Life / Careers

University startup incubators take studies out of classroom

Seventy-five people filter through Wilfrid Laurier's LaunchPad each year and ideas span tech, like new apps or hardware, to niche consulting businesses.

In two years, Matthew Watkinson turned his idea of selling tiny wheels for miniature skateboards into a business pulling in nearly six-figures per year.

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In two years, Matthew Watkinson turned his idea of selling tiny wheels for miniature skateboards into a business pulling in nearly six-figures per year.

Everyone told Matthew Watkinson that his business idea was crazy. What sort of money would there be in selling tiny wheels for miniature skateboards you operate with your fingers?

But the then-28-year-old Brantford, Ont. native was at the end of his rope: Without a high school diploma, his options were limited. Out of work, he was living with his parents and was looking for something — anything — to help him get out of debt. He went to the local business centre to see if his idea of supplying the fingerboard community with mini wheels was viable. It was, they said. To help him develop the idea further, the business centre pointed him to an entrepreneurship incubation program at Wilfrid Laurier.

At LaunchPad, he spoke with potential clients and suppliers about the potential of his idea. He also worked with a mentor and other early-stage startups. At the end of eight months, he launched his first business, Joycult, selling mini wheels online.

Two years later, his business is pulling in shy of six-figures per year. And at 30, he’s purchased his first home.

Universities across the country have launched startup incubation programs as they seek to diversify learning out of the classroom. Most programs target current and former students, alumni and sometimes locals in the community, offering hands-on learning, mentorship, resources and even financial support.

At Wilfrid Laurier, LaunchPad originated as a way for students to receive course credit, says Tom Ebeyer, co-ordinator of incubation and new ventures at the university. Demand was high and in 2014, it transitioned into a standalone program for students and members of the community.

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Seventy-five people filter through the program each year, and ideas span tech, like new apps or hardware, to niche consulting businesses and novel retail ideas. Like Watkinson, students are paired with a mentor, participate in group sessions, conduct interviews that prove their business model has merit. They also develop a business plan.

Universities have been subject to criticism in recent years that programs do little to prepare students for life outside academia. Part of Laurier’s goal with LaunchPad is to provide more hands-on, real world experience to address that concern, Ebeyer says.

What’s more, entrepreneurship is increasingly attractive to prospective students, says Barry Yates, managing director of Entrepreneurship at the University of British Columbia (e@UBC), an incubation and funding program available for students, faculty and alum at the Vancouver school. Schools with programs targeted at startup-hopefuls provide a differentiator when people are choosing a school, he says.

And while universities have not traditionally participated in the startup culture, he says, that’s changing as institutions recognize there’s a large untapped opportunity in students’ and faculties’ research.

“UBC spends $600 million on research annually and has more than 6,000 researchers,” he says. “There’s so much intellectual property and ideas and untapped potential. Marrying that with entrepreneurs and giving (e@UBC participants) the opportunity to take these ideas and commercialize them is hugely compelling for both the university and community here.”

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