By Ash Kelly
When Travis Clements-Khan started at Seneca College in Toronto last fall, he didn’t know he would become the chief executive officer of his own company, having developed a product with the potential to save lives and help more than 2.5 million Canadians.
Through an on-campus innovation incubator, he developed a pocket-sized product called Aller(tec), which detects allergens in food.
“I knew it was a huge issue. There’s nothing in place now to help an individual know whether or not their food is safe to eat,” says Mr. Clements-Khan, who studied bioinformatics at Seneca. He hopes the product, once it is launched, will help people with severe allergies find peace of mind while dining out.
A year later, Mr. Clements-Khan, 25, is the CEO of NextGen Labs Inc., his health-sector venture. None of it could have happened, he says, without the support of the Seneca incubator, called Health Entrepreneurship and Lifestyle Innovation Xchange, or HELIX.
He is one of many college graduates who have used their school experience as a launch pad to founding a small business.
Armed with a degree in microbiology from the University of Guelph, as well as his one-year graduate certificate in bioinformatics from Seneca, Mr. Clements-Khan says HELIX’s dual-stream program helped him develop, test and realize his vision.
In the first stream, the “innovation strand,” students and would-be entrepreneurs use workshops to test and develop their ideas. Then they can pitch their way into the second stream, the “acceleration strand.” This is where ideas start to come to life through mentorship and seed funding.
“HELIX has been one of the main pillars to our success,” says Bojana Nedic, co-founder of Pearl’s Choice, which has gone through the acceleration strand. It is a website that provides a comprehensive, searchable list of retirement living options in Canada.
Ms. Nedic, who has a background in psychology, had dabbled in designing applications but didn’t know much about coding or building them. HELIX helped bridge that gap by pairing her with a mentor, Sean Stevens, CEO of Treefrog Inc., a Web development company based in Newmarket, Ont. She says the mentorship was essential to her success.
“I can’t even put into words how important those are – something that’s not even tangible. It’s really just about getting that courage to do what you are doing by learning from someone else,” says Ms. Nedic.
A spirit of collaboration helps HELIX succeed, says the incubator’s executive director, Chris Dudley.
“This is not just engineering students. This is not just for health students or business students. You’ve got to bring people from a wide range of areas and then you start seeing diverse teams pull together,” he says.
One way to attract entrepreneurs to incubator programs is to reward them for their ideas. The British Columbia Institute of Technology in Burnaby, B.C., holds an innovation challenge each year with $10,000 on the line. At Humber College in Toronto, students compete for $10,000 in the New Venture Seed Fund, hosted by HumberLaunch, an on-campus incubator.
Nicole Attisano is getting ready to pitch her Web app, What’s Still Open, to HumberLaunch. The app helps users find food, entertainment, health-care providers and more at any time of day, in any location.
“We are looking for some more development skills, and we are looking to get a few more people on our team,” says Ms. Attisano, who is in her second year of Humber’s multimedia design and development program.
Another startup out of HumberLaunch is SunPillar Inc., which uses technology and analytics to help farmers optimize their crops and save money. Four students are shareholders in the company, which employs two graduate students.
“The product is the analytics, the predicting of future events in crops based on what you see with all the environmental factors that a farmer doesn’t see. He doesn’t see ambient light levels, barometric pressure,” says Peter Wheeler, the SunPillar founder who also teaches electronics at the school.
SunPillar is using Humber’s prototyping facility to get its product ready for a field trial. Mr. Wheeler estimates the company is valued at about $100,000.
One of the challenges of working with young entrepreneurs is persuading them to believe in themselves, says Antoinette Jackson, the education and industry liaison strategist for BCIT’s applied research program.
To students, entrepreneurs “often look like Richard Branson or Donald Trump. They don’t see themselves as an entrepreneur,” says Ms. Jackson. To help with that, BCIT hosts a speaker series that brings working entrepreneurs to the college.
BCIT’s own successful tech-based startup is Procurify, software that manages spending for small and medium-sized businesses. The three students who started Procurify – Kenneth Loi, Eugene Dong and Aman Mann – persuaded Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and a star of the U.S. television show Shark Tank, to invest in their company in 2013.
Much like their target audience, these programs are still young. Seneca’s HELIX is in its second year, HumberLaunch began in 2011 and BCIT’s innovation challenge is marking its sixth year.
Demand for such programs may be poised to explode. A recent study published by Universum says that 55 per cent of young people are interested in starting their own company. But nearly half of the 50,000 respondents indicated they might consider skipping postsecondary school altogether and going straight to the work force.
The hardest thing to build in students is the confidence they need to make it as an entrepreneur, says George Paravantes, professor and program co-ordinator of multimedia design and development at Humber College.
“One of the terms I hear that I think explains it well is that being an entrepreneur is like jumping out of a plane and building a parachute on the way down,” he says.