Sprott launches incubator to start up student businesses

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Student entrepreneurs at Carleton University will soon have a dedicated space from which to launch their businesses.

Jerry Tomberlin is the dean of the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University.

By Jacob Serebrin

The Sprott School of Business’s Carleton Entrepreneurs accelerator will begin operating with its first cohort of student-founded startups at the beginning of January.

According to Sprott dean Jerry Tomberlin, the lack of an on-campus space has been the missing piece when it comes to supporting student businesses.

“We already have a strong ecosystem at Carleton,” said Mr. Tomberlin. The school has several existing entrepreneurship programs and has been involved with the Lead to Win off-campus accelerator.

Mr. Tomberlin said the new incubator will borrow several ideas from the Lead to Win program, including its admission process.

“Since it’s so successful outside, we’ve ported that in,” he said.

Tony Bailetti, a Carleton professor who helped develop Lead to Win and has a “rich history” of helping local entrepreneurs, will head up the new accelerator, said Mr. Tomberlin.

The new facility will have 3,000 square feet of dedicated space for student entrepreneurs. According to Mr. Tomberlin, the current plan calls for 25 startups to participate in the program each year.

But getting in won’t be easy. Startups will be required to convince a panel of judges that their business plan is solid enough to create six jobs and generate more than $1 million in revenue within three years.

Those that don’t make the cut will still get support from the school in the form of mentors and limited access to the facility, said Mr. Tomberlin.

For Myles Foster, one of the student entrepreneurs, it’s more than just a chance to take advantage of “great mentorship opportunities.”

The startup he co-founded, Fast2eat, allows users to pre-order from food courts and skip the line. In January, customers at the Carleton cafeteria will be able to use the service. For Mr. Foster, whose startup currently works out of the Invest Ottawa offices, having a “home base” at the school will allow him and his colleagues to take a hands-on approach as they develop their business.

Shannon Conheady, another participant in the initiative, said the opportunity to be surrounded by his peers is what drew him to the program.

“There’s something that comes from being around these kinds of entrepreneurial people,” he said. “There’s so much about entrepreneurship and life that you can’t learn in the classroom.”

His startup HandyGrad.com is an online marketplace to hire students for odd jobs. He plans to launch a testing phase of the program in January.

Meanwhile, one veteran entrepreneur said having access to such a facility might have changed his own career trajectory by encouraging him to start his first business sooner.

Fred Dixon has founded three startups and is currently CEO of Blindside Networks.

After Mr. Dixon graduated from university in 1992, he worked at a large company for three years before launching his first startup. He said he never would have thought about starting his own business right out of school: “It was a different world back then.”

He said that if the opportunity had existed to launch a business in a “safe environment” where he could get mentorship, he would have taken it.

“When you’re a student, what do you have? Energy and time, and not much money. It sounds like an entrepreneur,” he said. “The time to take the biggest risks is when you’re a student or just out of university.

“If the university can provide co-op experience and an accelerator,” he said, it would provide a more complete education to help students succeed. “Twenty years ago, the goal was to get a job. Now the goal is about creating your own job.”

That’s how Mr. Tomberlin sees it as well. He compares the new accelerator to the programs the university already provides to help students find jobs working for other people. Because of this, he said the school doesn’t plan to charge startups, or to take an equity share.

“Our focus is getting companies up and running,” said Mr. Tomberlin.

It doesn’t hurt that the university doesn’t have any upfront costs. The space is currently unused and donors will pay for the furniture and equipment.

Sidebar: Sprott still seeking new home

The startup accelerator isn’t the only major development at Sprott. Mr. Tomberlin is also pushing for a plan to move the school into a new building.

“There’s a real need,” he said. “The building we’re in is a tower. It’s fine office space unless you’re a large group of people.”

Currently, undergraduate students are spread out across the campus, with only offices and graduate programs in Dunton Tower. Consolidating its facilities into a single building has been a long-standing goal of Sprott officials.

While Mr. Tomberlin said plans are in the works, actual construction is at least several years away.

“I don’t have a developer or a bunch of money in my hand,” he said.

Currently, two sites are being considered: on the Carleton campus along Bronson Avenue, and another on Albert Island.

“Both of them have really compelling reasons that would make them work,” said Mr. Tomberlin.

The Bronson Avenue plan could also include a hotel component, said Mr. Tomberlin, who points out that there is a lack of hotels between the airport and downtown.

The plan could also open the door to a residential executive training facility, he said, something that doesn’t exist in eastern Ontario.

Students in the university’s business and architecture programs worked together over the fall semester to design possible plans for both sites.

Organizations: Sprott School of Business, Blindside Networks

Geographic location: Ottawa, Bronson Avenue, Dunton Tower Eastern Ontario

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