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Startup culture on the rise at U of T

Campus incubators, accelerators offer student entrepreneurs wide array of tools
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Startup culture is fast taking hold at U of T, with an array of incubators and accelerators providing student entrepreneurs the resources and mentorships required to get their businesses up and running. 

The University of Toronto Early-Stage Technology (UTEST) program, the Rotman School of Management’s Creative Destruction Lab, and the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering’s  Hatchery are among the growing handful of campus incubators.

UTEST grants successful applicants up to $30,000 in startup funding and office space in the MaRS Discovery District. Funded jointly by the Connaught Fund and MaRS Innovation, the program is geared towards cutting-edge software companies.

Several companies picked up by U of T incubators have successfully transitioned from the research stage to revenue-raising commercial ventures.

Bionym, a company that uses gesture control to create a wristband that can unlock devices like computers, cars, and smartphones by authenticating the wearer’s cardiac rhythm, was co-founded by Karl Martin in 2011. At the time, Martin was a PhD student in Electrical & Computer Engineering at U of T.

Bionym participated in the first round of the Creative Destruction Lab in 2012, receiving $1.4 million in seed funding. Since then, the company has experienced rapid growth and widespread press acclaim.

At the Hatchery, research and innovation is also commercialized, but usually on a smaller scale than at UTEST.

Visnhu Hari, co-founder and CEO of Savvy, was given office space by the Hatchery at the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering’s Career Centre.

The app-based startup digitizes coupons by exchanging offers through retailers. By compiling information about consumer preferences, Savvy builds demographic “taste profiles” that are  then used by brands to boost sales.

“We’re the Netflix of retailing,” said Tharshi Srikannathasan, a database engineer with Savvy.

Like other companies based at the Hatchery, the Savvy team is overwhelmingly comprised of current U of T students and recent graduates with a science and engineering background working on tech-related products and services.

While the number of technology companies continues to increase, there is a lack of small-scale, non-tech businesses being picked up by incubators.

Tina Hsu, founder of Urbane Conviction, an online shopping site offering same-day delivery for clothes and accessories to sort out sartorial dilemmas, said there is a misconception that all startups are working in the technology space.

“Although all businesses now definitely [involve] tech, skills required to be part of a startup is much more than your ability to code,” said Hsu.

Statistics Canada reported that 130,000 new small businesses are created in Canada annually, generating jobs for over 40 per cent of Canadians.

A study conducted by the Bank of Montreal said that 46 per cent of post-secondary students see themselves starting a business after graduation.

In 2013, recognizing that a diverse group of students from non-tech disciplines are inclined towards becoming self-employed, the U of T Career Centre piloted Rapid Launch. Rapid Launch is a program for students and recent graduates to kick-start their small businesses.

Applicants submitted Instagram and YouTube videos detailing their business ideas and those selected were given hands-on guidance in five bi-weekly sessions covering customers, competitions, marketing, and finance.

In keeping with the burgeoning startup trend, the School of Continuing Studies also launched its Certificate in Entrepreneurship program in October 2013 to a full-capacity class of 30 students.

As startup culture spreads on campus, the university plans to upsize extant entrepreneurship facilities. This includes plans for the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering’s Centre for Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Once completed, the building will also include design workshops and a light fabrication facility, as well as expanded space for the Hatchery.

Although more and more entrepreneurs are coming from a post-secondary education background, Hsu emphasized the need for campus incubators to provide access to students from a broad range of disciplines.

“In terms of support, I do believe non-tech startups have a lot less investment opportunities,” she said.

As campuses continue to become laboratories for entrepreneurship, universities across the country are taking steps to ensure that students are prepared to find work in an economy driven by small businesses.