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A Dragon’s Den for college-born business ideas

From left, HumberLaunch’s Daniel Fowler, Cheryl Mitchell and Crystal Gellizeau at Humber College’s incubator in Toronto.


Anyone who's watched CBC's Dragon's Den knows how hard it can be for aspiring entrepreneurs to persuade investors to take their ideas seriously, let alone inject some capital into a project.

But while much of the banter between the Dragons and the contestants is just reality-show shtick, their questions must be taken seriously by anyone looking for financing.

With that in mind, Toronto's Humber College has developed its version of Dragon's Den, LaunchPad, to help its students fight for a share of $40,000 in startup capital.

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The student competition is about to embark on its second campaign, and given the success of the first iteration in helping launch businesses as varied as a rooftop farming company and a dance school, it's proving quite an incentive for Humber students looking to bring their own ideas to market.

"You get them to think about [their ideas] in a way that someone who doesn't care about it thinks about it," says Laura Keating, Humber research facilitator. "So, for example, the first question is always, 'Well, who's going to buy this?' and invariably the answer is, 'Everyone.' And that's not true for any product, no matter what it is.

"Have you done your market research? How many dollars are spent on this? Is it growing? What's your competition?" Ms. Keating continues, "And most of them actually can't answer those questions."

The school's incubator, called HumberLaunch, opened its doors in January of 2011 and was founded to help students resolve those issues. Participants benefit from mentor relationships with alumni, faculty and those already in the industry, as well as networking events, workshops and physical resources such as a 3-D printer.

The incubator is available only to Humber students and alumni, unlike, for instance, Ryerson University's Digital Media Zone, which admits anyone if their pitch is up to par. And while HumberLaunch isn't asking applicants to reinvent the wheel, it does ask that they bring something to the table.

"There's not a lot of criteria [for admittance]," says Cheryl Mitchell, HumberLaunch's program manager. "It's just that the business should be innovative. What sets you apart from what's already out there?" As a result, anyone looking to become a franchisee wouldn't qualify.

But beyond that, the scope of ideas is pretty broad. Skyline Farms, a winner of last year's LaunchPad competition, used the $5,000 it received to help get things off the ground, and earlier this year it successfully piloted one of the first aeroponic tower gardens in Canada at Thistletown Collegiate Institute in Toronto.

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It was through HumberLaunch that Skyline Farms first made that connection with the Toronto District School Board. Those kinds of results show the value of the Humber incubator, Ms. Keating says.

In its two years since opening, HumberLaunch estimates that it has helped 28 startups.

Research at public colleges helps improve the productivity of businesses by developing new technologies, products and services, says Shawn Dearn of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges. "Last year, Canadian colleges partnered with nearly 4,600 companies in applied research, which strengthens links between students and potential employers."

HumberLaunch staffers see themselves as links in the chain.

"We really get them from that idea stage to a place where they have a product or service that they can now market and try to launch to that next step," Ms. Keating says. "It might be sales, it might be another incubator, wherever it makes sense for them to go.

"They want to be entrepreneurs and it's really hard, so [we] just kind of hold their hands a little bit."

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