Today it seems like the most famous students-turned-entrepreneurs are the ones who dropped out. That’s because startups traditionally needed to turn to private funding to get off the ground.
However, new incubator programs from innovative research facilities like University of Waterloo and University of Toronto are now playing a bigger role in nurturing and developing the young entrepreneur.
Companies like D-Wave, Aeryon Labs and Bionym are all proof that the university is a powerful nesting ground. In 2011, I co-founded Bionym, the first company to create a wristband that can unlock devices like computers, cars, and smartphones by authenticating the wearer’s cardiac rhythm. We started out developing our core technologies as PhD students at U of T, but it was a series of school-sponsored business programs that helped us bring a consumer application to the market.
The commercialization of our research wouldn’t have been possible without three university resources: instant credibility, access to the city’s top advisers and investors, and a community of talented intellectuals. These advantages have helped Bionym enjoy great success right out the gate.
In the absence of venture capital or a traditional funding model, how can a seedling company get off the ground?
What many entrepreneurs don’t realize is that reputable universities are well steeped in strategic industry partnerships and key grant holder relationships. For example, our company survived its first two years thanks to grants from organizations like Ontario Centres of Excellence. U of T was responsible for making those introductions.
Academic funding gave us the power to develop our invention for several years before even thinking about how it would apply to the marketplace. And once we were ready to open that door, U of T’s business accelerator programs helped us make the transition from research to commercialization.
One of the most common misconceptions about taking the academic route is that it lacks support for on-the-ground business development. U of T’s Innovations and Partnerships Office offered us a dedicated staff for turning groundbreaking research into a revenue-generating business. More importantly, we participated in the first round of the Creative Destruction Lab: an incubator founded in 2012 to support university-affiliated entrepreneurs in developing billion dollar businesses.
The Lab connected us with seasoned entrepreneurs who helped us see the potential for turning our technology into a complete consumer product. Advisers like Dennis Bennie of XDL Capital nurtured the early development of our company strategy and even became one of our first investors. In fact, out of our first $1.4-million in seed funding, $1-million of it came from our mentors at the Creative Destruction Lab.
The academic community also gave us a direct line to Toronto’s most promising engineering and computer science students. This talent pool proved invaluable during our early stages when we rapidly grew from three to 17 people between 2012 and 2013. The majority of our current team has been recruited from the school, and together with core faculty relationships, this community gives Bionym a strong foundation to stand on.
Bionym is just two years out of the U of T commercialization programs and we’re turning heads south of the border. Earlier this year at South by Southwest Interactive we garnered attention from publications like USA Today and announced our first partnership with PasswordBox, with more to come in the airline, hospitality, payment and automotive industries. Bionym expects the company to grow our current staff of 28 exponentially with the official product launch.
With integrated startup resources including out-the-gate credibility, intensive business programs, and a tight-knit community, universities are a viable nesting ground for young entrepreneurs. Bionym plans to keep close ties with our alma mater, sharing our successes and failures with a promising new crop of inventors and entrepreneurs.
Karl Martin is the co-founder and CEO of Bionym, the creators of the Nymi. He is an entrepreneur and a recognized expert in biometrics, security and privacy. You can find Karl on Twitter @KarltheMartian or Nymi @Nymiband.