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The app kings: meet the army of tech genius millionaires who are turning Toronto into the new Silicon Valley

Why bother with a boring office job when you can share code at networking parties, design games for smartphones and sell your idea for a fortune?

Peter Kieltyka and Jeff Brenner NuLayer makes Crowdreel, an app that collects and categorizes photos uploaded onto Twitter. Photos processed: 100 million.

A 20-something dressed in jeans and a T-shirt enters a stern, early-20th-century brick building near King and Yonge and gets on an elevator. He stands beside suits who spend their days plying commercial real estate and trading securities. The man-boy stops at the sixth floor and enters a cloud blue–coloured lobby, pulls a magnetic security card from the wallet in his jeans and swipes his way in. He removes his ear buds, drops his backpack at his desk and picks up a bagel in the kitchen, passing the room with the ping-pong and foosball tables and another room with the staff Xbox. Then he returns to his desk and becomes one face in a sea of young, so-nerdy-they’re-cool Michael Cera types, though many of these Michael Ceras are Asian, and a few are female. They sit at rows of computers organized by platform, like a really cliquey junior high lunchroom at the world’s smartest school: there’s the BlackBerry row. Android. IPhone. The room reverberates with chatter that sounds, to an outsider, like the kind of talk on a TV medical drama that makes no sense but communicates urgency through tone: “Fleshing out the photo imaging…test for download…integrated platform…”

Extreme Venture Partners is one of the most innovative companies remaking Toronto as a high-tech epicentre. It’s a new kind of hybrid business that houses both the investors and some of the tech companies in which they invest. The idea is to fund the talent, pass on the knowledge that will see them prosper, and increase the chances of a huge payday. Two hundred and fifty people work here. Two years ago, there were 25. Two years from now, the plan is to have 2,500.

Extreme has had good fortune with the 14 companies it’s invested in so far. The biggest in the current portfolio is Xtreme Labs, which builds apps for smartphones. Its apps for BlackBerry (10 million downloads and counting) include NBA Game Time, where basket­ball fans feed on live scoring and video highlights; Urbanspoon, which lists the best restaurant near where you’re standing; and dictionary.com, the biggest word definition app out there. Another investment, a company called J2Play, created a popular framework for multi-player games and was bought out by Electronic Arts last year for a rumoured $2 million. Google is said to have paid $35 million for BumpTop, another Extreme start-up. BumpTop’s founder, a U of T graduate named Anand Agarawala, had a simple but brilliant idea: a touch-screen app for tablet computers that imitates a real-world desk. His program can make the usual 2-D desktop graphics appear amusingly 3-D; with your finger, you can arrange objects in piles and even pin them to walls.

Extreme also runs Extreme University, a training program for young entrepreneurs who want to prove they have what it takes to execute a tech idea that will attract investors or get bought for millions. Three teams of two to four people are selected for each 12-week session. Extreme gives them each $5,000 in seed money, and in exchange the company owns a piece of the project. The students work next to seasoned veterans—many only in their 20s—and attend a speaker series of business world rock stars who drop by to share their insights. “Mike McDerment was here,” one young developer told me during my visit, sounding like a 12-year-old girl who had just met Justin Bieber. (McDerment is the CEO of a Toronto-based on-line billing company called FreshBooks with 1.6 million users.)

One team in the training program is led by Shaharris Beh, a bass-voiced 26-year-old former VJ from Malaysia. He’s working on an app called Sunrank that aggregates popular opinions: if you desperately need to find out whom the masses determine to be history’s Coolest Rock Chick, you can find a top 10 list immediately, based on the users’ opinions of Joan Jett. Beh got the idea when he was watching the spread of iPhone fever. “I kept thinking, OK, yeah, everyone knows what the number one phone is,” he told me, “but what’s the second most popular phone?” He’s devoted to Google’s Android and hates Apple. “I’d rather slit my wrists than use something that hipsters buy to express their ‘quirky, unique identities and personalities,’ ” he says.

Another team is building an app and a Web site that designs the perfect date, offering advice on wine bars and relationships through your phone. “We used to be called cheapdateideas.ca, but we’re rebranding,” says Will Lam, who is 28. With the air of an inventor pulling back the curtain to display his latest brainstorm, he says, expectantly, “It’s getdateideas.com now.” Lam left a full-time position in the fraud investigations unit at BMO to perfect his app. One of his two partners, 30-year-old Matt Read, quit his job developing insurance rating software at the Markham company Camilion Solutions; the third partner, 27-year-old Irene Kuan, one of the few women in the office, is a journalist on leave from the news agency Reuters, making the leap from old media to new.

“Three years ago, we never would have left our jobs. It would have been completely stupid,” says Read. “But now you see your friends out there taking risks, and you don’t want to get left behind.”

“The whole city is enrolled in Entrepreneurship 101,” Kuan adds.

 

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