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Rotman’s startup lab extends reach to the West Coast

Rotman’s Creative Destruction Lab in Toronto will have a West Coast equivalent, located at UBC’s Sauder School of Business.

The Globe's biweekly business-school news roundup.

At the Creative Destruction Lab at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, high-tech startups with potential to transform the economy receive coaching and other support from successful entrepreneurs, angel investors and top MBA students.

Over the past four years, high-tech ventures nurtured by the lab have generated more than $800-million in equity, with one emerging startup, Thalmic Labs, this month raising nearly $120-million (U.S.) in one of the largest financings in Canadian history.

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Replicating that success is the goal of a new alliance to establish a West Coast arm of the Creative Destruction Lab, announced this week by Rotman and the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business.

"This type of seed-stage funding and master coaching allows high potential scalable technology ventures to be put into orbit," says Paul Cubbon, who heads the Leader, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Group at Sauder and is head of Creative Destruction Lab West.

Rachel Harris, director of Rotman's Creative Destruction Lab, says, "This is a pretty big step for us in starting something at the other side of the country. It just means we can move Canada forward at a much greater rate."

Both labs will offer support to startups with a general technology focus. Last year, Rotman introduced a second track for new ventures in the field of machine learning and artificial intelligence, a specialization at U of T. Sauder will add a second track next year, with a research focus (still to be announced) that plays to the university's strengths.

A competition for startups to earn a spot in CDL West begins in January of 2017. "We will look at good candidates but the vast majority will come out of university research labs where they have got that deep science," says Prof. Cubbon.

Like the Rotman lab, the one at UBC aims to set the bar high by selecting only startups with transformative ideas that could make them big employers in the Canadian economy and by recruiting mentors with successful records as entrepreneurs.

"One thing that grabbed my imagination when I talked to Ajay [Agrawal, founder of CDL at Rotman] and why I pursued this is his comment that this [lab strategy] is about the future of a postnatural resource Canadian economy and society," says Prof. Cubbon. "What are we going to do and where are the jobs going to be if we educate people and lose them all south of the border?"

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Unlike some business school accelerators, CDL does not invest in startups, charge fees or lease space. Instead it relies on private sector donations. Typically, the startup candidates selected for the lab are at the "seed stage" of their development, possibly with a prototype but with little or no venture capital support as yet.

At Rotman's lab, says Ms. Harris, "Our main goal is to help commercialize university research with the main objective of advancing Canada … and helping all this great amazing research turn into products so they can help society."

Applications to MBA programs in flux globally

A little turbulence has hit graduate business education worldwide, with softening demand for some programs and growth for others.

In 2016, 49 per cent of all programs received more applications than last year, down slightly from 51 per cent in 2015 over the previous year, according to a new trend report by the Graduate Management Admission Council.

Demand for two-year full-time MBAs took the biggest hit, with increased applications for just 43 per cent of programs worldwide (42 per cent for Canada) this year compared to a peak of 61 per cent in 2012. But scale matters: Programs with more than 120 students escaped the downdraft, with 57 per cent reporting higher application volumes compared to 33 per cent of those with fewer than 53 students.

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Applications to Canadian schools largely reflected the global trend.

Rotman at U of T (with 351 students in its current MBA class) experienced strong application growth this year (with applications from Latin America and Mexico showing particularly strong growth of 35 per cent), according to Jamie Young, director of recruitment and admissions for Rotman's full-time MBA.

"The larger schools are able to scale and build on their strengths," he says. At Rotman, he adds, "We are well-positioned in the market on a macro and micro level."

As mid-sized schools, Sauder at UBC and McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management reported higher application volumes this year (25 per cent and 21 per cent respectively), bucking global statistics that showed growth at just 40 per cent of mid-sized schools (53-120 students).

Like small schools globally, the Sobey School of Business at St. Mary's University in Halifax saw a dip in applications this year (possibly related to a recent tuition hike) that produced a smaller cohort of 19 full-time students, down from 25 last year. (Part-time numbers held steady.) But a school spokeswoman said early signs of interest in the program for 2017 suggest the downturn in applications could be temporary.

Even with fewer applications at some schools, competition for available spots is still high.

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"They [schools] still are receiving more than enough to fill the classes and still remain competitive and selective," says GMAC research director Gregg Schoenfeld. GMAC notes that 93 per cent of programs surveyed report that applicants are "similarly or more academically qualified than candidates last year."

In contrast to the two-year MBA, demand remains strong for one-year full-time, executive, online and popular specialty degrees in finance and data analytics. For example, 57 per cent of one-year and online MBA programs worldwide reported growth over last year.

Too often, Canada is missing from regional GMAC profiles because too few schools respond to council surveys. But this year U.S.-based GMAC received enough information from 14 Canadian schools to generate some useful insights, but not enough to generalize about the country as a whole.

For example, international students account for 51 per cent of MBA programs at the schools that supplied information; students from Central and South Asia accounted for 23 per cent of total applicants compared to 11 per cent from East and Southeast Asia.

In addition, 70 per cent of MBA applicants to the reporting Canadian schools have three or more years of work experience, with significant variations by type of program. For example, 40 per cent of those applying to professional programs (with employment prerequisites) have six or more years of work experience compared to 25 per cent of full-time MBA applicants.

Meanwhile, with business schools intensifying efforts on gender diversity, women represented 37 per cent of applicants to the reporting Canadian schools (with men accounting for 63 per cent), a ratio on par with the global trend, according to GMAC.

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