I've always believed that universities have the potential of making or breaking a startup ecosystem. After all, the university is an institution where brains are made, and more importantly, it is the only social institution where people from different walks of life (read: religion, ethnicity, color, gender, etc ) meet, debate and exchange ideas.
One must admit that Canadian universities have been slow to catch the entrepreneurship fever. To the contrary, their American counterparts, like Stanford, Berkeley and MIT, had for long been part of a vibrant startup ecosystem where, for example, dropping out of school to launch a startup has always been viewed positively. Most importantly, not only these institutions of learning have always encouraged their students to become entrepreneurs they also embraced those who failed.
In the last few years, Canadian Universities have made immense progress in order to catch up with their southern neighbors. For instance, startup accelerators, such as Velocity at the University of Waterloo, and Digital Media Zone at Ryerson University, have emerged on the scene. Students with bright ideas can put their ideas to the test with the support of experienced mentors and advisers. Funding, which traditionally was in short supply, is now available to help the student take his or her project to the next level.
As an adjunct professor at uOttawa, I was delighted to learn that the university is holding a week-long event on entrepreneurship as part of the Global Entrepreneurship Week. Through out the week, panels and workshops are used as means to teach, debate and celebrate entrepreneurship.
I attended "From Campus to Startup: Paths to Success" panel on Tuesday. Participating in the panel were three seasoned entrepreneurs who passionately shared their valuable experiences with an attentive audience that was mainly composed of young students who genuinely seemed eager to learn and be inspired.
Rahul Singh, cofounder of Xtreme Labs, spoke about the importance of culture and how to create the right work environment for employees in order to unleash their creativity. He said that modest perks—such as a Netflix subscription or an Apple TV—can make a huge difference with respect to loyalty and morale.
Nick Quain, cofounder of CellWand, explained how he managed to launch his startup despite the fact that he, as a Bachelor of Commerce graduate, could not write a single line of code. He remarked that students should not hesitate to drop out of school if they believe that doing so will allow them to pursue their dream startup opportunity. This suggestion made many in the audience, including faculty members, chuckle.
Khaled El Emam, founder and CEO of Privacy Analytics, shared the ten most important lessons he has so far learned on his entrepreneurial journey. He stressed the importance of raising money long before it is needed. He also emphasized that founders should never be afraid to hire people who are smarter than them. Failing to follow this advice will put the future of the startup at risk.
Mona Nemer, vice president of research at uOttawa, made an important announcement before the start of the lecture. She said uOttawa has created a $1 million fund to invest in an on-campus entrepreneurship Hub. While encouraging, it's still not clear to me—even after reading the accompanying press release—how this will advance the cause of entrepreneurship using a hands-on approach (except that the part-time Startup Garage will continue to receive funding).
I wish part of the fund were dedicated to establishing a full-time startup accelerator. This would have been an excellent second step. It is my hope this is in the future plan as Canada's future depends very much on small startups which could stimulate the stagnant job growth.
The free panels and workshops continue until the end of this week. I will be part of the "Founders' Dilemmas" panel that will take place on Friday. Those who are interested to attend can find the information here.