finance and commerce at the Toronto-based MaRS Discovery District, which helps to launch and nurture innovative startups.

As part of a technology corridor that extends west to Waterloo, Ont., Toronto boasts a large concentration of technology companies.

"Toronto in general plays a leading role globally when it comes to innovation in the IT sector, and our profile has grown recently with additional players in the fintech space," says Mr. Kao, referring to firms that focus on tech for the financial industry. "Because of our great academic institutions – such as the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo and everyone else in between – we've always had a very healthy feeding source for talent."

At the same time, business incubators and accelerators such as MaRS and the Digital Media Zone at Ryerson University continue to help startups launch in Toronto, says Mr. Kao. Governments have also stepped up their game. Last month, for instance, the Ontario government introduced small business grants for companies that are working on technologies to solve cybersecurity problems within the province's finance sector.

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What sets Toronto apart from other technology hubs – and makes it an ideal breeding ground for cybersecurity companies – is the city's status as financial capital of the country.

"Five of the six big banks in Canada have their head office within a five-kilometre radius of downtown Toronto," says Mr. Kao. "The financial services industry has become a natural ally of the cybersecurity industry because they have a great need to secure their customers' data."

Cybersecurity is one of the biggest risks facing financial companies, says Janet Ecker, former president and CEO of the Toronto Financial Services Alliance, a partnership between the financial industry and governments.

"Of the top 10 things that keep financial services-firms' CEOs awake at night, one to eight are cybersecurity-related – they're looking for better solutions to protect the privacy of their clients, the stability of their systems and the financial system in general."

Toronto's growing expertise in artificial intelligence and machine learning is also fuelling the success of the city's cybersecurity industry, says Niranjan Mayya, founder and CEO of Toronto-based Rank Software, which specializes in cybersecurity platforms that combine big data analytics and artificial intelligence.

The city is gearing up to be an AI centre; this year saw the launch of the Vector Institute, an independent organization affiliated with U of T and funded with government and corporate dollars.

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With the sheer volume of data flowing in and out of businesses these days, the longstanding methods to protect against breaches – such as anti-virus and detection software that watch for known threats – are no longer enough, says Mr. Mayya.

"Everybody has realized there is a limit to what you can catch with these existing techniques," he says, "which is why you need artificial intelligence and machine learning to tackle this problem."

To improve its AI expertise, Rank Software has started working with an assistant professor at the University of Toronto's Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, whose research focuses on AI, machine learning and large-scale data analytics. "We have data scientists in-house, but we are also doing some collaborations with Dr. Scott Sanner at U of T," says Mr. Mayya.

Beyond AI, advanced technologies such as blockchain and quantum computing are also expected to play critical roles in tomorrow's data protection, says Ms. Ecker. Toronto's cybersecurity companies are well positioned to tap into these technologies.

"We have a diversity of technology strengths in Toronto that includes AI and blockchain," says Ms. Ecker.

Last November, a number of the city's data-protection businesses went farther afield – to Israel, as part of a municipal government-led trip.

"The trip was to forge connections with Israel, which is a top cybersecurity hub in the world," says Toronto Mayor John Tory, who led the mission that saw a half-dozen cybersecurity businesses visit five cities in Israel. "I can already see fruit coming from that, with people in Toronto partnering up with people in Israel."

Mr. Douglas at BioConnect was among the delegates. The trip, he says, has had a profound impact on him and his company. "I've been able to take those insights and deploy them in our own ecosystem.

"We're still a young industry in Toronto, but the cyber challenge is growing, and along with that, the industry will continue to expand."

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