Entering the austere halls of the J. Herbert Smith Centre for Technology, Management & Entrepreneurship at the University of New Brunswick, with its arched entrance and paneled halls, it’s easy to suppose the school’s summer institute will be a serious affair.
The Centre is the epicenter of entrepreneurship education at the University of New Brunswick, the institution that Startup Canada named the Most Entrepreneurial Post-Secondary Institution of the Year for 2014.
What’s special about UNB? Well, for one thing the Herbert Smith Centre, the entrepreneurship education facility, is embedded right in the heart of the Engineering faculty, which helps when the university spins off the technology it develops into startups.
So there was a bit of apprehension on entering the class where the Summer Institute, the university’s program for entrepreneurs, is running during the holiday. Walking into the sunlit classroom, I saw the five teams working away, with the encouragement of mentors Entrepreneur-in-Residence Jordan Smith and Philip LeBlanc, head of the Fredericton Makerspace.
The faces all shine with enthusiasm, but that’s not what you notice first.
The thing that catches your eye is the materials these entrepreneurs of tomorrow are using for their projects: Play-Doh; pipe-cleaners; scraps of old felt.
There are lean canvases and laptops in the room as well, as there are at all entrepreneurship methodology clinics. But in the Summer Institute for aspiring entrepreneurs at UNB, all the participants have to remove themselves from the fail-fast-fail-often seriousness of the startup world.
They have to embrace design, meaning and a liberal dose of fun. Above all, says the program leader, Dhirendra Shukla, the students participating in the program have to embrace their greatest passion.
“Young people are passionate about the world and we have to harness this passion,” Shukla, the Dr. J. Herbert Smith ACOA Chair of the centre, said in an interview. ”Our attitude is, ‘The most important thing about this is you and your passion,’ and now let’s turn this into a business.”
The organizers of the Summer Institute all stress that they didn’t want the program to replicate some of the great accelerators in the region, like Planet Hatch’s ACcelr8 or PropelICT’s Launch36. They wanted to incubate a class of entrepreneurs that might not be eligible for such innovation- or technology-based accelerators.
“We wanted to create a system of support for people who want to start businesses but need mentorship that has not been available before,” said Gracen Johnson, an administrator with the Summer Institute. They advertised for the program to run from May 5 to July 31for people who
want to turn their passion into a business. From the 40 applications they received, they chose five teams.
The winners were eclectic:
• Wear Your Label, founded by Kayley Reed and Kyle MacNevin – the company is developing a line of “conscious clothing” aimed at 13 to 29 year olds. The clothing bears labels referencing mental health, and the wearer can choose how prominent the label is. The aim is subtlety, so people can ask the wearers what the label means and they can reveal as much as they like.
• Ploome, founded by Anna Mathis – Mathis is a fibre artist whose company sells kits that teach people fibre art, ranging from spinning to weaving. She plans to study education at UNB this winter and develop a business around teaching her craft, holding workshops and selling the kits.
• Waygood Mobile Therapy, founded by Kati Waygood (shown above) – this business provides a range of therapies, from massage therapy to exercise training to nutrition education, all in the client’s home. Waygood, a registered massage therapist with a BSc in kinesiology, has found the reason many people, such as new mothers and the elderly, skip their therapy sessions is they can’t get to the clinics. So she goes to them.
• Oasis Farmery, founded by Andrew Mathis and Jake Wildman-Sisk – this is an aquaponics venture – that is, its system grows crops of herbs and vegetables, such as kale, cilantro, basil, tomatoes or pea shoots, out of a vessel of water containing fish. The fish and plants provide nutrients for each other. Oasis Farmery has set up its first system and is running tests on their model.
• Beyond Saigon, founded by Danny Nguyen – this company delivers Bánh mì (Vietnamese meat and spices in a baguette) to locations around Fredericton. The goal is to provide nutritious, tasty food to lunchtime crowds. Nguyen said he started the company to provide employment for his immigrant family.
Shukla said the organizers chose people who were passionate about their chosen fields with the goal of teaching them how to make money from their passions. They also wanted companies that were helping the community or environment in some way, such as drawing attention to mental health or improving the processes of growing food.
The Summer Institute does what other mentorship programs do by instructing the students to seek out market pain and apply lean methodology to assess the viability of a business. But Shukla’s teaching methods do more. Take the exercise with the Play-Doh and pipecleaners.
All the teams were given the description of a potential client (a twenty-something woman living in New York) and instructed to design and build a product for her. They could only use the craft materials available on a table in the centre of the room.
The exercise had three goals. First, it encouraged the participants to remember they are building products for people, real people with likes and dislikes and emotions and quirks. The entrepreneurs need to make products that speak to their clients’ human qualities.
The second goal is to make the entrepreneur focus on design – in all aspects of what they do. And finally, they have to consider their supply chain when building their product.
“What’s really impressive is people’s ability to be receptive to almost every type of learning process we throw at them,” said Philip LeBlanc of Fredericton Makerspace, one of the mentors at the institute. “They are actually taking advantage of the mentors that are available to them.”
The Summer Institute is a place where unconventional startups are subjected to an unconventional learning experience. And the result is that they worked hard, they collaborated and they began to act like business people.
“We pushed them to go make money, never really expecting it to happen,” said Shukla. “But now they are making money, and they’re doing it as a consequence of doing good.”
In fact, all five teams had booked revenue by early July, and were planning to carry on with their businesses after the course ended. When Beyond Saigon, for example, took its wares to North Market in Fredericton, it sold out of Bánh mì and had to turn some customers away.
The Summer Institute proved that students could develop a business by following their passion. “If we could only do all this times 150, this province would be a special place,” said Rivers Corbett, a UNB entrepreneur-in-residence. “This program allows people to build on their dreams. And yes, they do make money doing it.”
This article first appeared in the latest Entrevestor Intelligence report, on educational institutions and startups. Disclaimer: Entrevestor receives financial support from government agencies that support startup companies in Atlantic Canada. The sponsoring agencies play no role in determining which companies and individuals are featured in this column, nor do they review columns before they are published.