If they could communicate, stop signs would send out alerts when they're knocked down, aquifers would transmit water level data, and snow plow blades would automatically let maintenance departments track their location.

The technologies that enable objects to send and receive data over communication networks already exist in today's ever-expanding Internet of Things (IoT) – the term used to describe the networks that, as of 2016, were estimated to connect to about 6.4 billion smart objects and devices, including mobile phones, bank machines, cars and even home thermostats.

Industry analysts and futurists predict that billions more will be IoT-enabled over the coming years, from consumer and commercial products such as refrigerators and tractors to public infrastructure objects such as street signs, fire hydrants and light poles.

"But how do you connect these things?" asks Dan Mathers, chairman and co-founder at Eleven-X, a Waterloo, Ontario network operator focused on enabling the Internet of Things. "Today, you either connect through Wi-Fi or a cellular network and the problem is that the devices that are able to connect through these networks consume a lot of power and they tend to be very expensive. So if you have something that's very expensive that needs to be plugged into a wall to be charged, that's a barrier to connecting them to a network."

Dan Mathers, chairman and co-founder of Eleven X, a Waterloo, Ontario network operator focused on enabling the Internet of Things.
How do you connect all the devices in the Internet of Things, asks Dan Mathers, chairman and co-founder of Eleven-X in Waterloo, Ontario. His company has a cost-effective solution.

Connecting to a solution: Eleven-X builds a network for low-power sensors

Eleven-X has a solution: a low-power wide area network – or LPWAN for short – designed to connect with smart sensors that consume very little power and are relatively inexpensive to make and operate. In 2016, Eleven-X built what is believed to be Canada's first LPWAN, covering a large swath of Waterloo.

Built with LoRa (long range) wireless RF (radio frequency) – which has emerged as the prevailing technology for IoT platforms – the network operates from a single base station with the ability to penetrate dense urban environments while connecting to sensors as far as 66 kilometres away in rural areas. Sensors that connect to the LPWAN can enjoy battery life of up to 20 years.

Mr. Mathers says Eleven-X plans to expand this network over the next few months to 10 Canadian cities, including four located in other provinces. And that's just the beginning.

"We are building a purpose-built network for IoT right across Canada and North America," he says. "With our network, customers can add communication to objects that never before had this function. But now they can add a battery-powered, low cost sensor and they can set it and forget it."

Pilot projects drive IoT innovations in government, business and healthcare

Eleven-X is currently running pilot projects in a number of municipalities and businesses. These projects include monitoring garbage containers for a private commercial waste collection company, as well as 10,000 light poles for the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Eleven-X is also working with the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario on devices that can help healthcare providers keep a closer eye on patients with Alzheimer's disease.

Mr. Mathers says having the network structure in place is critical because this will encourage more hardware manufacturers to make sensors and other IoT devices that can run for years on one set of batteries.

"The low-power component of the solution is really about the devices, and they can't exist without the network," he says.

Location, location: Ontario's innovative climate is key to growth at Eleven-X

Ryan Hickey, CEO and co-founder of Eleven X
Ryan Hickey, CEO and co-founder of Eleven-X, says the innovative and supportive business environment in Waterloo, Ontario has made all the difference for his company. "There's such a healthy support system here for startups," he says.

Since it was launched in 2014, Eleven-X has had to innovate constantly to advance its vision of an IoT-enabled future, says Ryan Hickey, Eleven-X co-founder and CEO. The company's Ontario location has been a key factor in its growth from a three-person start-up to a thriving business with about 20 employees.

Mr. Hickey says being in Waterloo – a vibrant technology hub that's home to a renowned engineering school and such tech giants as Google and OpenText– puts Eleven-X right in the centre of a highly innovative community with a highly skilled workforce. Many of the company's 20-person team, including its founders, came from BlackBerry. Eleven-X also brings in students from the University of Waterloo as part of the school's student cooperative program.

Waterloo's innovative community also provides a live laboratory for Eleven-X solutions, says Mr. Hickey.

"A lot of innovative companies will try our technology and give us feedback," he says.

A region and province that supports business

The supportive business environment in the Waterloo region has made all the difference for Eleven-X, says Mr. Ryan. He points to Communitech, an industry-led innovation centre in Waterloo that supports companies at all stages and growth.

"Communitech really embraced us," he says. "There's such a healthy support system here for start-ups. Without that we wouldn't be the 20-people company we are today."

Mr. Mathers agrees, adding that this supportive business environment extends beyond Waterloo.

"We have an innovative provincial government that really gets what it takes to build an innovative economy and provides funding for programs such as the Business Acceleration Program, where you can get access to free analyst reports and funding," he says. "The Ontario government has helped to connect us with the people who can help our business and provided money to send us to international trade shows – there are very few places in the world that provide that kind of support for business."

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