Bruce Poon Bruce Poon Tip, founder and CEO of G Adventures, at the travel company's Toronto headquarters.

Sign up to have the latest news and available resources from Enterprise Toronto and partners in the business support eco-system delivered to your inbox. 

Have an interesting story about a Toronto start-up?  Email your idea to Enterprise Toronto.

Catch up on all the news you missed

ExpandNew Grant Program Launched by Province and City of Toronto to Support Local Entrepreneurs

Building on the City of Toronto's successful delivery of the Starter Company Program that has helped 275 entrepreneurs launch and grow their business in Toronto, the Province of Ontario and the City have launched the Starter Company Plus Program.

The program provides training, mentorship, advisory support and a grant ranging from $2,500 to $5,000 to entrepreneurs in a number of targeted sectors, and is open to those 18 and over.

To ensure entrepreneurs get access to the right resources for their companies, the Starter Company Plus Program will have a number of streams:

  • Starter Company Plus – Creative Arts: Delivered in partnership with Artscape and focused on helping artists and designers develop and launch their businesses.
  • Starter Company Plus – Digital Main Street: Delivered in partnership with CampTech and focused on helping main street businesses develop and implement a digital transformation plan.
  • Starter Company Plus – Fashion Business: Delivered in partnership with the Toronto Fashion Incubator and focused on helping fashion businesses build and scale.
  • Starter Company Plus – Food Venture: Delivered in partnership with Food Starter and focused on supporting food processing companies take their products to market.
  • Starter Company Plus – StarterSpace @Crossways: Focused on helping Ontario Works clients develop and launch their businesses.
  • Starter Company Plus – Small Business: Focused on helping traditional small business (trades, consultants, retail, etc.) start and grow their businesses.
  • Starter Company Plus – Technology Startup: Delivered in partnership with Founder Institute and focused on helping early stage technology entrepreneurs develop their companies.

Learn more and apply for the program.

ExpandStarter Company Plus Digital Main Street Program provides training, advice and grant money

As consumer expectations have changed, online shopping has become the norm and mobile devices have become ubiquitous. For Toronto's main street businesses, the demand to embrace technology has never been greater.

Implementing a digital plan can be a challenge. From ensuring a local business has an up-to-date website that can be found in search, to establishing an e-commerce presence and managing reservations online, main street businesses sometimes struggle with tying these tools together to drive business growth.

To assist these businesses, the Province of Ontario and City of Toronto have announced the Starter Company Plus - Digital Main Street Program. The program will provide training and one-on-one advisory support – as well as a grant of up to $2,500 – to main street business that are located in any of Toronto's 82 Business Improvement Areas.

A comprehensive digital training curriculum consisting of eight half-day training sessions provides the foundation for the Starter Company Plus - Digital Main Street Program. The training sessions will be delivered by Camp Tech, Toronto’s oldest and most established tech training company for small businesses. Camp Tech’s team of digital experts will lead the practical training sessions, guiding and educating main street businesses as they work through their own Digital Transformation Plan.

"The health of Toronto's neighbourhoods are interconnected with their commercial main streets," said Chris Rickett, Manager of Entrepreneurship Services at the City of Toronto. "Working to ensure Toronto's small business community is embracing the latest in technology in order to grow their businesses is one way we are supporting the health of Toronto's neighbourhoods."

Launched last year by the City of Toronto and the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, Digital Main Street is a program focused on helping Toronto's main street businesses adopt digital technologies. Over the past year they have supported more than 3,000 main street businesses, and with the announcement of the Starter Company Plus Program will enhance this support by providing grants to assist businesses with their digital transformation.

Learn more about the program, including how to apply.

The Digital Main Street Program is delivered in partnership with Google, Mastercard, Rogers and Yellow Pages. Interested businesses can complete their free digital assessment by visiting

Expand Fashion entrepreneurship program for aspiring accessory designers

The Toronto Fashion Incubator (TFI) is offering a new, free-of-charge fashion entrepreneurship program for aspiring accessory designers between the ages of 20 and 29.

Launching on July 20, 2017, TFI’s Fashion Your Future will introduce program participants to all aspects of starting and developing a successful fashion business.

Funded by the Government of Ontario as part of the Youth Jobs Strategy and supported by the City of Toronto, Fashion Your Future will begin with an 18-day fashion boot camp.

Attendees will learn how to develop an accessory line and source materials, visit designer studios, and learn about strategic business elements including pricing, business planning and how to prepare for a trade show.

From the boot camp, 10 top attendees will be chosen to participate in phase two of the program and produce a spring 2016 accessory collection with help from a mentor and a TFI micro grant. In phase three, the top three collections will be featured in TFI's Press & Buyers Trade Show taking place October 21 and 22 at World MasterCard Fashion Week in Toronto.

Attend a free information session to learn more about the program:

July 13 @ 3 p.m. – Metro Hall, 55 John St.
July 15 @ 2 p.m. – Regent Park Aquatic Centre, 640 Dundas St. East
July 16 @ 3 p.m. – U For Change, 563 Dundas St. East

For information about the program or to register, email Laycee Catalano at or call 416-971-7117 ext. 30.

Expand Business Inc. program now taking applications

Take part in the eight-week Business Inc. program offered by Toronto Public Library in partnership with the City of Toronto and the Toronto Business Development Centre (TBDC). Learn from professionals and start making your business dreams a reality. 

Apply today

During the program, you will:

  • Prepare/update your business plan
  • Access a business advisor and other valuable resources
  • Network with other entrepreneurs

Upon completion, you will:

  • Obtain a Business Seminar Series Certificate of Completion from the Toronto Business Development Centre
  • Be eligible to apply for a small business loan ranging from $5,000 to $30,000*

Application deadline is Friday, March 31 at noon.

If you have questions about the program or the application process, please email or call 416-345-9437.

More information

*Completion of the course is not an automatic qualification for the loan.

Expand Summer Company 2017 applications open

Enterprise Toronto is now accepting applications from students who want to participate in the Summer Company program in 2017.

The program helps students set up their own businesses for the summer. All that is required is a good business idea, commitment and hard work.

Summer Company provides hands-on business training from successful business mentors, and allows participants to discover if they have what it takes to be an entrepreneur.

The program is open to students 15 to 29 years old who will be returning to school in the fall. To be considered for participation, students must submit an application and detailed business plan. The application deadline is May 6, 2017, but the sooner you apply the better – there is a limited number of students accepted.

Participants will complete 12 hours of training and receive up to $1,500 to cover start-up costs,  and up to $1,500 upon program completion.

This is a great opportunity for students to explore self-employment, develop their entrepreneurial skills, and make money.

Learn more and apply.



Expand Ontario is giving young entrepreneurs a chance to make their pitch

Ontario is giving young entrepreneurs the chance to pitch their business ideas to experts and the public through the Young Entrepreneurs, Make Your Pitch competition.

Twenty finalists are chosen who are awarded a trip to Toronto to pitch their ideas live at OCE’s Discovery conference and showcase, May 15-16, 2017, in front of a panel of judges from the entrepreneur community.

Based on the live pitches, the judges select six winners who are presented with reserved entry into the Summer Company Program along with an award suite to be announced.

Check out the highlights and awards ceremony video from the finalist event at Discovery 2016.

Read a blog by Albert Lai, serial entrepreneur and Young Entrepreneurs, Make Your Pitch Discovery judge, to learn about his experiences and some advice for young entrepreneurs.

Read more information on Young Entrepreneurs, Make Your Pitch competition.

Expand Food Venture Grant Program launched to strengthen sector

The Greater Toronto region's food industry is a key sector of the economy and the second-largest food cluster in North America – ahead of Chicago and second only to Los Angeles.

The Food Venture program – launched by the City of Toronto, Food Starter and the Province of Ontario – aims to strengthen Toronto’s position and maintain or better this ranking in the future.

“Currently there are over 700 food-producing businesses operating in Toronto,” says Chris Rickett, Manager, Entrepreneurship Services in the City of Toronto’s Economic Development & Culture Department. “The Food Venture Program will ensure that Toronto’s food sector continues to develop homegrown talent.”

