Startup internships let students experience life as an entrepreneur

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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.