Ryerson University student Jonathan Ingham had an idea. So while his classmates posed for pictures after graduation last spring, the radio and television arts major found the school's president standing on the grass and made him a pitch. He needed space to develop technology and support to start a business. Could the university help?
Less than a year later, that help and space are in place for Mr. Ingham, now a graduate student, and about 50 others with high-tech plans. The Digital Media Zone, a fifth-floor office space overlooking Toronto's Dundas Square, is set up as a kind of innovation lab, filled with white boards and bleary-eyed students.
A few months into the experiment, Mr. Ingham is working on interactive ads that can be projected on floors or walls and are programmed to respond to the step of a shoe or the sweep of a hand, much the way a touch-screen works with a finger. Already he has used his ideas to create special effects on runways for L'Oréal, to sell diapers in supermarket aisles and displays at the auto show.
"I'm just going for it," says Mr. Ingham, 22, who is juggling coursework and business trips. "Creating this space has been such a help."
At a time when innovation is on the tip of every politician's tongue and is offered up daily as a balm for the ailing economy, Ryerson is nurturing student ideas to see if it can kick-start new companies and keep talent in Canada.
"What you see in a way is an experiment working," says Ryerson president Sheldon Levy as he shows off his latest project to a group of visitors. "This is about the innovation of young people. Rather than talk about it, we decided we were going to try to prove it."
Another user of the space, Hossein Rahnama, who has just completed a PhD, leads a team building a system that uses smart phones to help people with disabilities navigate the Paris Métro. Mr. Levy used his contacts to get staff at Metrolinx - run by a former university president, Robert Prichard - to have a look.
Mr. Rahnama and Mr. Ingham are at the heart of why the new Digital Media Zone exists, Mr. Levy says. Both students, he feared, were bound to take their talent elsewhere unless they were given a place to develop their ideas. It's a phenomenon Mr. Levy says he already witnessed first hand as president of Sheridan College where a steady stream of computer animation graduates headed for the film industry in California.
"It did not take a lot of investigation to find out that there are many Jonathans and Hosseins around," he says. Yet, he argues, there is not enough help for students like Jonathan at Canadian campuses, where attention is focused on pure research. Such research is essential, he said, but so are ideas that look at the market first.
Valerie Fox, the only Ryerson staff member devoted to the DMZ project, figures there will be three or four products ready to go to market this spring. To get permission to use the space, students must first present their ideas to a panel. In order to make it in, she says, ideas have to be "semi-cooked" with a pilot plan.
But once they are inside, Ms. Fox says, there is a lot of cross-pollination.
"What we are seeing with students is they are mashing up their ideas, experimenting and pushing the envelope," says Ms. Fox, who came to Ryerson from IBM to foster change on campus.
As well as working on their own projects, the DMZ is planning to become a kind of test lab for businesses with technology challenges.
Adam Froman, who owns a Toronto interactive media company, is working with the university to develop what amounts to a kind of student consulting business. In return, businesses would gain exposure to a pool of potential employees.
The first client is likely to be the architects designing the new Ryerson sports complex inside Maple Leaf Gardens. The university wants to make the new facility a showcase for student talent and Mr. Levy is especially keen on transforming the old scoreboard with new technology developed at Ryerson.
For all his talk of market forces, Mr. Levy says the DMZ's primary goal is still education. "Ultimately I think it is giving real insight into the innovation game and while you are at it if you can link up a great idea and business and become wealthy, terrific," he says.