Food Venture recipients will be granted funds to be used to access the Food Commercialization Program offered by Food Starter, Toronto’s food business incubator and accelerator. Companies will get four months of access to shared production and packaging facilities as well as training, mentorship and marketing activities so that they can commercialize their products and get them into market.

“Since we opened in November 2015, Food Starter has been flooded with inquiries from innovative people who have great ideas for food businesses,” says Food Starter Executive Director, Dana McCauley. “Although our weekly tour is always full, we see many great ideas go undeveloped because these innovators lack the funds required to commercialize and launch their ideas. Food Venture will make a big difference for these under-capitalized food entrepreneurs.”

Applications for the Food Venture program are now available online and programming will begin in April 2017. To apply, visit website.

Expand New Startup Launch Program offers training, support and office space to entrepreneurs

The City of Toronto, Startup Toronto and Biz Launch have partnered to deliver a new program that provides training, support and office space to entrepreneurs looking to develop their business ideas and growth plans.

The Startup Launch Program provides a number of elements, including:

  • A five-week training program focused on developing all elements of a business;
  • Access to one-on-one advisory support;
  • Connections with mentors for coaching, advice and inspiration; and,
  • Ability to work from Enterprise Toronto’s North York Civic Centre Office for up to six-months (includes touchdown space, wifi and meeting space).


The program is sector agnostic and is focused on helping entrepreneurs that are ready to take their business idea, or existing business, to the next level. 

The first cohort starts on October 27th.  The program costs $495 plus HST is open to any entrepreneur that is ready to get

Learn more.

Expand Startup Launch Program accepting applicants for March cohort

Are you an entrepreneur looking for training, support and office space to develop your business ideas and growth plans?

The Startup Launch Program – designed to help entrepreneurs who are ready to take their business idea or existing business to the next level – is now accepting applications for the March 2017 cohort.

Delivered by the City of Toronto in partnership with Startup Toronto and Biz Launch, the program provides:

  • A five-week training program focused on developing all elements of a business
  • Access to one-on-one advisory support
  • Connections with mentors for coaching, advice and inspiration
  • Access  and work space at Enterprise Toronto’s North York Civic Centre Office for up to six-months (includes touchdown space, WiFi and meeting space).

The next five-week, 10-workshop session starts March 1, 2017.

The program costs $495 plus HST and is open to any entrepreneur who is ready to build their business.

For more information and registration information visit the website.

Expand City of Toronto small business centres enhancing services

As part of this change, entrepreneurs can now access a range of services online, including training materials and basic business resources

The goal is to ensure entrepreneurs can access necessary resources when they require them, without the need to visit a City of Toronto small business office.  Throughout 2017, the City will continue to build the available resources for small business online. 

In addition, there will be a number of changes at the City's small business centres, they include: 

  • City Hall Small Business Centre – this small business centre will only be available for Business Plan Reviews by appointment only and for Business Registrations from 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Monday to Friday.  Those looking for assistance can attend the bi-weekly How to Start a Business 101 Sessions or other training activities at City Hall – see the full calendar here
  • North York Civic Centre – the most comprehensive office of the City's small business centres, this office continues to be open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday to support entrepreneurs with all of the City's programs.  A new addition to this small business centre is the opportunity for entrepreneurs to work from the office.  To do this, entrepreneurs must be enrolled in the Startup Launch Program
  • Scarborough Civic Centre – there have been no changes at this small business centre and the office continues to be open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday to support entrepreneurs with all of the City's programs.


Expand Business Innovation Support for Small Businesses

Centennial College's Centre of Entrepreneurship has launched a new program that supports technology-driven businesses from all sectors seeking assistance in growing and innovating their businesses.

Provided at no-cost, the program is aimed at enhancing the innovation capacity of small businesses. Businesses can get support for business model design, innovation, market planning and technology application development.

Those involved in the program can choose one of three streams, including:

1.Lean Canvas training and development: Experiential program  for developing a roadmap and validated business model for growth of early stage enterprise.

2. Market Plan Development: Consultative and facilitated program  for Business model innovation and actionable market plan for introducing new products or services or processes for growing business.

3. Mobile Application Development: we deploy resources to develop mobile application for your business to improve service or product delivery and experience.

For details and application please visit:

Expand YorkU’s YEDI incubator highlights the benefits of social enterprise

By Andrew Seale

Just like startups, incubators and accelerators have their share of challenges developing a niche and attracting talent. But the York Entrepreneurship Development Institute (YEDI) based out of York University’s Schulich Executive Education Centre, has found its calling in the form of developing social enterprises.

“We integrate for-profit and not-for-profit companies simultaneously in the same room,” says Maria Konikov, director of operations at YEDI, explaining that the setup offers opportunity for cross-pollination between the sometimes vastly different business models. “The for-profit companies learn how to be more socially minded and the not-for-profits learn how to become more resilient and business minded.”

Dr. Marat Ressin launched YEDI in May 2013 after he was approached by the Business Development Bank of Canada to train some of the companies BDC wanted to invest in. Dr. Ressin felt some of the companies weren't quite ready for the investment stage, that they still needed some mentoring. So he drew on his experience across both non-profit and for-profit sectors to offer help. Since then, more than 165 startups have moved through one of YEDI’s four programs. Konikov points to a joint project between the Victoria Ballet Academy and a program called We Will Dance, which focuses on teaching people in wheelchairs to dance.

“The two organizations were part of our first cohort . . . they connected in the program and developed a program together (and) have since received a lot of funding from both government and private investors,” says Konikov.

Laser Weld Creation is another success story she says she’s particularly proud of. The company, which uses a very thin laser for precise welding, was a wife-husband team before it joined YEDI in 2013.  

“Since the program, they've received a large sum of investments and moved into a factory that they've now outgrown,” says Konikov. “They've created between 15-20 jobs in two years.”

While not every business working through the incubator has pursued a social enterprise, businesses at a variety of stages have worked through the program and walked away with a full business plan and model surrounding marketing and finances, as well as a better understanding of how to pitch their ventures.

“We've had a really positive response from all the participants,” says Konikov. “They always come back to us and tell us how nice it is to have that social side of the things in the room.”

In her mind, YEDI fills a niche in a city that's home to many incubators catering to all types of businesses. Perhaps more importantly, Konikov believes YEDI picks up on a growing trend.

“Everyone is moving towards becoming more social – in order to be successful, a business needs to be able to solve a problem and if they are doing something social to help make the world a better place, customers will respond to it,” explains Konikov. “If you do something good for society, society will pay you back.”

Expand TruShield and Enterprise Toronto team up in support of small business owners

TruShield Insurance and is sponsoring the upcoming Enterprise Toronto Small Business Forum, which takes place at the Metro Convention Centre on October 25. It is expected that the Enterprise Toronto Small Business Forum will see more than 2,500 small business owners attend alongside businesses dedicated to supporting the entrepreneurial community. TruShield will host a discussion panel on “protecting your business from the unexpected.” The discussion panel will include experts from finance, insurance, logistics, and law. Experts will share insights on common risks for business owners and provide advice on how to best protect their business.

Shared dedication to supporting entrepreneurs
“I think it’s a perfect fit; we have a lot in common,” said Tony O’Brien, the Executive Vice President of TruShield. “We operate nationally and we’re dedicated to supporting small business owners and entrepreneurs across Canada. Working with an organization like Enterprise Toronto, which nurtures Canada’s largest small business community, aligns with our core values and I’m looking forward to moderating the discussion panel in October.”

Chris Rickett, Manager of Entrepreneurship Services at Enterprise Toronto agrees: “We’re always looking for partners that share in our values. TruShield does more than offer small business insurance – they take pride in being an active member of the small business community and that makes them a great fit as a partner. We can’t wait for them to join us at this year’s Small Business Forum!”  

About TruShield Insurance
TruShield Insurance is a proud supporter of Canada’s small business community. We focus on serving Canadian small business owners, entrepreneurs and startups. We provide affordable, flexible, and tailored insurance solutions for small businesses. Visit us online at to learn more about our products.

