Coping with COVID-19: Whitby tech companies make most of instant changes

WHITBY — Even though it was designed to be a hub for technology innovators, the Whitby 1855 Accelerator has managed to weather the storm of the COVID-19 pandemic remarkably well.

And that’s despite having to shut its doors to all of its members on March 13.

Due to physical distancing requirements caused by the pandemic, it’s now impossible for the 15 companies and dozens and dozens of employees to work out of the 400 Centre St. S. location, the site of the old land registry office.

But in no way has that stopped companies from plowing ahead and even growing, said 1855 CEO Stephanie Mann in a phone interview last week.

“Tech companies have always had remote developers, different members of their team working in different parts of the province and different locations so they’re very, very adaptable to a remote centre,” said Mann in describing how quickly each of the 15 member companies has been able to pivot to remote and virtual work.

The 1855 Accelerator, launched with much fanfare by the Town of Whitby in April 2019, just celebrated its first birthday April 11. Its purpose is to provide support, services and a boost to tech and innovative companies just beyond the startup stage that are looking to reach the next level in their economic development.

Mann points to several examples of members of 1855 that have been able to actually grow over the last three months.

She highlighted a company called ShiftLink, which has a simple yet critical purpose: to provide shift notifications for employees who choose to take available shifts. The software is completely customizable and simple to use, according to ShiftLink CEO and co-founder Julie Adams.

Because ShiftLink is active in the health-care space, the COVID-19 pandemic and the service it provides were almost a perfect union in a difficult time.

“We’re really fortunate. In April alone we’ve seen our system usage increase by 13 per cent based on our client usage last year from the exact same time,” said Adams who counts as ShiftLink clients Markham Stouffville Hospital, Stevenson Memorial Hospital in Alliston, Ont., and about 20 homeless shelters including Covenant House in Toronto and Shephards of Good Hope in Ottawa. They also have pilot programs going on with St. Joseph’s Health Centre and St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.

“In March and April alone, our system delivered 1.5 million notifications for work, and that probably worked out to about 14,000 individual shifts. That’s in hospitals and shelters across the board. The 1.5-million notifications: that’s how many phone calls (to workers to ask if they want a shift) have been saved,” said Adams.

She explained that ShiftLink works best in a unionized environment and is adaptable to specific rules around seniority and other issues. It is also geared toward job requirements. So, if a company needs an emergency room nurse for instance, only notifications go out to nurses who work in emergency, not in other departments at the hospital or facility.

Adams explained that ShiftLink had to ramp up its ability to react to a request from a client during the pandemic.

“A large hospital said, ‘We’re opening a brand new COVID-19 specific area, we need ShiftLink, we need it right now, can you guys get us organized? So we worked over a two-day period and we posted shifts to the system within 48 hours,” said Adams noting it had normally taken the company 30 days to customize and get a system up and running for an organization.

Mann notes that other 1855 companies like SmartDesk, a customer relationship marketing (CRM) company that has been able to “on-board two or three new clients every week since we closed in mid March. And they just on-boarded two new interns from Ontario Tech this past week.”

And she said SpaceiShare, described by Mann as “like an Airbnb for parking and storage” that can help find condo owners clients for empty parking spots in their buildings, or empty places for construction companies to park their vehicles, has also been thriving.

Mann said there is a bit of a downside to not having companies and people on site at 1855's Centre Street locale.

“The company founders can’t stay on top of their teams and they’ve really got to look at trust and they’re now able to see where the deficiencies are on their teams. There’s also not that sense of camaraderie. Some companies have developers and they’re not social people, so how do you keep engaging them virtually — it was good for them to be around people,” Mann said.

To help alleviate that, Mann, who said she feels like “the mother hen” for the 1855 Accelerator employees, initiated a Friday happy hour and “doing social things as well as plugging them into community events. We want them to jump into this webinar today, we tell them it’s for everybody, we want you to feel supported.

“As for the mental piece of it, everybody’s in good spirits. A couple that struggled in the beginning that were afraid, turned it around and are really pleased.”

STORY BEHIND THE STORY: The Whitby 1855 Accelerator was created to be a hub for tech innovators just beyond the startup stage. But COVID-19 forced its members to start working remotely March 13 so reporter Tim Kelly wanted to know how they were doing two months in.