Returning to a task she loves, Gillian McCrae is once again working in the accelerator world, serving as Venture Manager at Creative Destruction Lab-Atlantic.
The former entrepreneur-in-residence of Propel ICT is now hard at work fielding interest in CDL from companies in Atlantic Canada and in such locations as New England and Toronto. She and the team are preparing for the opening of the first cohort in December, and responding to criticism that there are too few women in the group of mentors.
Known as a demanding program, the CDL began five years ago at University of Toronto, and will soon offer programs in five cities, including Halifax. About 20 teams will enter the first Atlantic cohort, which will meet five times in seven months. The mentors and founders agree on three tasks the team must carry out between meetings, and only those judged to be meeting their milestones will continue with the program. In an interview, McCrae said only about half of the companies are still there at the end.
“But everything in entrepreneurship is tough – it’s hard work,” she said with a laugh. “And many companies are enthusiastic about the format and are keen to get into a room with that calibre of business judgment.”
The judgment in question belongs to the CDL mentors, termed fellows and associates, who help the entrepreneurs set and reach their objectives.
The CDL-Atlantic list of mentors was criticized last week for containing very few women. Of the 10 fellows, who make the greatest commitment regarding mentoring and investing in the new companies, none are female. Of the 14 associates, only three are women.
McCrae said the mentors were chosen for their experience. “There’s no question there’s room for improvement in fostering greater gender equality in our mentorship program,” she said.
The organization has also said it is still at work attracting mentors, and McCrae said the issue is being addressed. The announcement of the mentors list was preceded, on Sept. 18, by a meeting hosted by herself and Melody Pardoe, COO of Halifax startup house Volta Labs. Attendees included senior female executives and founders who discussed how to boost gender diversity and equality.
“We need people who have built, scaled and in some cases exited companies,” she said of the mentors, who include well-known figures like John Risley and Ken Rowe, as well as others from across the region.
McCrae did not come out and say it, but there’s no doubt deep pockets are also desirable. When asked if fellows must be wealthy, she said they must be “actively looking to make investments”.
Mentors are particularly important in the CDL model, both in terms of mentoring and investment. CDL does not focus on formal programming or classroom learning. The mentors help founders crystalize three key objectives to complete over a two-month sprint. When the cohort convenes again, accountability is high priority, completions of objectives are reviewed and new objectives are established.
“The mentors ultimately decide the companies that get through the program,” McCrae said.
She said that CDL has proven its model. Since it began at UofT, graduates have attracted equity investment that valued their companies at more than $1.4 billion in total.
Given its ties to universities, the CDL is looking for companies that are commercializing “deep science”. In other words, the group aims to work with companies whose products were developed in rigorous research in innovative fields like robotics, data analytics and artificial intelligence. The Atlantic cohort will emphasize the “blue-green technologies”, meaning cleantech, oceans tech and agtech.
As well as McCrae, the CDL-Atlantic team is being led by Louis Beaubien, Acting Director of the Rowe School of Business and Jeff Larson, Dal’s head of innovation. Jesse Rogers, CEO of Volta, is an Associate Director.
As the Atlantic region develops expertise in fostering blue-green technologies, CDL in Toronto is focused on artificial intelligence and quantum machine learning. CDL-West in British Columbia specializes in biomedical technologies. CDL in the Rockies focuses on clean energy, while Montreal is focused on artificial intelligence and data science. Companies working outside these areas of expertise are accepted at some sites.
McCrae said CDL-Atlantic is still taking applications. Anyone interested in participating in the CDL accelerator, should contact McCrae at email@example.com. Applications close September 30.