About Enterprise Toronto
Enterprise Toronto is funded by the City of Toronto. Our network of resource centres across the city provides free services and advice to aspiring entrepreneurs and small businesses. We also provide online resources, host seminars, and run the annual Small Business Forum. Visit and grow your small business.

® and ™ Northbridge Financial Corporation, licensed by Northbridge General Insurance Corporation (insurer of TruShield Insurance policies).

Expand From dog fear to dog love to dog-walking, 2.0

By Deena Douara Karim

It might sound like an exaggeration to suggest that Colly, a fluffy gray and black German Shepherd-Collie mix, is to thank for where Gilleen Witkowski is today. But it's true.

When she was just four years old, a dog bit Gilleen on the arm, a traumatic experience that caused her to be terrified of dogs. 

But growing up in rural Grey County, Ontario, with animal-loving parents, Gilleen's phobia was a problem. Her Dad grew up on a farm and her Mom grew up with greyhounds, so on Gilleen’s seventh birthday, her parents made a point of getting her a dog they hoped would reverse their daughter's instinctive fear. And it worked. 

“Colly was extremely loving and gentle . . . a strong protective female dog who was also really soft and kind,” remembers Gilleen. She says Colly was even respectful of baby sister Emma, keeping her distance as needed. “It was perfect.” 

Now, about 20 years later, Gilleen runs Walk My Dog Toronto, with Emma as her chief walker. 

Emma discovered the dog-walking vocation on Kijiji: “It was the first time I got really, really excited about a job.”

“I can’t think of anything more ideal,” she says. “It’s a ton of exercise, I get to hang out with dogs and be a part of their lives…. In what other profession are your customers so excited to see you?”

For Gilleen, though, dog-walking wasn’t exactly a natural progression. She studied political science, then global affairs, and previously did PR for a union. She loved animals but didn’t have the resources to care for one full-time so stuck to dog-sitting and fostering.

But after taking a dog-walking certificate that focused on positive reinforcement, and seeing how much her sister enjoyed her days, she says she was driven to make a change away from her far-from-home, 9-5 job.

Gilleen's grandparents were successful immigrant entrepreneurs and their model had always resonated with her.

She left her job this year and started Walk My Dog Toronto. The company attempts to update a service not known for innovation by giving pet owners a GPS tracking of the walk, sending owners a cute midday pic of their dog, and even providing detailed info like a dog’s poop status. Booking is available online and Walk My Dog Toronto offers the option of different pickup and drop-off locations.

“I saw a need for more accountability and more professionalism,” says Gilleen. That includes taking her employees seriously, offering them a living wage. “It’s actually a really difficult job,” she says. “I want our employees to be happy at work.”

The Witkowski sisters are more rural gals than urbanites and for them, Toronto represents a significant cultural shift. “Toronto is awesome,” says Gilleen, explaining that local businesses support each other and it’s easy to find community. “It’s a fantastic place for business.”

While Gilleen says the city is big and bustling, dog-walking brings out the best in people and places. “All that formality melts away” when you have a dog in tow. Instead the sisters encounter perpetual smiles.

“People talk like they’ve known each other for years.”

Still, the best part of the job for the sisters is watching the dogs evolve. Emma gives the example of one small terrier cross that had a lot of triggers and barked constantly. Through months of positive reinforcement, she says the dog “improved drastically,” getting calmer and friendlier.

Walk My Dog is currently focused in the west end of downtown Toronto, but is open to expanding.

Expand How a ‘kamikaze entrepreneur’ turned his failures into guidance for young upstarts

By Andrew Seale

If you can sell it in Winnipeg, you can sell it anywhere – it was advice that freshly minted Western University MBA grad Greg Thompson took to heart. He ditched London, Ontario, in favour of launching an early-Canadian reproduction furniture business in the Manitoba capital.

It seemed like sound advice given that it had come from Phil Kives, the Winnipeg-born international business infomercial pioneer – who first coined the phrase “As Seen on TV” – and founder of K-Tel.

But the guidance wasn't sound. In fact, Greg spent more time coming up with other business schemes to draw in money then he did selling furniture.

“I learned more about entrepreneurship in those first six weeks than I did during my time at MBA school,” he recalls. But it kicked off Greg’s life as a career entrepreneur.

“I call this my entrepreneurial kamikaze phase – I was doing a (not-so-great) job at a lot of things but learning a lot,” he says. “I’m a big believer that you learn a lot more from your failures than you do from your triumphs… I was learning so many lessons at that time.”

While trying to make the furniture company work, Greg also signed on as a marketing manager for a film production company, ran a wooden garden planter company and took to consulting small Manitoban businesses. Next he headed to B.C. and worked his way up to the role of director of franchising for fast food chain A&W.

“In that role everybody I dealt with was an entrepreneur,” he recalls. “The really successful franchisees were the ones that 95 per cent of their energy was spent on executing the A&W program and five per cent was spent on thinking outside the box.”

He and his wife took his experience and opened a string of Mmmuffin franchises with another couple. Then there was the gamble he made on virtual reality pods, a new technology he thought might take off. It didn’t.

“I left a good job to take that on… it was a total unmitigated disaster,” he says with a chuckle. But it took him to England where he stumbled on Laser Quest eventually bringing the franchise to Canada and parts of the U.S.

Somewhere in there was a stint running an artist’s paint franchise, a string of arcades and plenty of other holdings until one day he realized he’d inadvertently become a mentor. It started with offer guidance to his friend’s entrepreneurial children but slowly he found himself becoming a go-to for Futurepreneur and Enterprise Toronto helping out fresh-faced startups looking to navigate the early stages of running a business.

“Our world has changed so much,” he says, pointing out that the path he took was deemed very unconventional 30 years ago compared to the way we work now. “There aren’t nearly as many progressive career paths available – it’s like in the olden days when everybody was in a band now everybody is developing swimsuits, sleepwear, stationary…I think it's great.”

As for whether there is enough space for all the entrepreneurs who work their way through the Toronto ecosystem, Greg’s own path sends the most resounding message: make your own room.

“I think the real question is: will their entrepreneurial path enable them to accomplish what their other goals are or will their success be fleeting or will it grow some roots and be lasting because the world is changing so quickly…” he says. “The space is unlimited.”

Expand Community-builder pushes development through technology

By Deena Douara Karim

Shaharris Beh doesn’t want to hear about following your passion. More important, he says, is what is your purpose?

Beh reveals his purpose is long-term -- enable local tech communities to create sustainable paths to development in impoverished parts of the world: “Economic development through technological proliferation,” as they put it.

“Passion is largely emotional . . . I’m not sure having a passionate job is something you can maintain over a long period of time.”

After trying stints in everything from copywriting to private equity, cartoon voiceovers to development work, Beh has finally found his purpose in HackerNest, the small startup nonprofit that’s bringing local tech communities together in a sort of vehemently-anti-networking network. (He's also trying to tackle dementia, but more on that later.)

“If I were going for a PhD, HackerNest would be my thesis," declares Beh, "it’s how to save the world . . . The gap between rich and poor is massive, and the difference is technology.”

HackerNest serves three functions: Tech Socials draw like-minded individuals together for no explicit goal other than to enjoy “nerdy” conversations and to make friends. Beh acknowledges that employment or funding opportunities may result, but he is insistent that agenda-free attentiveness is just a better way to interact. So successfully crafted are the events that they’ve been replicated in 24 cities (14 countries across five continents), from Manchester to Manila to Melbourne. Beh and his team (which includes co-founding brother JJ Beh) train new chapters’ community-builders on event management, branding and “tricks” they adopt to make the experience comfortable. The goal is to have the socials’ success be mirrored in more and more developing cities.

Second, HackerNest is working on HackerNest Unite, a platform to bring the tech community together. It consolidates relevant resources, job posts, events, and news into a single hub to bolster the local tech ecosystem.

“If you were looking to get into the industry, you probably wouldn’t know where to start. There’s no ‘home’ for Toronto tech at this point, no go-to place for information, for knowledge, for advice. Building these communities is the first step,” Beh explains, alluding to his larger goal of facilitating economic development.

