This week, the University of Toronto hosted the fifth annual Entrepreneurship Week — a four-day online event that showcased the talent and innovations sprouting from the university’s startup ecosystem.

Being mindful of Zoom fatigue from what’s now been a full year of online meetings and events, this year’s program intentionally included fewer and shorter sessions, focusing on a range of topics from representation to skill-building and mental health.

Here are some of the top takeaways for prospective entrepreneurs from this year’s U of T Entrepreneurship Week:

1. Being an entrepreneur is hard, but being a woman entrepreneur can be harder

To kick off the event and in celebration of International Women’s Day, Pitch with a Twist competition provided a community of strong female founders with a platform to showcase their ventures, network with top companies and win cash prizes.

Funding is one of the biggest barriers to women in the startup journey. “The industries where we see a higher representation of women, such as culture-making, education and healthcare, tend to be devalued,” says Kasey Dunn, a program coordinator at entrepreneurial hub ICUBE. “As a result, women pitching innovations in these sectors are often overlooked in favour of high-tech innovations, which, in parallel with the industry itself, are more commonly presented by men. We want to level the playing field.”

With one-third of the event’s programming being focused on supporting and showcasing women entrepreneurs, other sessions explored such topics as barriers for women in business, Black leadership and resilience strategies.

2. Startups need to protect their intangible assets

We are moving into an intangible economy, where intellectual property is becoming an increasingly important driver of economic prosperity. In his opening remarks at the RBC Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Minister of Ontario Colleges and Universities Ross Romano stressed the need for IP protection for local startups. “We know that the intangible assets that are coming out of our research are changing everyday lives — these are discoveries that are so invaluable, these are assets that are growing our economy and it’s important that they translate into positive impacts for our province,” says Romano.

Real-world examples of the positive impact of IP protection were front and centre in the stories from founders of U of T’s fastest-growing companies in the inaugural Scaleup Showcase. For instance, Michael Helander, the co-founder of OTI Lumionics, emphasized the importance of being proactive about protecting IP. Securing the intangible assets of OTI Lumionics, which develops advanced materials for next-generation organic LED displays using quantum simulations, machine learning and pilot production testing, has helped keep the venture competitive.

3. Entrepreneurs shouldn’t shrug off self-care

Balance in life is incredibly important — a fact that is frequently overlooked by entrepreneurs who often put 110% into their startup and leave little love for themselves.

In a session hosted by U of T’s Health Innovation Hub (H2i), keynote speaker and professional development coach Liam O’Leary spoke to the significance of mental health awareness for entrepreneurs. O’Leary suggested the creation of temporal boundaries, such as a day or time you will sign-off from work; physical boundaries like a dedicated space for work that’s away from other activities to avoid spilling over into your downtime; and cognitive boundaries, such as keeping work thoughts at bay by writing them down as they pop into your mind. 

Session panelist Yasaman Soudagar, co-founder and CEO of Neurescence, stressed the need for leadership to engage in honest, vulnerable conversations with staff to build a culture of awareness and empathy in the workplace. This practice leads to greater trust, morale and better mental health outcomes for the entire team.

Finally, Linnea Aasen-Johnston, a clinical business consultant for BESPOKE Business Solutions, suggests recognizing that as an entrepreneur, you likely have more responsibilities than the average person. Prioritization is key, which means getting comfortable about letting go of lower-priority items.

4. Your career doesn’t have to be linear

A central theme throughout the week was the notion that a non-linear career trajectory is not only realistic but will create better entrepreneurs.

In one of the standout moments from the week, serial entrepreneur, U of T alumnus and co-founder of the COVID-19 vaccine manufacturer Moderna Therapeutics, Derrick Rossi, gave his take on building less traditional career paths. Rossi, who started three different PhDs before completing his first, travelled the world to research at world-class universities including Stanford and Harvard and co-founded five therapeutic companies. “Travel the world. Do cool science. Work with smart people. Maybe start a family. Non-linear is OK, says Rossi.”

Another co-founder from local Toronto company Ada, Mike Murchison, shared his experience studying in four different departments at the U of T before landing on the right one. After studying cognitive science and psychology and gaining real-world experience working in a call centre, Murchison co-founded Ada which provides companies with a new frontline for customer experience, empowering businesses to provide personalized experiences at scale. Ada now has almost 200 employees and has large-scale companies like Zoom, Shopify and Telus as customers.

5. Representation matters

Stressing the need to nurture participation from under-represented communities in entrepreneurial programming, senior U of T leaders spoke about the importance of representation in business.  Christine Allen, emphasized U of T’s commitment to identifying these barriers and providing access to resources so that everyone with a business idea has access to the supports needed to move forward. And Wisdom Tettey announced U of T Mississauga’s new Indigenous Entrepreneurship Program which aims to build career pathways for Indigenous youth by working to eliminate barriers, facilitate partnerships and mentorships. Applications to the program are open to self-identifying Indigenous startups and will close on March 16.

As well, at The Hub’s Celebrating Leaders event — Naki Osutei, Fennella Bruce and Daphne Magna discussed their incredible journeys that sparked transformational change within the ventures they lead. Their key advice to racialized entrepreneurs is that who they are equates to the strength that they bring to their venture.  They need to commit to lifelong learning by taking advantage of workshops and resources from the library and city resources and believe in their ideas.

The future looks bright for Toronto’s next generation of entrepreneurs

U of T has seen more than 500 new ventures launched in the past decade alone and the university’s entrepreneurs have secured upwards of $1.5 billion in investment over the past decade. The establishment has a long history of innovation, which is being reflected in this year’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Insulin.

Looking to turbocharge the next wave of innovation in Toronto, construction is underway for the Schwartz Reisman Innovation Centre. This 750,000-square-foot complex will also be the new home to University of Toronto Entrepreneurship’s ONRamp, a space that connects startups and entrepreneurship programs across U of T’s tri-campus and its partner organizations.

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