UTM accelerator puts pedal to the metal

Nico Lacetera
Thursday, November 13, 2014 - 8:16am
Elaine Smith

I-Cube, U of T Mississauga’s new student accelerator, is shifting into gear in preparation for an official launch in February 2015.

The accelerator – future home to young entrepreneurs -- is a new asset belonging to UTM’s Institute for Management & Innovation (IMI). Fittingly, it is housed in the new UTM Innovation Complex.

Using $110,000 from the university’s $3 million Ontario Centres of Excellence funding for campus linked accelerators, I-Cube will provide programming, support and guidance – in addition to space -- to student entrepreneurs intent on creating a new product or process and ultimately taking it to market.

“I-CUBE will provide a place for students to brainstorm, create ideas and receive the support they need to make their ideas reality,” says Donna Heslin, assistant director of external relations for the institute.

Learning Opportunity

While any student can apply to the accelerator, it will only be open to select teams of students whose ideas are deemed to have potential. Interested students will be asked to submit proposals in December detailing their product ideas. Heslin and Nicola Lacetera, the strategic management professor who is I-CUBE’s faculty lead, have assembled a task force with members from local industries, campus alumni and the community’s Research, Innovation, Commercialization Centre (RIC) to review the proposals.

Ultimately, says Heslin, there will be 10 teams working with the accelerator during the coming six months. The winners of the campus’ Young Entrepreneur Contest and Show Me the Green will receive automatic entry into the accelerator.

Once they are selected, the students will have access to an entrepreneur-in-residence, IMI faculty, programming designed especially to assist them in developing their ideas and volunteer mentors from the task force and elsewhere in the Mississauga community. The more experienced business people will shepherd the young participants through the steps any entrepreneur must follow, including creating a business plan, developing a prototype and finding funding.

“The process involves a huge learning curve, so we want to take them through the process,” says Heslin. “We not only want students with ideas, we want projects that are achievable and people who are committed.”

Innovation as an Economic Force

Lacetera is equally dedicated to the accelerator’s success for a number of reasons.

“Research tells us that new businesses are one of the major sources of new job creation and of many of the innovations we see that make our lives better,” says Lacetera. “This is important for society, for Ontario and for Canada.

“There is a sense that Canada is lagging behind the United States in innovation, despite our great schools, resources and talents. Putting together research from the accelerator and business may help us realize some of that potential.”

Whether their businesses succeed or not, Lacetera believes participation will offer sound lessons to the students involved.

“Nine out of 10 new businesses fail,” Lacetera says. “Of course, we’ll do our best to help them succeed, but this is first and foremost a learning experience. We don’t want it to be a wasted opportunity. Participants will learn about working in teams, about getting funding – they may even learn that they don’t like this type of work. We want the information they take away from this experience to be useful in the future.”

Pam Banks is executive director of the RIC Centre, a Mississauga-based incubator that is focused on getting new products to market. She anticipates that the accelerator teams will look to her organization once they reach that stage of development.

“We typically deal with companies in the later stages of commercialization,” Banks says. “We help prepare them for investment, which is an important component of getting to market.”

Banks add that she is excited about the partnership with UTM, because youth are invaluable to Ontario’s future.

“It’s really important that we have that connection with academic partners,” she says. “University leaders provide new ideas and concepts to students, who are open receptors and may combine information in ways we haven’t thought of before.”

Student Involvement

Although participation in the accelerator’s formal product development program will be limited to 10 student teams at present, students throughout UTM will benefit from the accelerator, says Hazem Danny Al Nakib, a fourth-year business management specialist who is the student director and president of I-CUBE.

Working with faculty and staff, students will help manage, operate and direct the facility, says Al Nakib.

“The accelerator is a complete partnership between faculty, staff and students,“ he notes, “and this collaboration remains one of I-CUBE’s major strengths in delivering the right direction and guidance for student entrepreneurial affairs, business development and experiential learning.”

Al Nakib has been intimately involved in creating the accelerator, working side-by-side with faculty and staff. He is also a member of the I-CUBE task force and its working team that will be developing programming for the accelerator. He and a team of eight other students are committed to providing opportunities for all students across campus to learn more about entrepreneurship and leadership.

“We plan to provide outstanding service to students and hands-on learning experience to equip them to be future industry and community leaders,” Al Nakib says.

The recent soft launch for the facility is a case in point. It included a mini-entrepreneurial competition that involved 80 students and a number of entrepreneurs who served as mentors, and it was open to all students.

“There will be workshops tied to the accelerator, but there will also be programming and seminars open to all those interested,” he says.

He and his fellow students are on a mission to create entrepreneurial opportunities while promoting leadership excellence and business decision-making skills, as their mission statement for the accelerator explains: “To be a one-stop shop, student-centered, service-oriented accelerator focused on student innovative idea development, cultivation and promoting a community of leaders that prepares, engages and inspires.”