Finally, as its name suggests, HackerNest holds hackathons – an industry trend that brings together developers, designers and problem-solvers to address issues or topics by working in teams within a defined time frame.

“I’m a little biased, but we run the world’s best hackathons,” Beh says. “It’s the spirit of the event, the quality of projects that emerge, how well thought-out it is.”

HackerNest's upcoming CourtHack will include a U.S. Supreme Court Justice on its judging panel; it’s the team’s most recent initiative on dementia, backed by Facebook and the U.K. government, that has garnered the most attention, earning coverage in The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, CBC and The Independent.

DementiaHack, which took place in Toronto last November, is unique in several ways. To treat the topic respectfully, the team consulted with clinicians, caregivers, and people living with dementia to uncover the most endemic issues. They then created challenges around some of those: “Packages of solvable things,” Beh says.

Five-hundred people attended the last DementiaHack, resulting in over 70 projects. Judges acted as mentors to the teams in advance in order to ensure that viable ideas and companies resulted from the weighty event. There's another session planned for New York this year.

DementiaHack is Beh’s proudest achievement so far. “It was a monumental event,” he says. Winners from 2014 are going into clinical trials and one team from 2015 was just acquired by a public company.

“The feedback we’ve gotten has been universally positive…. Everyone had fun; people came out feeling really inspired and really fulfilled. And hopeful.”

Beh expects good outcomes but he’s not in a hurry: “The success of HackerNest will be visible in 10-15 years,” he says. “We have enormous plans for this planet.”

Expand SoCIAL LITE wants you to drink and feel good about it

By Deena Douara

Neetu Godara is pretty excited about her team’s product, SoCIAL LITE Vodka.

Sure, they’ve been seeing rapid growth, have landed Arlene Dickinson (Dragon's Den) as a partner/investor and have been approved to sell across Ontario, but more importantly – she finally has a boozy beverage she can drink.

Godara, like her partners Kevin Folk and Dan Beach, are active, “very health-conscious” professionals who noticed that the drinks they and their peers enjoyed were typically high in sugar, calories, preservatives and multisyllabic ingredients, and they sucked away energy – particularly the day after.

“I don’t like to pound back beers, I don’t drink coolers because I don’t consume much sugar in my diet, and I do love wine but it’s not always the right moment for wine,” Godara explains. “There’s really, truly, nothing out there that I felt good about drinking.”

So SoCIAL LITE went the other way; Four ingredients: carbonated water, premium Canadian vodka, lime/lemon juice concentrate and natural flavours. It’s gluten-free, local, and 80 calories – the lowest of any ready-to-drink, says Beach, and likely the lowest of any alcoholic drink on the market.

SoCIAL LITE offers Lime Ginger and Lemon Cucumber Mint flavours, and will shortly include Pineapple Mango, as well.

“We wanted a product that was clean, crisp, refreshing … something very easy-drinking,” explains Folk.

The ingredients may be simple but the road to market was anything but. It involved long waits, 1,400 phone calls and a single tweet.

It started with Folk and Beach, who have been friends since their first year at Guelph University, fooling around in the kitchen mixing drinks for their friends.

Beach was a coastal and dive engineer – “super dangerous” – turned business consultant, and Folk worked in project management. When they reconnected years after those first university days, dissatisfied with their work situation, Folk says, “we just looked at each other and went, ‘Why are we working for other people?’”

They mulled over ideas and Folk remembers thinking, “’How hard can it be to get into alcohol?’” (Spoiler alert: It's a little bit hard.)

Soon after, the pair were introduced to marketing guru Godara, and the three clicked. So much, in fact, that these days they spend a lot of time working, eating and hanging out together, talking on the phone 12 times a day when needed.

Their first win happened in Alberta where the alcohol market is deregulated and there are over 1,400 liquor stores. Beach and Folk called every single one of them – while also balancing full-time jobs – until eventually they cracked Alberta’s largest liquor store, Liquor Depot. Next was B.C. and then finally, after a lot of paperwork and three years of effort, their home province of Ontario this year.

Part of making that happen had to do with a single late-night tweet to Arlene Dickinson of Dragon’s Den fame. Having been turned down on Next Gen Den, Godara tweeted the clip to Dickinson mentioning she’d heard she was a vodka drinker. Next thing they knew they were meeting with her. She was a fan, and soon, a partner. “I still can’t believe that happened,” says Godara.

The team says they also got a lot of support from Guelph’s Food Technology Centre, which helped develop the drink’s commercial formula, as well as the Business Development Centre.

SoCIAL LITE plans to be at most of the city’s big summer events and music fests, offering a refreshing summer drink for health-conscious festival-goers in need of a counterbalance to the poutine they just downed.

Expand Micro-business coach teaches entrepreneurs to leverage their communities

By Andrew Seale

For Ramona Gallagher, an entrepreneur’s success is based on the community they build around themselves. And it’s that same principal, the idea of inclusion and collaboration, that has informed the former Ontario Works caseworker and serial entrepreneur’s approach to self-employment training and business consulting via Business Basics, the company she launched in 2013.

“I teach people how to start their business based on building relationships,” she explains. “It’s about sharing resources to make you successful.”

The idea is to create a sense of self-worth and financial independence amongst her clients – predominantly entrepreneurial Torontonians on social assistance or with disabilities – and showing them how to turn their passions into micro businesses and startups.

“Having your own business doesn’t need to be some magical mystical kind of thing,” she says. “You can create a business out of knitting little bonnets, out of selling bath balms and bath beads or being a home inspector.”

Business planning and models are always based on what clients know they can do – if someone has a disability and knows they can only work 15 hours a week, the business model reflects that.

“Something that is realistic, manageable and achievable,” says Ramona. “We're not putting expectations on them that they know they can't maintain.”

But the overall goal, she explains, is to get the business up and running for less than $250.

“I teach them how use what they already have and focus on helping them get their first client and using the money they generate from that client to buy the things they want for the business,” she says. “It’s what you have not what you want.”

Which is why it always seems to come back to community. Part of enabling her clients to start bootstrapped startups comes from setting in place partnerships and leverage resources. She recently teamed up with Vistaprint to get a preferred rate for the budding entrepreneurs she’s coaching that are looking to print out business cards and promotional materials inexpensively. She’s also become a bit of an advocate for the brand, joking that at the recent Enterprise Toronto Small Business Forum, she was mistaken as a Vistaprint rep.

“People were coming up to their booth and asking if it was good and I was showing them my business cards,” she says laughing. The Small Business Forum was also an extension of that leveraging the community approach, with Ramona incorporating the event into her programming as a bit of a “class trip”.

“I told them ‘the goal was to meet people, find out what’s out there, talk about their business,” she says. “And whenever Enterprise Toronto has their monthly newsletters, I forward it out to my group – I don’t want to duplicate what is already out there, I want to supplement whatever that learning is with a little bit more practical stuff.”

It all comes back to that principal of collaboration that guides Ramona and Business Basics.

“Why keep reinventing the wheel all the time, why must we always try to start from a blank piece of paper, let’s start from something that’s already there and build on it,” she says. “If we put ourselves together we become much stronger in what we're doing.”

Expand City of Toronto provides online learning tools for entrepreneurs

Whether an entrepreneur is looking to develop their business plan, create financial projections, or generate a marketing and sales plan, Enterprise Toronto offers a series of web-based training modules that provide step-by-step instruction with templates and worksheets that will help kick start an entrepreneur's journey.

"Supporting small businesses is important for the City of Toronto," shared Chris Rickett, Manager of Entrepreneurship Services, with the City of Toronto. "We want to ensure that entrepreneurs can get the services and resources they need as conveniently as possible during their startup phase – providing services online means entrepreneurs can get assistance 24/7 from the City."

In order to access the various web-based training modules, entrepreneurs can visit the Enterprise Toronto website.

Expand Startup helps get students in Kahoots with entrepreneurs

By Andrew Seale

Kaylie Greaves and Allison Rhodes of KahootsKaylie Greaves and Allison Rhodes are the same person. Or at least that’s what the co-founders of Kahoots – an online platform for multi-disciplinary collaboration between students – will tell you.

