In the January 2012 issue of University Affairs, we published a cover story on “campus incubators” that encourage students to create start-up companies and “hatch the entrepreneurial spirit.” While that story is only just over two years old, the campus incubators idea has caught on with such intensity since then at Canada’s universities that I thought the trend deserved acknowledgement and an update.
These incubators are not academic programs, although there may be some academic credit associated with them (many universities already have business degrees with a major or concentration in entrepreneurship). Rather, these are primarily extracurricular programs, often open to any interested student and are not necessarily run out of the business faculty. They usually offer guidance and support through workshops and mentoring, the possibility of some seed money and feature a physical space for collaboration. And they seem to be very popular.
There’s an old saying in journalism that a single event is interesting, two is a trend and three is a story. I bring that up because when I wrote the story assignment for that original article, I had only two examples of campus incubators and needed a third to “make it a story.” I did find a third example after a bit of digging; now I could easily cite a dozen such examples. Here are a few that have opened in the past couple of years:
- Earlier this month, the Co-operators Centre for Business and Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Guelph opened the Hub incubator program. Those accepted into the program will receive $8,000 in start-up funding, office space and “mentoring from experienced entrepreneurs.”
- In December 2013, Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business launched a campus-wide venture accelerator called Carleton Entrepreneurs for students and recent grads “from all faculties and program levels to launch and grow successful businesses.” A month earlier Carleton launched 1125@Carleton, billed as “a collaborative and innovative workspace … bringing Carleton researchers, faculty and students together with business, industry, community and governments at all levels.”
- University of Ottawa launched its own Entrepreneurship Hub in November 2013 for students “who wish to make their entrepreneurial dreams come true.” Through a $1-million investment from the university, the hub “will facilitate entrepreneurship promotion through various existing initiatives as well as serve as a catalyst for new actions across all faculties and schools.”
- In September 2013, the University of Victoria announced it was expanding its Innovation Centre for Entrepreneurs, which “provides tools, expertise and space on campus to help entrepreneurs take an idea to the stage where it is ready for investment.” Initiated a year earlier by the Gustavson School of Business, the program is now available across all disciplines.
- Also last September, Brock University opened its BioLinc business incubator. Operating under Brock’s Goodman School of Business, BioLinc “provides space and an environment where students, researchers and companies collaborate to turn knowledge into marketable products and services.”
- In early 2012, OCAD University inaugurated its Imagination Catalyst “to help OCAD U entrepreneurs launch new enterprises or commercialize their designs, products and services.”
How it all started
The original incubator project (I don’t dare call it the “first,” as somebody is sure to find an earlier example) that I’d heard about was the Velocity residence incubator at University of Waterloo. We did a small story on it when it first opened in 2008 and it features prominently in the later cover story.
The idea for Velocity is credited to Sean Van Koughnett, who was then a Waterloo staff member but is now associate vice-president, students and learning, at McMaster University. He said he had an epiphany back in 2007 when he heard a telecom CEO say at a conference that the next big tech innovation “will probably come from a 20-year-old working in a dorm room.” At the time, Mr. Van Koughnett was upgrading the technology infrastructure for the school’s residence buildings. The 72-bed Minota Hagey Residence was slated for renovations, so he suggested the university fill it with students interested in starting their own businesses.
The Velocity residence still exists, but the Velocity program has expanded well beyond that to now include Velocity Garage, a physical space for aspiring entrepreneurs to collaborate; Velocity Alpha, a program open to all Waterloo students with any kind of business idea, tech-related or not; and Velocity Science, an entrepreneurship program focused on the sciences.
There is also the Velocity Fund, which awards Waterloo students more than $300,000 in grants each year to create their own start-ups. The 10 finalists for the latest competition were announced on March 12. The fund was created in early 2011 following a donation of $1 million from Ted Livingston, who founded the company Kik Messenger while a Velocity resident. According to the university, companies that got their start through the Velocity program have raised more than $100 million in funding in the five years since the incubator was launched.
One of the other two campus incubators we wrote about was Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone, which has also seen an impressive expansion similar to Velocity’s. According to a press release, 48 start-ups joined DMZ in 2013, bringing to 123 the total number of start-ups that have joined since its launch in 2010. These start-ups have created 900-plus jobs, says the university, and 70 percent of the companies are still flourishing or have been acquired.
Ryerson has indicated it will open other “zones” and indeed recently announced it is looking for industry partners to participate in its new Transmedia Zone, which aims to foster new ways to “advance the art of storytelling.”
Simon Fraser University’s Venture Connection, the third incubator program we featured, is also still going strong, offering an early-stage incubator program, a “venture co-op,” internships and more. The program’s website lists a number of company success stories.
These programs are noteworthy because they are great examples of the kind of high-impact experiential learning opportunities that universities are increasingly promoting. These programs also give students direct business experience, connections and entrepreneurial skills that should help them with their future careers.
This is just a sampling of what’s out there, and I’d be pleased to hear about others. There are many other hybrid programs that are more academic in nature. Either way, it seems entrepreneurship is thriving on Canadian campuses.