What the heck does the Institute do?

By Ray DePaul, Director

I get this question a lot. What does the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship actually do? I was asked this recently and I provided my most personally satisfying answer yet. I used the journey of a couple of remarkable students, Derek Rucki and Stefan Radeta of TLink Golf fame, as an example of what the Institute does.

We inspire. I remember vividly the first day of my introductory ENTR 2301 class when Derek sat in the front row. He rushed up at the end of class and proclaimed, "I now know what I have to do with my life. I have to be an entrepreneur!" He later told me that just hearing my personal story about my involvement with BlackBerry and starting and selling my own company inspired him to think bigger than the career he had planned. It was a proud and humbling moment for me.

We push you outside your comfort zone. Every semester the Institute hosts big events such as the Innovation Tournament, the Venture Design Studio Finals, and the Sweatbox Challenge. The thought of pitching your half-baked venture in a 300-seat theatre is considered outside of most our comfort zones. This particular semester, Derek and his fellow competitors had the added stress of knowing that Brett Wilson was in the audience as one of the judges. Derek won that competition in a style that foreshadowed the scale of achievements that were yet to come. I also recall that Stefan's team was also on-stage that night. I'm sure that was a turning point evening for both of them.

We encourage collisions. After seeing potential in both Derek and Stefan, the Institute granted each of them a $2500 LaunchPad Readiness Grant to help evolve their respective ideas. It was through the meetings of grant recipients at Slate that they collided and become mutual admirers. I recall when Stefan sheepishly approached me about putting his idea on the backburner to join Derek's budding TLink venture. I feigned surprise and encouraged the two co-founders to join forces.

We bring the community in. We have tremendous support from the community at our events and in our classes. Getting exposure to literally dozens of executives and successful entrepreneurs has a profound impact on students. When a student is faced with a particular challenge requiring specialized expertise, we tap our personal networks to line up an introduction. Not truly knowing where these introductions might lead, I connected Derek with Rod Brown, a local serial entrepreneur. Rod saw the same drive and vision in Derek and Stefan that I saw. Rod become an early investor and a daily fixture at MRU as an advisor to TLink.

We send students out to the community. We live in a thriving Calgary entrepreneurship community. Instead of coddling our students in the halls of MRU, we seek out ways they can learn from and connect to the community. Derek and Stefan attended dozens of community events, taking home awards and connections from events such as LaunchParty, Startup Weekend, New Tech Meetup and Communivate.

We fund great ideas. As the big winners at the 2014 JMH LaunchPad Pitch Competition, TLink walked away with $15,000 in cash and over $30,000 in legal and marketing services. Securing this startup capital is likely the moment that TLink graduated from a student project to a real company.

We mentor. Starting a company is really hard. Now imagine starting it when you're 20 years old. While mentors can't remove all of the anxiety and uncertainty of launching a venture, they can help you personally steer through the minefield. I differentiate mentors from advisors. Advisors are critical and offer you sound business advice. Mentors are concerned about the person first and the company second. The goal of the Institute isn't to grow startups, but to grow entrepreneurs. I sincerely look forward to these closed door, "holy shit" private conversations with both Stefan and Derek. Don't tell them, but I get as much out of it as they do.

We incubate student ventures. TLink was our first Student Startup in Residence. They have dedicated space in the Startup Corner of Slate. I can't imagine a more vibrant and supportive place to launch a company. Professors coming and going. Students feeding off their energy. Mentors and advisors always available.

We help market innovations. The Institute and the Bissett school operate an award winning boutique marketing agency called Design4Change. Staffed with students and recent grads, they are the marketing engine behind many projects in Calgary, including TLink. Last year, D4C provided a staggering 14,000 hours of paid experience for our students and grads.

We reward an entrepreneurial mindset. Each year we run the $3000 I am an Entrepreneur contest to reward the student who most exemplifies the entrepreneurial mindset. Stefan was this year's very deserving winner. Entrepreneurs make tough choices. Salaries are rare and marks often suffer from the 80-hour weeks. They deserve our recognition and support.

We custom-design learning experiences. Derek and Stefan were moving very fast. They had taken all the formal entrepreneurship courses we had to offer, but they still had so much to learn. Inspired by their thirst for knowledge, we kicked off the Slate Workshop series and brought in experts in areas such as legal, accounting, and marketing to augment our formal education. But that still wasn't enough. Derek and Stefan were going through a critical phase of their venture. They had raised money, started marketing their product, and were working through challenging times with manufacturing in Beijing. We designed a Directed Readings course that simulated the discipline of a board of directors and pushed the co-founders to thoughtfully move their business forward, learning invaluable lessons in the process.

We let you fail. As I mentioned earlier, our goal is to build entrepreneurs, not companies. We don't swoop in and save you from every little mistake. We couldn't, even if we wanted to. I have watched Derek formally pitch his company at least a dozen times. Every time, I sit in the audience, not exactly sure what he is going to say. Sure, I will provide feedback, but normally after the pitch was over, not before. This past week, I had the pleasure of sitting in a Toronto audience and watch Derek masterfully pitch his venture to 12 successful entrepreneurs for 25 minutes. His pitch was all new to me and I couldn't be more proud. He was crowned Canada's Student Entrepreneur of the Year not because I coached him, but because after a whirlwind 16 months, he actually learned to be a great entrepreneur.

Thanks for indulging my walk down memory lane with a couple of impressive young MRU entrepreneurs. I still have to come up with a nice peppy answer to the question of what the Institute does, but hopefully this gets you thinking about how we can help you achieve your entrepreneurial goals.