“When we introduce ourselves, we say we only need one introduction because we've had the exact same path,” says Greaves. They attended the same undergrad program at Ryerson – entrepreneurship – and clearly have the same ambitions. “It’s probably not great for a founding team to have everyone the same.”

Rhodes only lets the statement hang for a second before she offers her take.

“We just did a personality test and she's a big future thinker, I'm very logical and into minute details,” she says. “So we really balance each other out because she’s thinking too big and I’m thinking too small (then) we pull it together.”

They both nod in agreement. The conversation goes a lot like this – less a “finishing each other’s sentences” sort of cliché, more of them tirelessly sensing gaps in each others logic and picking up the slack. The whole dynamic is complimentary; complimentary enough to earn the pair one of two $25,000 prizes in Enactus Ryerson’s annual Slaight Business Plan Competition last September.

It was with that startup capital that Greaves and Rhodes were really able to quit their jobs and fling themselves fully into building out the company at Ryerson's Digital Media Zone incubator and accelerator, which they initially joined in May.

The initial idea for Kahoots was inspired by sitting in a classroom with other entrepreneurs trying to build out an idea.

“We noticed throughout that course that there were a bunch of great ideas for businesses coming up but six business students can’t start a business,” says Greaves. “There are no hard skills there, just ideas.”

Entrepreneurial progress at that level needs developers, it needs communication specialists and perhaps most of all it needs thinkers who can help poke holes in the plan.

But getting the right people is easier said then done.

“We understand that issue – how do I build the team if I have no money and how do I get money if I don’t have a team?” says Greaves.

Chatting with other entrepreneurs they realized it was a common problem and decided to build a community job board of sorts, where entrepreneurs can post about the projects they’re working on and then ambitious students looking to add startup experience to their resume can take on projects as interns or volunteers.

In a sense, it builds on the spirit of collaboration the pair has already encountered within the DMZ.

"Companies are in here because they (want) that collaborative space,” says Rhodes.

Greaves also points out its an asset to be surrounded by startups at different stages in their evolution.

“It’s been so beneficial for Allie and I. If I have a question and am working from home I’m going to spend two hours researching online and hope someone has posted it in a forum somewhere,” says Greaves. “Whereas if I know someone beside me has just dealt with it I can go over and talk to him because he was where I am two weeks prior.”

The next step for Kahoots will be exporting the model to other post-secondary institutions.  They’ve already brought it to Universities in Windsor and London, ON.  Eventually they envision it playing a greater role in the startup ecosystem.

"You go to networking events and you can spend two hours in a room and talk to 8 or 9 people, none of them are the person that you’re looking for,” says Greaves. “But you can go on our platform and search and say ‘this is the type of person, in this area’ and get a list of 15 people – we can bring that world of networking online and be more efficient.” 

Expand Foodies Unite and U-Feast, talk and enjoy wine pairings!

By Deena Douara

Duck heart salad; calf brain quiche; licorice panino; sea urchin mousse.

If these sound enticing, or at least intriguing, you’re just the market for U-Feast events.

Toronto is known to have a somewhat obsessive foodie culture where cheesecakes garner long lines and seasonal festivals draw crowds. And despite all Toronto has going for it in terms of food, partners Terry Mocherniak and Kenn Koid spotted an untapped opportunity.

Capitalizing on restaurant dead-times and the growth of pop-up food events, U-Feast takes over trendy restos for a night with buzzed-about chefs and a carefully crafted menu that offers patrons something out of the ordinary.

One staple is community. Mocherniak says he’s been amazed by how much strangers have connected at their events, “way more than I expected.” Food lovers come together and share their culinary experiences, facilitated by the harvest tables that are arranged for U-Feast events. “That’s one of the big draws is the social component,” he says.

Another constant is interaction with the chef and sommeliers. All U-Feast events afford guests an opportunity to meet the chefs who are both local, like Christine Cushing, and visiting – like Michelin-starred Cristina Bowerman from Rome. It also gives chefs the chance to come before guests to discuss their process and selections.

Mocherniak explains that restaurants are set up to have profitable repeatable dishes. U-Feast events are different, he says. It’s not about money or efficiency; instead it’s a creative outlet — an opportunity to create something “extraordinary.”

The team enhances the experience by adding contests, celebrity MCs, entertainment, sponsored wine, or event themes. A recent biker-themed event at Ossington darling Böehmer, for example, featured San Diego chef Ivan Flowers, comedian Mike Bullard, and restaurant chef and owner Paul Böehmer — all three of whom are motorcycle enthusiasts.

Mocherniak says there isn’t a single profile that would describe his members (and membership is free, by the way). He says food fans from 22 to 60 years old come out and mingle and despite a higher price point than a typical dinner out (about $75-$125 per person), he says he’s noticed a shift, particularly among Millennials, away from spending on objects and towards spending on experiences. “They may not be able to afford a house, or a car even, so they spend on travel and experiential entertainment, and that includes higher-end food.” U-Feast launched in April of this year and all seven events to date have sold out.

Guiding Mocherniak, who has a business and software background, and Koid, the true foodie, was Toronto-based tech accelerator program INcubes. Mocherniak says INcubes helped introduce U-Feast to some key venture capitalists and government programs available to them.

Down the road, INcubes will also make introductions into Chicago, New York City and Silicon Valley once U-Feast is ready to enter the U.S. market, before a possible expansion into Asia.

Expand Entrepreneur teams up with City of Toronto and Ryerson U to bring Fort York to life

By Andrew Seale

AWE technology at Fort York

Many Torontonians and tourists have seen Fort York, but Srinivas Krishna wants visitors to more than just see it, he wants them to fully experience the 200-year-old garrison.

The film director, digital media innovator and founder of AWE Company has paired up with Ryerson University’s Multimedia Research Laboratory and the City of Toronto to bring immersive augmented and virtual reality experiences to the heritage site.

The program, which has run extensive pilots since summer 2015, uses portable VR viewers to create the augmented experience, explains Srinivas.

“You essentially walk around the grounds and it leads you through an audio-guide type interface to different spots on the grounds,” he says. “It knows where you are so it will say things like, if you want to learn about the Battle of York look through your device – you'll look in that direction and voila you're suddenly inside the Battle of York.”

Visitors to the fort can quite literally walk through history on the augmented reality device exploring everything from First Nations stories from before the fort was constructed to Confederation. The technology is three years in the making.

“It's been quite a journey. When I started it I didn't anticipate that it would be three years before we got this thing out,” says Srinivas. “That's how it goes when you're inventing brand new technologies, it's building it from the ground up.”

The research and development phase was a huge learning curve.

“It’s really exciting and it’s the most satisfying thing I've ever done (building) something from scratch with a really great team and to materialize it,” he says.

The partnership started when Srinivas approached the fort with his concept. David O’Hara, manager of the Fort York site, says the technology was a great fit.

“I saw it as a way of making the interpretation of the site easier – like recreating lost landscapes – and more interesting and accessible to those familiar with similar technologies,” says O’Hara. “It's important to note that I never saw this as a replacement for what we do traditionally, including tours and exhibits, but as another option for people to engage with the site and its history.”

Expand Synbiota looks to make biotech more accessible for young startups

By Andrew Seale

Connor Dickie and Justin Pahara Connor Dickie and Justin Pahara entertain grandiose visions of a world in which the same geeky teen who piggybacks off programmers’ pre-existing code to design a multimillion dollar app could use synthetic biology tech – if it was accessible and open source and intuitive – to cure cancer or create a new form of medicine.

Because that’s the sort of DNA-tinkering, biotech democratizing guys Dickie and Pahara are. They want to take biotech beyond the walls of institutions, universities and large corporations and make it accessible to everyone.

Which is why they co-founded Synbiota, an integrated software and wetware platform for rapid DNA prototyping – developed for do-it-yourself biotech devotees.

“Normally you would need a multimillion dollar lab and years of time and big bucks and big skills to engineer DNA,” says Dickie. He speaks in bursts, heavy on the “ands,” wide-eyed with an Einstein-like mop of hair.

