Startup internships let students experience life as an entrepreneur


Katherine King outside the Best Institute, home of many U of T startups including Comfable and Steadiwear.

With movies like The Social Network and shows like Dragon’s Den, many may think they know what it takes to build a startup. Spoiler alert: it’s not as easy as it seems on TV.

This summer, U of T undergrads learned firsthand what it really takes to make it as an entrepreneur. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

Over four months, students got hands-on experience through Internship in New Ventures (IMC390), a course that places students as interns in the university’s early-stage companies.

“Students need more than their transcript to get a job after graduation since a list of completed courses doesn’t really show potential employers what you can actually accomplish,” said Alon Eisenstein, experiential learning educator at U of T’s Impact Centre.

“The internship course gives students the opportunity to gain real-world experience while being guided through their learning both professionally and academically, and have meaningful accomplishments.”

Available for third and fourth year students during fall, winter or summer semesters, IMC390 nurtures young talent through internships and experiential learning, contributing to Canada’s Innovation Agenda.

As a new crop of students begin their internships this fall, three students who just wrapped up their summer placements shared their experiences: Katherine King, third year Nutritional Science and Pharmacology student, Juan Orteaga, third year Economics and Statistics student and Justin Areias, fourth year Public Accounting student.

What startup were you placed in and what was your role?

KK:  I was a research and development coordinator for Comfable, a scientific research and development company with the goal of creating products for people to help them interact in a healthy way with their environment. (Learn more about Comfable)

I did content marketing, knowledge translation, website copywriting, a bit of public relations, and product showcasing. Most of my work was on the product blog, explaining the science behind our product in language that people can understand regardless of their background.

JO: I was with Steadiwear, a startup that’s developing a glove that allows people with tremors to do their day to day activities without a problem by stabilizing their hands. My role at Steadiwear as business development coordinator involved partaking in due diligence, attending showcases with the CEO and I got to do a lot of networking, presenting the company to people who were interested like researchers and investors. I also launched my startup’s blog, as well as a newsletter.

JA: I was with Pueblo Science, a charitable organization that goes to developing countries and reaches out to the teachers there to spice up their science educational programs through practical means. My role was more fundraiser with accounting as a sideline, which is what I was somewhat expecting because fundraising seems to be more important in order to bring in funds for the noble cause they have.  (Learn more about Pueblo Science)

What are some lessons learned from your time in your internship?

KK: The internship has helped me realize that healthcare professions and full time research aren’t the only things you can pursue after a science degree. If students are feeling stuck as to what they want to do in their career after their degree, I’d say take advantage of internships offered by the university because they can really help give some clarity.

Working at Comfable has helped me to see how much hard work and dedication it takes to operate a business, and the amount of time and planning that it takes to bring a product to market.

JO: I learned about a lot of different resources that I didn’t know about before. For example, the Impact Centre. If I wanted to open my own business I wouldn’t have thought of going to an incubator on campus and would have just started from ground-zero with no help. But it’s a great resource especially because it brings credibility to the company and a lot of advisors and resources.

How has it prepared you for a career after graduation?

JA: It let me expand my horizons in the sense that I’m now able to know what challenges could occur in a business environment. It definitely gave me accounting experience which firms are looking for so that’s prepared me very well. Also just the overall experience of working at a startup and learning how to deal with challenges as they come up throughout the process was quite beneficial.  

KK: As an undergraduate student, getting the real world experience before you graduate is really important. Also, before my internship, I didn’t know how passionate I would be about marketing, so this has definitely helped me to learn more about myself and my interests. After my life science degree I’d like to explore my interest in marketing further.

JO: I hope to work for a couple years after graduation then get my masters, but in the end I want to be my own boss and make my own business. This was a great opportunity offered by the university that showed me just what it would take to make that happen down the road.

What advice would you give to others who are considering taking the course?

KK: Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. If you’re considering the course, definitely go for it. Getting involved in a startup really opens your eyes to a different side of science.

JO:  Be careful and make sure you stay caught up with everything when you’re balancing working and studying. Also be prepared to learn to work with any kind of person and don’t be afraid to ask your bosses for help if you don’t understand a task.

JA: Don’t limit yourself to just your job description. Be prepared to overcome challenges and take in your supervisors input and follow what they say but find your own spin to it and improve it if you can. Go above and beyond.

