Startups judged in JNF pitch competition

Lions Anne-Marie Boucher, left, Mitch Garber and Jonathan Goodman, co-founder and CEO of Knight Therapeutics Inc., chat at Tech Shuk, a showcase for emerging entrepreneurs presented by Jewish National Fund Future.

A Montreal-based startup that believes a happy marriage is possible between public buses and artificial intelligence was the big winner at the Jewish National Fund’s Lions’ Den competition on Jan. 27.

Blaise Transit, which is developing an AI-based software platform that would enable public transit agencies to run on-demand bus service, impressed the eight business people who judged the competition. “An audacious business plan,” they concluded.

The competition was part of Tech Shuk, a project of JNF Future, the young leadership division, to showcase budding entrepreneurs.

The Lions found the presentation by Justin Hunt, who co-founded Blaise in 2018, to be technologically and financially sound idea that will benefit commuters, employers, taxpayers and the environment.

Hunt says Blaise (named for Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century Frenchman credited with launching the first public transit system) wants to make buses the most convenient transportation option for everyone – at least where no subway or commuter trains exist – and more economical than ride sharing.

Its software is being piloted in Laval and Saguenay, and there is interest in such diverse countries as Estonia and the Philippines.

Lion Mitch Garber praised the concept as “the way of the future” and offered to help Hunt “meet the right people.” Garber might loan Blaise the $200,000 Hunt said it is seeking in “pre-seed” funding in exchange for a convertible note that includes a 20 per cent discount on shares.

Lions’ Den was modeled on the long-running CBC reality show Dragons’ Den. Representatives of five early-stage businesses made their pitches before the judges who were paired into four teams.

“It’s just like the TV show, no money is actually invested until due diligence is done,” explained JNF communications director David Smajovits. “But the Lions were very interested in Blaise Transit, Hush Blankets, Spotfinity and Dov Vas. Conversations about financial details began immediately after Tech Shuk and are ongoing.”

Hush Blankets was the People’s Choice, according to the audience’s texted vote. They were impressed with the snappy presentation by Aaron Spivak and Lior Ohayon from the Toronto-based company that manufactures weighted blankets.

Founded less than three years ago, Hush made $7.5 million in 2019, they say, almost entirely through direct to consumer sales.

The blankets are said to induce relaxation and better sleep.

They were seeking $500,000 for a 10 per cent stake in the business. But more than money, Spivak and Ohayon want a strategic partner to help them expand into the United States.

“Who’s ready to get in bed with us?” Spivak challenged.

Lion Debra Margles, president of Michael Kors Canada, seemed the most enthusiastic having heard the blankets are “fantastic.” Also not leaving without some encouragement was Marc Chriqui, founder and CEO of Spotfinity, an app that connects buyers and sellers at major events in North America, such as Toronto’s CNE and the Calgary Stampede.

He will be meeting with Lion Clarissa Desjardins, CEO of Clementia Pharmaceuticals, to discuss potential mentorship, Smajovits said afterward. She has contacts in the U.S. that might be of assistance.

Vas is a 16-year-old Hebrew Academy student who left the Lions gaping in awe at his inventiveness, marketing sense and maturity.

He is the 2020 JNF Future Entrepreneur, and though not in the running for the Lions’ Choice, was given the opportunity to demonstrate a prototype of his “Smart Belt” for the visually impaired.

The gadget, worn around the waist, he explained, has four ultra-sound scanners providing a four-metre radius intended to allow the blind to navigate their surroundings. Vas claimed there is nothing like it on the market.

He asked for $30,000 for 20 per cent equity. Vas invented the belt for a school science fair and taken it onto provincial-level meets.

Lion Anne-Marie Boucher, co-founder of BCF Business Law, offered to introduce the teen to people who can help him bring his project to commercialization. Her teammate (and husband) Garber said he would extend a loan, if this is truly a business endeavour, without any piece of it in return.

Also venturing into the Den were Elliot Daigneault and Michael Khazzam of Bizbiz Share and Eitan Lavie of My Zeppi.

The former is a platform matching small and medium-sized businesses in need of a specific piece of heavy equipment with other businesses who want to rent it.

The most unusual startup was My Zeppi, the creation of Lavie, a former F-15 pilot with the Israeli air force, who moved to Montreal 1 ½ years ago.

The Zeppi is a flying video set that he says will allow virtual visits with, for example, elderly relatives. When the receiver accepts a “visit,” the device unmoors from its dock and floats over to where they are. The screen is large enough for the visitor’s face to be seen as life size, he said.