“But now you don’t need to have a PhD and 10 years of research and development under your belt, you can be a young person with an idea or a problem and a bit of money and buy some tools for yourself and start experimenting and solving problems,” he says.

“We develop these tools and get these tools out to people.”

Synbiota’s three-year history is storied. For one, they lived in a squat when they first moved to Toronto. “We knew it was unconventional,” says Dickie.

There was a year at Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone.

“It has that real Silicon Valley-style buzz, which out of all the places I’ve visited in Toronto it’s the one that has that,” he says.

There was also a year spent in Montreal poking around Bricobio – the city’s DIY bio hub. But now, with their roots planted in Toronto’s Liberty Village neighbourhood, Synbiota is ready to elbow out more real estate for their side project DIY Bio Toronto.

“We’ve done workshops in the space but we haven’t opened it for people to do their own research,” says Pahara, adding that they hope to open soon.

The idea is that anyone with a rudimentary understanding of synthetic biology can contact Synbiota and get access to the space to prototype their projects. It’s like an incubator for… well, incubation.

“The hope is that they do good work and we can bring them to some of these venture capitalist people that we know who are asking us to help find interesting projects and put them together and help a whole bunch of them,” adds Dickie. “We want to see – boom boom boom – things happening all the time just like any other incubator.”

Expand Startup plays matchmaker for investors and responsible borrowers

By Deena Douara

A Toronto startup sees an opportunity to make waves in the financial sector by providing a new model for lending, borrowing and investing.

Borrowell, launched in March 2015, connects investors and responsible loan-seekers and offers lower lending rates than traditional suppliers.

The practice is known as marketplace lending and while it’s fairly established in the U.S. and U.K., it is just the second operator currently running in Canada.

“There is so much opportunity in financial services and technology,” says Andrew Graham, Borrowell’s co-founder and chief executive. “We think we’re at the forefront of what’s happening in our industry and to be part of that is so exciting.”

The former PC Financial executive formed a team of experienced professionals after observing innovative models in other parts of the world.

“There was an opportunity to serve Canadians better, to give them better options.”

He shares the story of a close friend, a “responsible borrower,” hit by debt after facing a divorce. “It’s hard to chip away at debt when you’re paying 20 per cent interest … just to stay where you are.”

Graham notes that credit cards charge even responsible borrowers 20 to 30 per cent. Divorce, illness, home repairs are a few reasons Canadians might find themselves carrying debt.

“The reality is there’s over $80 billion in credit card debt,” says Graham, “and 40 per cent of people with credit cards carry a balance from time to time.”

Of course, others looking to access loans may be seeking financing for new ventures instead – weddings, renovations, travel, small business – and Borrowell serves them as well.

The process is straightforward: Applicants input minimal information on the company’s website and based on the applicant’s credit history, Borrowell’s algorithm sets an individualized interest rate for either a three- or five-year term for loans of up to $35,000, and with rates that start at 5.9 per cent.

“The algorithm is really the key,” says Graham. “You have to have a way to give people rates that make sense for them.”

He notes that the three- and five-year terms give borrowers more certainty. “In that way it helps people get out of debt.”

On the other side of the process is the investors putting up the money. Two of the company’s larger investors include Equitable Bank and Oakwest Corporation Ltd.

Graham explains that Borrowell targets returns of seven per cent or more, and investors can specify their own criteria.

“It’s hard for investors to find returns.… For fixed income products it can be very hard to find rates of return above one per cent or two per cent,” explains Graham.

“Seven to ten per cent is very attractive for a lot of people.”

Just a couple weeks after their official launch, Graham says they had thousands of visitors to the site after gaining some media coverage and also utilizing social media and online advertising.

“There’s a ton of opportunity to create new business models that will really serve consumers better and serve investors better,” says Graham. “We think step one is personal loans.”

“To be a part of that is really exciting.”

Expand Stone Soup Innovation Labs creating recipe for collaboration

By Andrew Seale

Inbae Ahn’s Stone Soup Innovation Labs can be disorienting. With its couches, vintage Nintendo 64, and art marked “For Sale” hung by chains from exposed pipes, the Liberty Village basement looks more like the common space in a hostel than an incubator for local startups.

Laptops sit open on desks next to iMacs and video equipment, and stacks of dishes can be seen in what looks like a small commercial kitchen.

Ahn paces through the middle of the organized chaos – offering up advice to entrepreneurs like Daniel Gardiner, founder and CEO of Enginuity, a new search engine for marketers and ad firms, and Marina Cortese, founder of Oats and Ivy, a healthy, gourmet food service.

And if the randomness of this scene isn’t bizarre enough, the serial entrepreneur and founder of the incubator space starts talking about recipes – not the culinary kind but formulas to unleash potential.

"The goal of this organization is to perfect a recipe that other small- to medium-sized businesses can replicate to support other entrepreneurs,” says Ahn, pausing to let my mind put two and two together. “It’s kind of like the human genome, once you get this recipe down you can move the levers to create the outcome that you want.”

He’s hoping to create an inexpensive model for incubating that can be exported and run by like-minded entrepreneurs. Which is why, explains Ahn, Stone Soup is industry agnostic.

"Diversity is one of those things that helps me learn faster,” he says.

Stone Soup is just over a year old but the concept gestated for a while before Ahn launched it. That gestation period included touring incubators and accelerator programs from Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone to Communitech in Waterloo. Perhaps the best nugget of advice Ahn got was from Mike Kirkup, a pal and director at Velocity, the University of Waterloo's startup program.

"One of the things he shared with me is you can’t organize or legislate friendship or collaboration,” says Ahn. “You just have to let it happen and co-location and proximity are the only ingredients you need.”

It’s clearly become one of the flavour-inducing parts in Ahn’s recipe for Stone Soup and somehow, despite most of the startups operating in vastly different sectors, they’ve formed a tight-knit crew willing to back each other up.

“The space itself is very raw. We've got advertising and production and marketing and then we've got food service –  but the community we've built together is very nurturing,” adds Cortese. “We all help each other and pick each others' brains for different ways to grow a business.”

Gardiner has found Stone Soup to be a perfect home for building his search engine.

“You go to the other incubators and sometimes they’re there to make money,” says Gardiner. “Inbae was different, he didn’t ask for anything and we’ve ended up building a great friendship and helping each other out.”

It seems Stone Soup is working. Ahn’s ultimate goal is to quite literally develop a shopping list that runs through items like space requirements and type of equipment – to emulate a similar incubator.

“I’ve got really lofty goals for this model,” he says, admitting he’s unsure if Stone Soup is the be-all, end-all or just another dish for some other chef to come along and perfect. “We’re not old enough yet but soon the plan is to start collaborating in a very formal way with other incubators out there to see if there’s cross pollination – I think that’s the next natural step.”

Expand FundThrough matches lenders with small businesses looking for capital

By Andrew Seale

Steve Uster

At the height of the financial crisis, Steve Uster left his investment banking post on Wall Street and moved back to Canada. His ambition was to buy a business and run it.

But it seemed whenever he met with an entrepreneur to discuss the possible sale of a business, he heard the same lament.

“I kept hearing ‘when you’re evaluating my business take into consideration that I have a stack of invoices on my desk that are just not getting paid and you probably have access to more capital than I do to grow my business,'” he says.

It led him to investigate how small businesses can access capital. And he found there were financing needs not being met by the larger financial services industry.

“I realized that small businesses in Canada really have difficulty getting loans from a bank or capital to grow their business,” says Uster. “They’re either too small or too new or too fast growing for a bank to even look at them, but some are selling to high quality customers.”

This realization ultimately led him to co-found FundThrough, an online marketplace where small businesses can get a line of credit based on outstanding invoices, not financial history.

“It doesn’t matter about your business, how long you’ve been in it or how big you are – it just matters who you sell to,” he adds.

He recounts the story of a new entrepreneur who’d gone to a trade show with an interesting product that caught the eye of Walmart.

“He got an opening order for $700,000 and then he went, 'gulp!' and had to figure out how he was going to get this funded. He didn’t have the track record and the bank couldn’t work fast enough to be able to get him the money right away,” says Uster. But the entrepreneur needed access to cash flow to pay off all the suppliers.

