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From idea to business: learning entrepreneurial skills at The Hub

Ravi Ravindran shows off his app, Mapian, during a day of workshops at UTSC's The Hub.

Ever wish you could check your phone to see what events are going on around you?

Ravi Ravindran has an app for that.

Want a smart music player that is influenced by your environment and your friends?

Kenneth Leung is part of a team working on it.

Or what if you could binge-enter dozens of online prize contests at once?

Prateek Rao has the answer for you.

All three UTSC students have been working on these projects out of The Hub, a unique space in the Instructional Centre that promotes student entrepreneurship and innovation. Students from any discipline can go to The Hub with an idea and meet others, including faculty, who may be able to help them develop it and perhaps start a company.

“The purpose is to help students explore and innovate and develop their skills,” says Hub Director Gray Graffam, a Media Studies professor with a background in start-ups.  “We try to give them the experience of what entrepreneurship is about.”

Events are a key part of The Hub’s work, and last weekend Ravindran, Leung and Rao were among some 60 students from all three U of T campuses who mingled at Blue3, a three-day series of workshops designed to refine their talents as entrepreneurs.

The tri-campus event, initiated by the Department of Computer Science (DSC) on the St. George campus, was typical of the high-value support the two-year-old Hub offers UTSC students. The first day’s session was held in The Hub itself, focusing on how to develop ideas and gain customer insights. Day 2 at UTM, home of the Innovation Cube (I-CUBE) accelerator in the Institute for Management and Innovation, covered technical awareness and skills. On Day 3 at St. George’s DCS Innovation Lab (or DCSIL, pronounced “diesel”), participants learned more about pitching ideas to investors, and joined in a competition for best pitch and best idea. 

Ravindran, just graduating in neuroscience and psychology, knows something about pitching. He spent months in The Hub refining his idea for Mapian, an app that shows events and other social-media posts near your location on a map. At a conference in Markham last year, he met the CEO of a major European telecom company and pitched his idea. The company later came through with a substantial investment and Ravindran hopes to launch the app later this year.

“When I first had the idea, I didn’t know where to start,” he says. “The Hub really is a flagship program that brings together resources to help foster entrepreneurship from A to Z and develop an idea into a business.”

Similarly, Leung, going into fourth-year math and statistics, manages a Hub team that is building the smart music player, led by graduating Computer Science student William Mak. Rao, going into third-year Management, set up Contestry, a digital contest entry service for online prize-hunters.

“I couldn’t have built the business without The Hub workshops,” Rao says.  “The Hub also connected me with a lot of people.”

Graffam notes that The Hub makes extensive use of resources and events from the MaRS Discovery District as well as such U of T accelerators as The Hatchery, the Impact Centre and the Creative Destructive Lab. Currently The Hub is an extra-curricular facility, funded largely by a grant from Ontario Centres of Excellence, but Graffam hopes to incorporate a for-credit stream by 2016.


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