Transforming popsicles one Happy Pop at a time

We all scream for ice cream, but why not popsicles? Leila Keshavjee wants to change your popsicle perception from a sugary artificially flavoured summer treat into a healthy year-round snack. With her company Happy Pops, a passion for customer service, new exciting flavours and a family background in the food business, she has all the right ingredients to make it a reality.

Health and nutrition have played a big role in Leila’s life. A recent graduate of the University of Toronto’s Kinesiology program, she understands the importance of staying healthy and eating right. But, as with many businesses, the idea for Happy Pops wasn’t a straight path from her education to business plan.

“There is nothing like working for yourself since whatever you put into it is what you get out. And I’ve always been a huge fan of Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank!”

Leila always knew she wanted to run her own company. Having family in the food business introduced her to the excitement, and challenges, of owning a business. It gave her insight into both the healthy and upscale food markets and an understanding of the supply chains and manufacturing requirements for food products. Although she could have stayed in the family business, she had always been drawn to health products and knew she wanted to work for herself.

Her introduction to formal business plans and the intersection with science came through the IMC200 – Innovation and Entrepreneurship course. The course teaches undergraduates the path from idea to the market and one of the course assignments is to produce a video pitch for a new product. Drawing on her interest in nutrition and the family experience in the ice cream business, Leila pitched a dairy and gluten-free ice cream.

“For me it was probably the highlight of my undergrad. I was able to get something out of the course because the professors gave me the opportunity to apply the concepts we learned, and instead of asking us to regurgitate the components of a business plan, allowed us create our own.”

The next year she decided to take the IMC390 – Internship in New Venture course working with Impact Centre Senior Fellow Charles Plant. While digging through articles on entrepreneurship and researching small business support programs, she realized that starting a company was something that she could actually do.

“That’s when I realized that there is so much support for entrepreneurs and that I wouldn’t be on my own. Knowing that was a turning point.”

But why popsicles? She tells the story that the family business once looked into purchasing a popsicle company. While learning about the deal she saw the value in their products, but also an opportunity to create something new. Smoothies and ice cream are enjoyed all year, but why not popsicles? And with confusing nutrition labels along with a boom in food allergies and sensitivities, she discovered she could make something that was simple, healthy and delicious.

“The vision of Happy Pops is to create all-natural popsicles that are made without artificial colours or flavours. There is a fine line between what tastes good and healthy, and I want to be right in the middle. If we make a strawberry banana popsicle, using the same ingredients used for smoothies, then it can be a year round treat that people can give to their families.”

After speaking with Charles about her ideas, she decided not to do a Master’s degree and applied for Techno, the Impact Centre’s summer entrepreneurship workshop. The rest, they say, is history.

Since starting the company, Happy Pops have been sold at venues across the province . She has worked with the city’s top catering companies Peter and Paul’s Event catering to customize popsicles for private events and collaborated with Daniel et Daniel for the Eaton Centre Nordstrom opening. Leila has a full-time employee helping make the popsicles, and their biggest challenge is keeping up with the orders.

On adjusting to life outside of school, she says “It’s weird. You’ve been in school since three years old and all of a sudden you are running a company.” As for other students who are thinking of starting their own business. “Take a year off and take a risk. It’s a time to learn and as long as you are developing skills you can transfer beyond the business you shouldn’t be afraid.”

RBC now accepting applications for Innovation Post-Doctoral and Graduate Fellowships

The Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) Innovation Post-Doctoral & Graduate Fellowships at The University of Toronto will support research and innovation at the University of Toronto.

The RBC Innovation Fellowship program will recognize emerging leaders who are establishing a record of research, scholarship and impact, and exhibit the potential to make significant contributions to the body of research in the field of entrepreneurship and innovation. In addition to research excellence, preference will be given to those who have a demonstrated and/or future interest in entrepreneurship and company creation.

Various outcomes and new knowledge of the RBC Fellows may be translated into knowledge with applications for policymakers, educators, service providers and entrepreneurs both at the University of Toronto and further afield.

Three fellows a year will be selected from a variety of disciplines:

  • RBC Innovation Post-Doctoral Fellowship – 1 post-doctoral fellowship valued at $100,000 over 2 years ($50K/yr. for 2 years)
  • RBC Innovation Graduate Fellowship – 2 graduate student scholarships valued at $50,000 over 2 years ($25K/yr. for 2 years)

The RBC may further support the selected Fellows by providing access to RBC research personnel, subject-matter and industry experts as well as access to proprietary datasets and RBC infrastructure when appropriate.