“My biggest pet peeve is hearing clients turn away customers because they couldn’t get access to capital,” he adds. “Working capital is the number one reason small businesses fail."

In a sense, FundThrough is like a dating service, matching lenders – ranging from hedge funds to high net worth individuals – with small business owners who invoice through the platform; it's a type of accounts receivables financing.

The attraction for lenders is they get anywhere from a 10 to 15 per cent return on the money they offer up. Entrepreneurs get to leverage those big contracts to inject some much-needed cash flow back into the pipeline.

“It’s entrepreneurs helping entrepreneurs,” he says.

It’s still early for FundThrough but Uster has lofty goals for the platform, including hopes of disrupting the financial services sector.

“The traditional financial institutions have to wake up and change the way they operate,” says Uster. “They have to realize the credit box that is so tight people don’t fit into it doesn’t always work when there are other metrics out there to determine whether someone is credit worthy.”

Expand Entrepreneurship support for new Canadians

ACCES Employment is now accepting applications for Entrepreneurship Connections, a program that supports the unique needs of newcomer entrepreneurs.

The program offers participants the opportunity to create and develop a business plan, learn about the Canadian legal system and its implications for starting a new business, get tips on networking, and receive mentoring support from other entrepreneurs. 

For more information about the Entrepreneurship Connections program contact Elizabeth Lim, Program Manager at 416-921-1800 or email

Expand BIZ Futures program offers startup support for people with disabilities

BIZ Futures is a skills development and business support program designed specifically for persons with disabilities who are starting their own business. It combines business skills development workshops with one-on-one advisory support to help participants develop their business plans and launch their business idea.

BIZ Futures is offered through the Toronto Business Development Centre and is sponsored by Ontario Disability Supports Program (ODSP).

For more information call 416-345-9437 and ask to speak with the BIZ Futures program manager, or email your inquiry to

Expand Designing Digital Main Street

There are no guidelines for building a digital city on top of an analogue one. There are no building codes, blueprints, or overarching standards to reconcile the inherently Internet-woven world with the patchwork of neighbourhoods making up the fabric of Toronto. There are just islands of businesses bundled together in a sea of people in motion, makeshift “main streets” linked but never really connected.

This is the weighty reality that hung over John Kiru’s head as he looked out at a group of entrepreneurs, designers and technologists in the sparsely lit basement of The Drake Hotel.

“I don’t need to tell you business has changed,” said the executive director of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA) with a weighty grin, seemingly addressing not just the small assembly but also the 40,000 businesses divvied up amongst the city’s 80 plus BIAs. “Brick and mortar may still be in place but when you walk through the front door, past the walls of shelves you’ll see a curtain and behind that curtain there are people packing deliveries and online orders into the back of a UPS or FedEx truck.”

Full article.

Expand Entrepreneur leverages incubator resources to expand luxury outerwear brand

By Andrew Seale

Bojana NikolicFrom the outside facing in, Sentaler’s showroom is immaculate, meticulously hung coats and scarves bathed in warm lights earmarked by a plaque bearing Bojana Sentaler Nikolic’s signature.

It isn’t until you step in that you see the wall of magazine and newspaper spreads behind the desk – Canadian Living, Fashion, Lou Lou, The Globe and Mail, and so on – featuring Belgrade-born, Toronto-based Nikolic’s designs.

The wall’s placement beyond the view of window gazers suggests a subtlety to Nikolic’s approach to Sentaler (christened after her maiden name), less a boast than a reminder to herself how far she has come since she first dreamt up the brand of coats in 2009.

“I’m glad you noticed that because it’s understated,” says Nikolic with a hint of a Serbian accent. “Sentaler is understated, so everything I do with regards to the brand or anything, it’s not in your face.”

The young entrepreneur herself is understated. While she seems right at home in the fashion world, Nikolic’s background is more business-focused. She graduated from the Schulich School of Business in 2006 and then worked in Dubai  for a year and a half preparing reports on emerging markets before the recession.

It was during that time that she had a chance meeting with eccentric German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. While she’d always dreamed of going into fashion, the prospect seemed daunting without a fashion school background. She asked Lagerfeld for any advice he could offer.

“He said ‘you know what Bojana, you just have to have it in you. Fashion is not something you can learn in school. You can learn the technical skills but if you have a vision, it’s inside you’,” she says. “That always stuck with me.”

When the recession hit, Nikolic returned to Toronto, only to then head to South America for a few months. In Peru she fell in love not only with the country but also alpaca, the soft, cashmere-like material she uses in her luxury coats and outerwear.

By 2009 she had returned and launched Sentaler’s first line. A year later she opened the showroom. But if there’s anything her business education taught her, it’s that being a successful entrepreneur means knowing what you don’t know.

She promptly joined the Toronto Fashion Incubator (TFI), a not-for-profit devoted to nurturing and growing young designers and the fashion industry ecosystem as a whole.

“I understand fashion as a fashion consumer but I’m not a fashion graduate so TFI helped me in terms of those initial resources,” says Nikolic. “They connected me to a lot of resources which I didn’t initially have and helped me get an idea of who's who in the fashion industry.”

Participation in the incubator offered mentorship and access to the WGSN fashion trend forecasting tool that is available through TFI (and which usually costs somewhere in the realm of $20,000 for a yearly subscription). These resources, combined with Nikolic’s drive and passion, allowed her to etch a place for Sentaler in the Toronto fashion landscape.

Today, customers from Abu Dhabi to Australia sport Sentaler coats. But Nikolic suspects she’ll call on TFI’s resources once again as she sets out to establish more permanent footing stateside by opening a showroom in the U.S.

As for the inspiration wall, if her upward trajectory over the past five years is any indicator, Nikolic might need to clear some space for 2015’s accomplishments.

Expand Mobile app developers are making connections

By Andrew Seale

Konectivity app developers at work

Jacob Si insists he's shy.

And tucked behind a MacBook in the depth of the MADLab – a mobile app development facility and resource space in the heart of the University of Toronto's downtown campus – it’s hard to disagree.

That is until you pull the 23-year-old away from the computer to chat aboutKonectivity, a smartphone application he dreamt up with fellow students Newton Jain and Nadir Hassan.

We didn’t go out much, we were kind of socially awkward,” says Si, echoing the perception that many have of the Mark Zuckerbergs and the Bill Gates of the world – that they are dorky outcasts happier tinkering with code and computers then exploring the world beyond the lab.

And then Si, Jain and Hassan had their "a-ha moment."

“We went to a seminar about the art of powerful conversation, it made a lot of sense and we decided to push ourselves to have conversations with people from all walks of life,” says Si, who now acts as Konectivity’s head of business development, among other roles. “We got thinking, wouldn’t it be great if you were just sitting here and you opened up an application and you could see all the people around you who share similar interests.”

In May, the team began building out Konectivity, a location-based app that highlights others nearby who have similar interests.

For anyone who has spent part of his or her adult life in the pre-Internet days or remembers a simpler time before cat-video-logged social media feeds, Konectivity may seem superfluous. But for the generation raised communicating through keyboards, Konectivity takes the guesswork out of networking, creating connections between strangers and bringing together people with common interests outside the confines of the computer screen.

“We really want to focus on getting people engaged and having those conversations that can launch whatever opportunities are out there,” Si says.

The first target for Konectivity is the event space – selling the app to organizers to help streamline networking events.

“People are already going to events and paying x amount of dollars to find people that they want to meet,” says Si.

Eventually Konectivity wants to grow beyond events to connecting people anywhere and everywhere, from public transport to hotels.

They just needed a little help.

Enter The Hatchery, a startup incubator guided by the university’s engineering department and designed to help young innovators find their stride navigating the legal, fundraising and other core elements of building a business from a good idea.

After a thorough application process, The Hatchery set Konectivity up with some starter funding and a mentor, Michael Augustinavicius, a consultant and former founding manager at electronics manufacturer Celestica.

“He had a lot of wisdom and insight into how businesses work and we really needed his guidance,” says Si, adding that they met regularly throughout the summer.

