new northern lights freeze the clock as we ride new waves, help.

This is a newsletter about regulatory hacking featuring (mostly) Canadian startups.
Because all start-ups need a regulatory strategy to succeed.
Most of all, we need more startups to embed policy thinking into their product design processes and more policymakers to take an entrepreneurial, experimental approach to regulation.

Spotlight: Acorn Biolabs 

Policy Leadership: Project Northern Lights & The Help List

Legislative Pages: New Waves

Tune: I Feel Alive

How am I doing? I feel like a dusty balloon just floating around. And I find the strange surreality of the Magical Realism Bot especially soothing. So that’s where I’m at in pandemic terms. How are you?

BTW, I got a few questions from a reader last week about how I “decide” what to put in the newsletter. Is there a formula, a method to the madness? A framework in which everything clicks? A pitch meeting in the mirror? No. Just the thematic headers: an interesting Canadian company, policy leadership, a book suggestion, and a song. I’m not doing “setting money on fire” right now and I’m saving “space policy” for a few stand-alone pieces. Know about it.

But if I wanted to mention that the US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence just released their First Quarter Recommendations, I can right here.

spotlight: C100’s 48 Hours in the Valley Cohort

Speaking of surreal, startups are getting “pummelled” in what has been referred to as “the great unwinding.” Yet the C100 community is relentlessly pursuing its mission in trying times. That means they are still sending 26 early-stage Canadian entrepreneurs to 48Hrs in the Valley, C100’s signature program that aims to support and inspire the next generation of Canadian success stories through mentorship, thought-partnership, and venture guidance. But instead of travelling in May, the tickets are booked for October. #mood.

It feels a little odd to skim these companies as we approach Canada’s (potential?) peak of the pandemic, especially when you realize that entire companies are being built around micro-interventions.

The themes that stood out for me in the cohort are: health, insurance, and home-buying. Note to self: I’d like to spend more time looking at business-to-government company Proof.

Best regs to riches company? ScholarMe. It helps college students in the US by automating applications for 1,000+ financial aid sources with a single form—F the bureacuracy. But does this need to be a company? That’s literally one of my all-time favourite questions. I just want everyone to know that you can build something important and meaningful without being the CEO + co-founder.

Of the 26 companies, the most intriguing from a policy perspective is:

acorn biolabs

Acorn Biolabs is basically egg-freezing for your cells.

‘Acorn offers affordable, non-invasive live cell collection, analysis and cryopreservation unlocking preventative and regenerative healthcare through the simple non-invasive plucking of a few hairs.

Acorn enables people to save their young cells today for use in future regenerative medicine to give them the best chance of therapeutic success.’

While I can’t say that affordability has been the barrier to me not “banking” my young (are they young? That’s a Facebook maybe) cells, I wonder why people might do this. It seems the bigger play is around personalized healthcare and helping you prep for a future where regenerative medicine will revolutionize medicine with things like skin regrowth, spinal cord neuron repair, printing of 3D hearts, and, oh you know, curing blindness.

From a policy perspective, it gives me major 23-and-me vibes. You’re entrusting a private company with your genetic material. Reading through the Terms and Privacy Policy, there’s an anticipatory clause about The Future.

future laws

In the event that the Cells may be used for a medical use in the future, such use will be subject to all applicable laws at that time in the future. Acorn will only release the Cells to you or to your doctor/health care professionals in accordance with applicable laws and authorizations that may be necessary in the future.

It’s hot to talk about “informed consent” right now, but can you have informed consent about vague future laws? Why wouldn’t people just consent again? I wonder if anyone would use my cells to solve a crime (note: I have not committed any crimes).

genealogy and solving crimes

Acorn may disclose your Personal Information to a third party if required by law, regulation, search warrant, subpoena, court order, or other governmental authority.

How might (future….) regs create riches for this company? I suppose being able to use your cells for research that they can commercialize is the biggest competitive advantage acorn could seek. Maybe they’ll sell you expensive, private, custom healthcare in the future once “personalized” healthcare has some guardrails around it.

Fun. Anyway, I Googled around some more on the weekend re: stem cell research (“how get stem cells why”) and it seems that plucking a hair from your head is the gift that keeps on giving.

