Karen Sievewright has never met President Obama, but she likes to tell people she did and that he gave her the idea for Buy Blue, a sweeping program that helps University of Toronto startups bring the university itself on as a customer by offering funding and making links.
“People go ‘what? she knows Obama?’” says the managing director of the university’s Banting and Best Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship with a laugh. You’d almost expect a certain rigidity from someone tasked with uniting nine accelerators across three campuses populated by more than 85,000 students and 22,000 faculty and staff but Karen’s light-hearted attitude is augmented by a serious understanding of how to bring pieces together by thinking outside the box. Prior to joining U of T in 2014, Karen was at Ontario Centres of Excellence and director of research at the Toronto Region Research Alliance before that.
“I came from understanding the private sector to getting to understand universities and colleges and how they work,” she says.
But how they work is, well, complicated. Which is why Karen has made it her mission to unite and create collaboration wherever it fits.
“Buy USA was about using the country’s assets to stimulate economic growth by doing preferred vendor status for U.S. companies,” she explains. “So what I thought was: why don’t we take that idea and adapt it within the rules of the university?”
Since the procurement rules say any purchases by the university over $5,000 need to go with more than one quote, Karen thought she could set the Buy Blue program up to help registered startups get their products into the university’ s ecosystem and help them make sales under $5,000 to gain customers and get valuable feedback while they’ re at it.
“It’ s a safe place for them to try selling,” she says. “They have to do market comparisons with other products, a real sales pitch, they have to invoice, we have to set them up as vendors… so all kinds of internal stuff that means we follow our procurement rules but the main things is just getting the students their first customers.”
And so far, it has worked out well.
“It was a slow start internally, I had to hustle to get the first few in place because people didn’t know how it would work,” she says. “Now we're finding we're getting unsolicited applications coming in from entrepreneurs, either through our accelerators or just from the entrepreneurs themselves.”
She also points out that Western University in London has adopted a similar program called “Buy Purple” after its varsity colours.
But she’s not looking to keep the program all internal; Karen sees it as a big picture idea that could expand throughout Toronto’ s post-secondary education ecosystem.
“In December we had a meeting with Ryerson, George Brown College, Humber, OCADu and us (with plans) to bring in Centennial and York,” she says. “We're sitting at the table to see how we can usefully work together and what can we do to create more opportunity.”