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Breakout: Student entrepreneurs tap into real-life gaming trend

Three of the four students who created the startup (standing, left to right), Ryan Hu, Steven Ji and Eton Lin, in their boardroom with supervisor Bill McConkey. Players are briefed in this boardroom before beginning their adventure. (Photo by Ken Jones)

You’re on a top-secret mission, trapped in a dark room with other members of your team. The rest of your team is in a room nearby, but you can’t figure out how to reach them? What do you do?

That’s the beginning of a scenario from BreakOut Team Adventures, a startup initiated by UTSC management students. 

“It’s like gaming, but you’re playing in real life,” says Eton Lin. Lin is one of the business’s partners, and is using the opportunity as his placement for the Entrepreneurship Co-op program, which has placed its first students this year.

The idea came about after Steven Ji, another partner and entrepreneurship co-op student, heard about the popularity of “real-life room escapes” in Asia, particularly in Japan. Ji and Lin joined with fourth-year management students Ryan Hu and Eric Ren to research and plan the business earlier this year and were up and running in September.

“It’s doing better than I expected,” says Management Professor Bill McConkey, who is supervising the project. “They were at 30 per cent capacity within a few months.”

Entrepreneurship is unique among UTSC’s Co-op offerings. Normally, students are placed within government, corporations or non-profit organizations. In this case, students are their own bosses, with McConkey’s guidance.

“We’re creating a new dimension to the Co-op program,” McConkey says. “It’s counter to the traditional notion of co-op.”

The adventures are most popular among young people aged 18 to 30, and business is at its most brisk on weekend evenings, though they are also in negotiations with corporate and non-profit groups to host team-building exercises.

The students funded the venture through three outside investors and personal contributions. The industry is in its early stages in the region, and there are only two competitors in the GTA.

The game is usually played by groups of four to 10. Participants begin in a boardroom where the game and the situation are explained. They are split up and taken to their adventure rooms, where they must use clues to figure out first how to find each other, then how to escape as a team, all in one hour.

“We’ve only had about 15 per cent escape in time,” Lin says with a laugh.

The four students are now hiring employees so they can keep things running when they return to classes in the new year. “We’re still students!” says Ji.

© University of Toronto Scarborough