Once a stem cell line is established from a cell in the body, it is essentially immortal, no matter how it was derived. That is, the researcher using the line will not have to go through the rigorous procedure necessary to isolate stem cells again. Once established, a cell line can be grown in the laboratory indefinitely and cells may be frozen for storage or distribution to other researchers.

policy leadership: simple platforms = swoon

This week’s kudos go to two Canadian tech initiatives that are the opposite of the “disaster opportunism” I fear may already be underway by certain companies: Project Northern Lights + The Help List. They are two simple, inclusive af platforms built by Canadians and borne of COVID-19. They’re not going to 48 Hours in the Valley, and they don’t need to. Are they funded by government dollars? No. Do their websites have more text on the founder’s bios than describing the entire concept? Also no. I appreciate that they’ve been stripped of the vanity that sometimes characterizes the innovation economy. And for these facts alone, I salute them.

1. northern lights

Project Northern Lights (which I learned about through the Globe and Mail) brings together Canadians to use their expertise to produce much-needed medical supplies in an effort to design, build and deliver everything from masks to portable intensive care units. The project has attracted a small army of developers, engineers and designers, all looking to help fight the pandemic. It has also brought in wedding decorators, seamstresses, film set builders, high schoolers, lifeguards, electricians, illustrators, event planners and auto-glass installers, who just want to pitch in however they can.

2. the help list

The Help List is a non-profit initiative committed to curating the most relevant and meaningful resources for the Canadian Technology Sector during this global crisis. A few weeks ago, it started as an open and collaborative database of tech workers who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 crisis.

They are open to anyone who wants to get involved: posting a job, hosting a webinar, and they are launching a survey that they will share with the government.

why am I crushing so hard on these guys?

These platforms may not be forever, but they are for now. They’re not being deceptively monetized or aggressively tracking user engagement. I like to imagine that these mission-driven, motivated people building the tools don’t give a f*ck about the *top of the funnel,* you know? Instead, talented people just built something responsive, simple, and elegant - not to mention, actually useful.

That’s hacking in the public interest.

*honourary mention: community make

Community Make is bringing together Canadian entrepreneurs, technology experts and medical professionals to find out what is needed and how people can help. Cute!

legislative pages: new waves

This book has a sick website. It’s by Kevin Nguyen, the features editor at The Verge. I’ve followed him on Twitter for a while and I was curious about his debut novel. Wow, who’s lurking now?

“Set in the New York City tech world, a wry and edgy debut novel about a heist gone wrong, a secret online life exposed, and a young man's search for true connection.”

New Waves does a great job of exploring the relationships between technology and policy as the protagonist, Lucas, struggles to understand how and if he really knew his best friend, Margo.

[*Stefan voice*] this book has everything: Russian dashcams, PacMan analysis, Japan, racism, sexism, privacy violations, data theft, lack of algorithmic accuracy, platform regulation, sexting, epic voice memos, stock equity, teenagers, and a mercurial 25 year-old CEO.

on investing

This is what investors loved: people who solve problems. It didn’t matter what the problem was, or who might have created that problem in the first place. The basis of all technology was founded around the idea of solving for X, regardless of what X was.

on pac man

“Anyway, I didn’t answer your question really. Why do I like this game?” she said. “I like all arcade games. I enjoy how cynical these machines are. The incentive behind making them is to suck as many quarters out of a player as quickly as possible. So there’s an adversarial relationship between the software and the user, but you have to design it in such a way that the player never notices.

on identity

For two-factor authentication, one’s identity is defined by two things: something you know and something you have. Perhaps that’s how we define ourselves, in the end: by the stuff in our heads and the stuff we own.

on compliance

“Privacy is one of the reasons I started this company,” Brandon said. “If we give up on protecting the privacy of our users, then there’s no point.” Emil’s response was calmer and more measured. “That was before our service was being used by people under the age of eighteen. If we don’t start monitoring what people are saying, we are going to get in serious legal trouble.”

Now I reflect a bit on this book every time I send a meme or GChat a buddy during quarantine; people who care about improving the tech sector and are wary of its casual infiltration of every corner of our social lives will enjoy the read.


tune: tops - i feel alive

TOPS are a four-piece band from Montreal delivering a raw punk take on AM studio pop.

Conversation that I did not like
Faces in the street I wish I didn't recognize
I feel alive
Looking in your eyes


Vass Bednar writes “regs to riches” and is a public policy solopreneur.

She can be reached at vasiliki.bednar@gmail.com or follow her (er, me) on Twitter @VassB.

Archives available via regstoriches.substack.com