Could there be a more auspicious time to unveil the program for the Pond-Deshpande Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of New Brunswick?
New Brunswick is still basking in the glow of the Radian6 and Q1 Labs exits. The province has not one but two thriving accelerator programs. The federal government recently released a report on funding innovation, and the provincial government is due to follow suit any time now. There’s never been a better time to delve into the world of startups in New Brunswick.
“People are starting to coin the phrase, Silicon Valley of the Northeast,” said Karina LeBlanc, Executive-Director of the Pond-Deshpande Centre, in an interview last week. “We’re sort of on the apex of this wave that’s washing over the whole region.”
The Pond-Deshpande Centre is very much a product of that wave. To recap, Gerry Pond, the Chairman of Mariner Partners, was an early investor the New Brunswick startups Radian6 and Q1 Labs, and did very well thank you when they exited within months of each other last year. To give back to the community, he teamed up with entrepreneur and UNB alum Gururaj Deshpande and together they donated $5 million to open the entrepreneurship centre bearing their names. LeBlanc was recently hired to run the centre and has spent the spring working with the founders and others to nail down what the Pond-Deshpande Centre will do.
“We want to identify what are some of the opportunities in the province,” said LeBlanc, who has 15 years’ experience in senior management in both Fortune 500 and startup companies. “In some cases, we want to add to the momentum and in others we’re looking at how we can fill the gaps.”
She hopes the institution will stand out from other university entrepreneurship centres in part by spreading its message far beyond the commerce faculty. Most entrepreneurship centres, explained LeBlanc, exist within the business faculty, and teach business students how to set up their own companies. But business students often lack expertise in disciplines needed to generate innovation, like computer sciences or engineering. LeBlanc wants to ensure the new centre works with students in non-business faculties. It will take that mission outside UNB to try to encourage entrepreneurship at other universities and high schools.
The facility will be different in one other way. Gururaj Deshpande has already established three other entrepreneurship centres – two social entrepreneurship bodies (one in India and one in Massachusetts) and a technology commercialization centre at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Social entrepreneurship is the development of organizations devoted to social benefit rather than simply a profit.) The Pond-Deshpande Centre will be a hybrid of the two models, encouraging both social and traditional entrepreneurship.
LeBlanc and her collaborators have established a process that they hope to implement throughout the coming academic year. They are planning ``ideas forums’’ that will allow them to ``pull ideas out of the ecosystem’’, and help students turn them into business plans and pitches. The process will culminate in a business plan contest late in the school year. She hopes it will take place around the same time as the award ceremony for the Breakthru contest (the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation’s startup competition) and the Pond-Despande conference. The idea would be to have an entrepreneurship week, probably in March.
The winners of the business plan competition hopefully would receive funding, so their business could be incubated throughout the summer.
It will be a busy year, but LeBlanc will have the advantage of working in a place where entrepreneurship is on a roll. As she said herself, “We’ve clarified our mission in that the centre will be devoted to strengthening and supporting the environment of entrepreneurship already working in the province.”