Three U of T graduates returned from a prestigious two-month entrepreneurship program in Silicon Valley last year equipped with new tools to enter the global economy.
While attending the program at the Draper University of Heroes — founded by prominent venture capitalist Tim Draper in 2013 — the students developed startup ideas and received free housing and offices for the length of the program.
Draper is internationally recognized for his investments in Hotmail, Skype, Tesla, and SpaceX.
Colin Heilbut, Arun Nijhawan, and Hubert Ka received $130,000 USD from Draper to launch their ideas upon completion of the program.
Their original startup concepts were Heilbut’s commercial real estate business, Nijhawan’s water leak detection tool, and Ka’s plan to “gamify” education.
After Heilbut’s initial concept for commercial real estate fell through, he paired with another Draper University entrepreneur to launch a facial recognition cat feeder called Bistro.
The concept became an international crowd funding hit this summer and is set to announce the successful closure of a multimillion-dollar round of venture capital financing.
Bistro is an app that allows cat owners to track how often their cat eats and collects statistics on cats’ weight. Bistro also offers a smart portion control feature in an effort to combat feline obesity, as well as an option to check in on your cat via smartphone monitoring.
Mu-Chi Sung, Bistro’s founder, developed the idea after he found one of his three cats very ill. The cat’s illness could have been caught earlier, Sung believed, if he had been able to collect better information on its eating habits.
In one month of operation, Bistro had $250,000 worth of sales from buyers all over the world.
While studying philosophy at U of T, Heilbut was already interested in entrepreneurship. As one of his earliest ventures, Heilbut found a way for students to access free Internet by connecting their Bell and U of T accounts online, then shutting down the Bell account.
“I set up a little booth outside of Robarts and called it ‘Free Lunch Internet Services’ where, for $30… we would teach students how to get free Internet,” Heilbut explained.
Later in his university career, Heilbut sold study note packages that he had made through computer technology.
Heilbut discovered the Draper University program while attending a lecture on the difficulties of startup culture.
Heilbut said that the program is attractive to people who “aren’t looking for the standard, stuffy university experience, but are instead more open-minded to radical approaches.”
Classes at the Draper University of Heroes range from lectures on lie detection tests to astrophysicists discussing the nature of the universe.
Heilbut said that there is value in having a diverse educational experience because different people connect with different things.
The campus is built with office spaces linking a network of entrepreneurs, which is referred to as “hero city.”
With an office in hero city, Draper is able to stay heavily involved in the activities around campus.
Heilbut expressed confidence that no other program could match his experience at Draper University.
“There’s no other place in the world that you could go to and have that density of talent and experience,” he said.
Heilbut cited hearing from the founder of PayPal as just one example of the advantages Silicon Valley was able to offer him.
When asked about how his time at U of T shaped his career, Heilbut said, “I think that U of T is a great school, and I benefitted a lot from being here.”
However, when it comes to his entrepreneurial success, Heilbut credits the Draper program with having a much more formative effect.
“We have a ways to go in order to be competitive with the best-in-class programs in the United States,” he said.
“I would strongly advise anyone who is thinking of a career in entrepreneurship to spend some time in Silicon Valley,” Heilbut added.