Written by Andrew Seale

When Sarah Howe joined the research and innovation team at York University, there were no entrepreneurship services. Even Innovation York, which Howe launched in 2012, saw entrepreneurship as an afterthought.

“There were some entrepreneurs coming out of the university but it was kind of incidental because we weren't there supporting them and driving their growth,” she says.

Yet somewhere in there, maybe embedded in the fabric of the university itself, was an entrepreneurial nerve waiting to be struck.

It was there when Jay Klein, founder of The PUR Company launched his first business, a marketing company, while still working through his last year of political science. It was there amongst the university’s debate team and social clubs that spurred Parent Tested Parent Approved founder Sharon Vinderine to abandon her ambitions of being a lawyer in favour of the insecurities of the entrepreneurial life. And it was partially responsible for Drew Green, serial entrepreneur and CEO of Indochino, to launch a fitness company before he’d graduated. 

“Even though these amazing companies didn't start with our programming, they're an example of what can come out of York University and what will come out of York University,” says Howe. “Now (entrepreneurship) is not a side thought, it's a priority.”

Over the past decade, the university has ramped up its services for innovative minds. The IP Osgoode Innovation Clinic, a needs-based innovation-to-market legal clinic operated in collaboration with Innovation York and Norton Rose Fulbright Canada LLP, helps guide startups through the commercialization project.

LaunchYU, founded in 2014, has become one of Toronto’s key accelerators for startup talent and a pivotal resource for entrepreneurs in northern Toronto and York Region. LaunchYU has a 10,000 square space in Markham called YSpace.

“People forget that Markham is the second-largest tech capital in North America,” says Howe. “And Vaughan is an area of huge development so companies are flocking to these areas – there's an entire ecosystem they can benefit from that hasn't been tapped to its full potential.”

York University’s Bergeron Entrepreneurs in Science & Technology (BEST) Program offers a base for startup ventures and engineering support. At the Schulich School of Business, the Schulich Startups Program is now actively supporting 90 startup companies founded by Schulich Students and Alumni. And Schulich Startup Night now draws an audience of more than 300 to watch Schulich's students and alumni compete for the title of the school's top new venture.

“York has created amazing entrepreneurs that have helped to inspire us to create more entrepreneurs in greater numbers through our multidimensional support,” says Howe. “We're looking at it and thinking about it from a whole ecosystem standpoint.”

And while the startup-rich neighbourhoods of the downtown core often hog the spotlight, Howe says it’s time to start highlighting the next generation of Toronto’s tech talent.

“We're starting to graduate our companies because they're getting too big and getting that seed investment, that series A, they're hiring and growing,” she says. “I have no interest in being the best-kept secret.”

Photo Credit: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)