Universities should focus on these two things to support entrepreneurs and start-ups: Panel

Last week, the fifth annual Startup Canada Day on the Hill brought together entrepreneurs, investors, politicians, and policy-makers for the largest national entrepreneurship event. Mitacs was proud to participate, sponsoring a panel discussion that featured student-entrepreneurs, instructors, and mentors who are actively working to grow companies. 

Drawing on themes that emerged from a recent Mitacs research paper, Jason Daly, Venture Catalyst and youth champion, led participants through a discussion to share insights and experiences to paint a picture of how universities are working to support Canadian entrepreneurship.

A theme that quickly emerged was the need for flexible approaches to learning and education. This sentiment was expressed by Cameron Ritchie, who later that day received Startup Canada’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year award for being the CEO and Co-founder of HomeWurk. Drawing on his experience launching a company as a high-school student, and now studying at the University of New Brunswick, Cameron stressed that, already, he knows students who find themselves switching majors or feeling stuck because the programs they chose don’t reflect changing interests and priorities. University programs need to be made more flexible and responsive to the needs of the student, he explained.

Such approaches to education are particularly important when working with student-entrepreneurs who have diverse skill sets, experience, and who pursue varying objectives and priorities. For this reason, programs or initiatives that support entrepreneurship must embrace what Iain Klugman, CEO of  Communitech, described as “entrepreneur-centred design.” With such an approach, entrepreneurs are connected to the services or resources they need as they develop an idea or grow their company, and are provided with timely access to programs and services across a seamless pipeline of support.

In the Waterloo region, establishing an entrepreneur-centred design involves coordination among stakeholders, including two local universities, private-sector partners across the region’s respected tech industry, and leading entrepreneurship programs including Communitech and the University of Waterloo’s Velocity program. Building and sustaining such an approach requires relationship-building among partners in the community, Iain explained, where each element of the ecosystem has a responsibility to connect with others.

“Ecosystems are messy and they do require work and commitment, and it’s about relationships. I think that when everyone shares the same objective, then you can get people focused on, ‘ok, what’s my piece in this, and [how can I ensure] I’m not going to overlap and duplicate with everyone else.’  It really is a commitment to a bigger objective than just what the university, school, or community is trying to achieve.”

Chinova Bioworks provides an example of a start-up that has drawn upon a range of programs and supports across Fredericton’s vibrant entrepreneurship community — all of which contributed to the company’s success. Founder and CEO Natasha Dhayagude acknowledged Startup Canada, the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP), the Mitacs Accelerate program, and Fredericton’s community of support organizations for providing her company with access to talent and resources, and connecting the company to university infrastructure such as laboratories for R&D. “In our region, we don’t really have access to lab facilities, so it’s hard for biotech entrepreneurs to get through that R&D phase. So, using programs like Mitacs and leveraging them has really helped us to build out our product and that’s been the key to our company. That’s been everything for us.”

As companies like Chinova Bioworks look towards international market expansion, there may be new opportunities for universities to play a role. Sophia Leong, Executive Director of the University of Ottawa’s Telfer Executive MBA program, suggested that new platforms are needed to connect Canada’s regional entrepreneurship ecosystems with the rest of the world, because, “the world is getting so small, the rate of change is so fast, transformation is happening, and at the end of the day, entrepreneurs are going to drive the economic prosperity of Canada. Collectively, all the key stakeholders in an ecosystem need to create that [coordinated platform] for entrepreneurs.”

When asked to provide a closing sentence to describe the entrepreneurial campus of tomorrow, panellists envisioned universities that were well-coordinated with other services, programs, and platforms for providing entrepreneurial support. This emphasis on strengthening coordination across the entrepreneurial ecosystem reinforced the key findings of the Mitacs research paper, Entrepreneurs on Campus: University-Based Support for Start-ups.

It’s clear that there is much cause for optimism and excitement as universities continue to develop flexible and responsive ways of supporting entrepreneurs. Mitacs thanks the panellists for sharing their first-hand insights. 


Mitacs empowers Canadian innovation through effective partnerships that deliver solutions to our most pressing problems. By driving economic growth and productivity, we create meaningful change to improve quality of life for all Canadians.