Ryerson University’s DMZ startup incubator is launching a blue-chip advisory council with the lofty goal of solving Canada’s entrepreneurial problems.
The 20-member council is headed by Nadir Mohamed, chairman of ScaleUP Ventures and former chief executive of Rogers Communications, and is composed of a range of business leaders from across the country.
IBM Canada president Dino Trevisani, Round 13 Capital partner and former Dragons’ Den personality Bruce Croxon and Adidas Group Canada president Michael Rossi are among the members. David Walmsley, editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, is also a member.
The council will meet six times a year and attempt to tackle problems that many entrepreneurs and startups face, from attracting funding and generating growth to creating international contacts and getting publicity.
“We want this council to help grow our startups,” says Abdullah Snobar, executive director of the DMZ. “They have the know-how and the resources and the diversity to do it.”
The DMZ started the process of putting the council together a year ago, with support from Ryerson, Mr. Snobar says. The incubator invited business leaders to apply to become members and ended up receiving 450 applications. The final membership was chosen based on individuals’ diversity and ability to address a wide range of issues.
One of the first challenges the council will tackle is entrepreneurs’ image problem in Canada.
Close to 40 per cent of Canadians polled in a DMZ survey could not name a single entrepreneur, while a further 30 per cent could identify only one. That differs from the United States, where individuals such as Facebook impresario Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla founder Elon Musk – whose mother is Canadian – are household names.
Former CBC personality Kevin O’Leary and BlackBerry founder Mike Lazaridis were among the few Canadian entrepreneurs who were recognized in the survey.
The survey also showed that Canadians generally view entrepreneurialism and entrepreneurs favourably, but more than half don’t have the confidence to start a new business themselves.
“It’s a real problem. We don’t celebrate entrepreneurship the same way we do hockey and basketball players,” Mr. Snobar says. “We want to make it something that my kids and your kids can speak to very naturally.”
The council has attracted the federal government’s endorsement. Navdeep Bains, the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development and former distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson, says more efforts are needed to help entrepreneurs accelerate their early-stage companies into becoming global competitors.
Only about 5 per cent of small businesses in Canada are growing at a 20-per-cent clip on an annual basis, a low fast-growth rate by international standards, according to the government.
“This initiative by Ryerson is really great because you have individuals who are successful entrepreneurs, who are established CEOs, really helping and mentoring companies grow and scale,” Mr. Bains says. “That’s the sort of leadership we need to see.”
Globalive Capital chairman and Wind Mobile founder Anthony Lacavera, vice-chair of the council, plans to tackle that growth problem by helping startups find later-stage investment within Canada.
Too many startups, he says, have to go to the United States and other countries because local investors are too reticent to provide larger funding amounts.
“If I’m a U.S.-based venture capitalist or private-equity investor and I make an investment in a company in Canada or anywhere else abroad, I’m encouraging the company to establish a base in the United States,” he says.
“Of course you want to go the U.S. [with your products], but you can build your operations here in Canada.”