The Hatchery also provided a forum for the growing Konectivity team to pitch their product to and get feedback on as they built it out, a way to bypass some of the growing pains often experienced by startups going it alone.

“A lot of teams from The Hatchery have received funding for no equity at all. It’s risky for them – I mean, why invest in me? Who am I? But it’s a leap of faith that they’ve taken and we really appreciate it,” says Si.

“They're really there to help people develop small businesses, which is ultimately in line with what the City's Enterprise Toronto program is trying to do.”

Expand B2B online community and sales platform aims for critical mass

By Andrew Seale

Business X startup entrepreneurs

For some, investing in the slow to innovate business-to-business community is a bit of a gamble.

But for Shawn Bayati, the time to introduce Business eXcellence – a B2B digital community and suite of tools to generate sales leads – is now. In fact, timing is so critical for Bayati that he was willing to funnel what he pocketed from selling his previous business – which was valued at $120 Million – to get Business X, or Biz-X as he likes to call it, off the ground.

“I’m putting all my money into this and I’m not making it back, at least I won’t be for awhile,” says the serial entrepreneur with a laugh. “But it's the long-term vision.”

That’s the nature of the pervasive startup culture flourishing in Toronto at the moment – that sense of urgency in finding the city’s Facebook or LinkedIn-sized success story.

Come to think of it, there are elements of both of these social communities weaved into Biz-X – but the concept delves deeper into the world of B2B than those networks, letting users leverage social media to generate legitimate sales leads with verified businesses and up-to-date company information.

Since Biz-X aggregates current information from Facebook and lets businesses post who’s who at the company, no one has to scramble around looking for the person to contact, says Bayati, who started working on the concept in 2012.

It also lets suppliers and customers post testimonials about their experience working with the business.

So far, several hundred businesses have signed up on the platform.

Doug Leitch, the chief operating officer, says what is hooking companies is that they have the ability to see who’s reading the content they publish or post to social, and perhaps more importantly, how to turn it into genuine connections.

“All the sudden you start to realize there are trends that you should be learning and using to target these people,” says Leitch. “There are billions of dollars of commerce going on, on Facebook, it frightens me how much is being spent to get those billions of dollars and how few companies are realizing these benefits because it is mud on the wall. What Shawn envisioned and built, takes it the other way.”

But there’s still work to be done. For the community to have value for businesses that sign up they need to reach critical mass. Biz-X thinks those ideal early adopters will be beleaguered small business owners.

“Small business is the future of the world but they don’t have enough time, they’re always struggling, margins are always tight,” says Leitch. “What we're trying to say is keep doing what you're doing, add this channel on because what if it just grew your sales by 10 per cent?”

Although the program has seen a sort of soft launch, Inbae Ahn, Biz-X’s chief research officer, says it’s in a constant state of evolution.

“We're not smart enough to come out of the gate with a system that solves the problems for everybody but we’re growing organically, focusing on customers and serving people by listening to their feedback,” says Ahn.

The team would love to throw some sort of launch party for Biz-X but it’s more likely that a critical mass will come from partnering with small business-focused teams like Enterprise Toronto.

“What will be more effective is a lot of elbow grease, going to different Chambers of Commerce and Boards of Trade and Business Improvement Associations,” he says. “They have the voice to exactly who we want to reach.”

Expand Three things millennials need to launch their businesses

Whether it’s the result of a persistently high youth unemployment rates, a zest for entrepreneurship or both, young people are increasingly looking to start their own businesses.

In fact, nearly half of Canadian students see themselves starting a business after graduation, according to a Bank of Montreal survey.

And while the job market may be tough for young people, there is an array of resources and tools available for young entrepreneurs looking to kick-start their first venture.

1. Determine what resources are right for you
For those still in high school or university who are looking to test their mettle and start their first company, the province of Ontario offers the Summer Company Program which provides training, mentoring and a $3,000 grant for students looking to start a summer business.

Many high schools and post-secondary institutions are providing entrepreneurship training and support for businesses. Under the Ontario government’s Youth Jobs Strategy, $45-million was dedicated to entrepreneurship, and this has resulted in a range of new campus based business incubators and accelerators to support students with their ventures.

For those no longer in school and under 30, there is also the Starter Company Program. Aimed at helping young people create their own job, the program provides training, mentoring and a $5,000 grant to help young entrepreneurs in launching their company.

2. Acquire funding
Getting started is the first step, but getting financing to grow is just as important. And, while there will always be a call for increased access to capital for new ventures, organizations like Futurpreneur, the Business Development Bank of Canada, MaRS’ Youth Business Acceleration Program, the province-wide Campus Linked Accelerators (CLA), and the Ontario government’s SmartStart Seed Fund, are a few resources available for young people.

3. Follow your passion
There’s a growing number of opportunities for young people to both pursue what makes them come alive and work on what matters to the world. CityStudio Vancouver, St. Paul’s GreenHouse in Waterloo, 21inc in New Brunswick, and Studio Y in Toronto are just a few of those examples.

So while the job market is tough, there are young people making opportunities for themselves – our only hope is that by accessing the various resources available to them, these young entrepreneurs can build successful businesses that employ their peers and generate not only tax revenues, but also address broader societal challenges.

Expand Fresh Start for local designers

By Andrew Seale

fashion designers

Fresh Start could be a reality show, says fashion entrepreneur Laura-Jean Bernhardson about her recently launched initiative. “A reality show would be awesome!” says designer Alanna Klatt, eyes lighting up.

We're sitting in the basement of Bernhardson's Fresh Collective retail outlet in the Roncesvalles neighbourhood – one of three local designer-focused fashion boutiques founded by the Toronto entrepreneur.

Bernhardson is riffing about Fresh Start, a designer development program she created to give up-and-coming talent a boost in the fashion business. 

Klatt is her test case, the first in what is planned to be a series of young fashion-focused entrepreneurs that Bernhardson is mentoring.

Even here in this basement listening to them bounce ideas back and forth, surrounded by half-dressed mannequins frozen in pose, it's clear the program will stretch the seams of its current shape.

“Most designers think they need to make a large collection – 14 or 20 pieces or whatever it is – but it’s more and more and more, and it’s extremely expensive embarking on that process,” says Bernhardson. Which can sometimes make success seem out of reach.

“And then, a few seasons of attempting amounts to people going ‘oh, it’s just too tough, the fashion business is a nightmare’ and they quit or god forbid go bankrupt and burn up some of their family’s money,” adds Bernhardson. “It’s the financial reality of it, I know the dark side of entrepreneurship very well.”

Bernhardson says she often jokes that she should have PhD in small business, having worked with over 200 designers throughout her career.

To help beat the cycle, she decided to distill her two decades of experience in the fashion world into a single four-month course, one that doesn’t just cover how to design and sell a fashion line, but also how to run a business, market, communicate and really understand the customer. 

“It starts with a blank sketchbook and curious mind,” says Bernhardson.

Before her involvement with Fresh Start, Klatt spent some time at Fresh Collective’s Queen Street location chatting with customers about what she hope to create and what they’re looking for in the clothes they wear. The goal was to come up with three core pieces of clothing that will evolve as Klatt progresses her career.

In addition to the fieldwork and design during the research and development phase, the young designer is taking to social media and blogging to tell her story. “The blog is a major component,” says Klatt, who studied fashion at Toronto’s Academy of Design. “We’re really trying to drive people to it to offer feedback.”

They’re also shooting video. For one segment, videographers from the Toronto Film School tagged along with Klatt as she went fabric shopping.

“I’m really thrilled with the content she’s producing. It takes drive to actually follow through and do it week to week,” says Bernhardson, gushing about Klatt while the young designer’s cheeks turn rosy from the praise.

And when asked if she thinks she’ll have trouble finding another Klatt once the designer has completed her run through Fresh Start, Bernhardson shakes her head.

“Alanna is very typical of other young designers. It’s not like they're all over the map – they’re working out of their houses, they’re self-funded and selling their things themselves,” adds Bernhardson. “This is the pilot, it’s just taking shape. But my dream is to see it as a prestigious thing to get into.”