For more information on eligibility, research themes evaluation criteria, and to apply visit: 

#Rio2016: Olympic boxers strike hard with the help of U of T Engineering alumnus

The Canadian and American Olympic boxing teams competing in Rio de Janeiro may just have the upper hand – thanks to a wearable technology innovation from a U of T Engineering alumnus.

Both teams have been training using a wrist-mounted sensor that tracks each punch, measuring both speed and intensity. The device was created by alumnus Khalil Zahar, who is bringing his product to market through his startup company, Hykso.

Hykso’s small sensor uses both accelerometers and gyroscopes to gather data about hand movements, taking samples 1,000 times per second. Combining motion tracking and machine-learning technology, the device then calculates, in real-time, the speed of the punch, and even recognizes the type of punch thrown.

U of T alumni develop app to connect researchers with volunteer subjects

new app developed by University of Toronto alumni aims to solve a perennial problem in scientific research — recruiting and retaining participants for clinical studies and trials. Anthony Nazarov and Maroof Moral, both Bachelor of Science graduates from University of Toronto Mississauga, along with McMaster University alumna Erica Tatham, hope to transform the way participants are recruited for medical studies. This fall, the entrepreneurial trio will launch a beta version ofParticipAid, a mobile app that will make it easier for volunteers and researchers to find each other.

Canadian Olympians get green protection against Brazilian mosquitos

With the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro only weeks away, many athletes – including Canadian tennis star Milos Raonic – have pulled out of the Games, citing fears of contracting the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

But U of T graduates Morgan and Jackson Wyatt, two brothers from Brockville, Ontario, are doing their best to protect the Canadian athletes, coaches and officials who do fly down to Rio. The Wyatts are founders of Greenlid Envirosciences, a Toronto-based company that is enjoying great success with its fully compostable Greenlid compost bin. The Wyatts have developed the Biotrap – a biodegradable mosquito trap based on the Greenlid – and are donating hundreds of the traps to the Canadian Olympic Foundation for use in Rio. U of T News spoke to Morgan Wyatt about the mosquito trap.

Your Biotrap is generating a lot of publicity, with stories in the Globe and Mail and Metro News, among other media outlets. But it’s based on your existing product, the Greenlid. How did the Greenlid come about?

U of T and GTA ‘Makers’ show off their creations during weekend-long extravaganza

Technology and creativity collided this past weekend at Toronto’s Maker Festival, a celebration of the city’s entrepreneurs, engineers, artists and hackers.

The fourth annual event featured more than 100 maker displays including 3D printers, digitally printed textiles, lasers, x-ray art and robots. The two-day extravaganza attracted more than 12,000 curious attendees to the Toronto Reference Library’s maker-friendly space.

A year in the life of Canada’s top-ranked university: from the country’s first hand and forearm transplant to @UofTDrizzy

They helped welcome refugees, launched startups, won countless awards, and led research breakthroughs on cancer-causing proteins, why everyone is better off when kids walk to school, whether dinosaurs had lips and much, much more.

Students and faculty at the University of Toronto spent the academic year working to make the city, the country and the world a better, healthier, more sustainable place.  And across the globe, people took notice – with international rankings that placed U of T eighth of the world’s top public universities and surveys that ranked U of T grads among the world’s most employable.

It isn’t possible to capture all the highlights of 2015-2016.

Business mission to Israel shows Ontario serious about innovation, says U of T expert

Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne returned May 19 from a five-day business mission to Israel that emphasized innovation, research and development and resulted in 44 new agreements valued at more than $180 million.

Wynne was accompanied by representatives of Ontario’s business, health and higher education communities – including the University of Toronto.

Start-up Sifts through Speech for Signs of Decline

Research shows that subtle changes in speech are one of the first symptoms of cognitive decline. And yet, the assessments currently used to evaluate cognitive status may not pick up on these nuances. This is where computer algorithms can step in, according to Toronto Rehabilitation Institute scientist and computer science professor Frank Rudzicz. He spoke with Faculty of Medicine writer Carolyn Morris about his health-care focused start-up, Winterlight Labs.