Amid Canada’s ongoing quest to bolster innovation and productivity, a new study from University of Toronto researchers is highlighting how improving supports for entrepreneurs can address these economic challenges.

The study asked more than 100 Canadian technology firms about how existing government initiatives to support startups met their needs. While praising the importance of the help they received, leaders said they need streamlined processes to access those supports, as well as significant investments that can bolster technology sectors holding the highest potential for growth for Canada.

“From our interviews, we discovered a huge, pent-up demand among tech entrepreneurs for a more integrated, simplified, rationalized suite of programs – a real one-door program with one application to get the funding they need,” says David A. Wolfe, co-director of the Innovation Policy Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, and a professor of political science at University of Toronto Mississauga.

The study was conducted by researchers at the IPL, a hub within the Munk School whose mission is to study and teach innovation and its impact on growth and society.

Wolfe says technology firms consulted in the study said they face three main barriers: access to talent, access to capital and access to markets. To overcome these challenges, Canadian governments should not be afraid to make significant bets on promising technologies such as artificial intelligence, clean energy, quantum computing and new advances in life and health sciences, including regenerative medicine, founders told the researchers.

All U of T programs reflect the university’s efforts to make entrepreneurship accessible to underrepresented people. Dr. Bimpe Ayeni, pictured above, is founder of skin products startup Blair + Jack and was part of the first Black Founders Network Accelerate cohort. ALYSSA KATHERINE FAORO/AKFAORO

At the University of Toronto, robust entrepreneurship programs provide startup leaders with an extensive network and the resources to best position them for success. More than 12 startup hubs across three campuses help innovators commercialize their research and ideas.

At the same time, dedicated programs help the fastest-growing firms find the investments, talent and technology they need to grow. As U of T startups in advanced sectors gain more attention and investment, the university is assisting at every stage of their journey, from startup to finding large investors and advisers.

“U of T offers some of the most comprehensive entrepreneurship programming compared to any university around the world,” says Derek Newton, assistant vice-president, Innovation, Partnerships and Entrepreneurship at U of T.

UTEST, a deep-tech incubator for IP-based startups, provides companies with investment capital, mentoring, business strategy and incubation space. So far, the program has supported 180 companies that have gone on to raise more than $800-million as they move into the marketplace. UTEST is a partnership with Toronto Innovation Acceleration Partners (TIAP) and has financial support from the Connaught Fund.

“We are equipping U of T students and entrepreneurs for the knowledge economy, helping them understand that their ideas have value and teaching them how to protect and secure made-in-Canada intellectual property,” says Jon French, director, U of T Entrepreneurship.

Indeed, the university also offers a free IP Education Program that focuses on intellectual property (IP) rights and how to deploy IP strategies to grow. More than 5,000 people have taken the course so far.

One of the companies that emerged from the UTEST program is ODAIA, a Toronto-based startup that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to help the pharmaceutical industry get life-changing therapies to the patients who need them faster.

Today, the company has 100 staff and counts the top 10 pharmaceutical companies in North America as its clients. Helen Kontozopoulos, an adjunct professor in the department of computer science, co-founded the company with Philip Poulidis.

“With our software we have helped our clients realize a massive productivity lift by taking something that used to consume 20 hours of planning per month to 15 minutes,” Kontozopoulos says.

U of T was an early investor in her company, she says, and helped make important connections with industry. In addition to UTEST, ODAIA participated in the Creative Destruction Lab, a program at the Rotman School of Management that connects promising startups with global investors.

“It is very difficult for entrepreneurs to get those first contacts. U of T’s network of partners and alumni are powerful. I remember being at an event in San Francisco with venture capitalists and alumni. The first thing the alumni asked me was: ‘How can I help you and do you need any connections?’ “

Throughout the year, U of T creates many opportunities for founders to meet each other, and for startups to learn from companies that have successfully scaled. The university hosts an annual Entrepreneurship Week, a four-day event that includes pitch competitions, startup showcases, keynote speeches, workshops, panel discussions and more.

One of the fastest-growing companies showcased at Entrepreneurship Week was Erthos, founded by U of T alumnae Nuha Siddiqui and Kritika Tyagi. Their biomaterials company aims to create a more sustainable economy by creating plant-based alternatives to single-use plastics.

Many U of T founders will participate in Collision 2024 this June. They include Aidan Gomez, U of T alum and co-founder of Cohere, an AI startup that uses natural language processing to improve human-machine interaction, valued at over $2-billion.

U of T professor emeritus Geoffrey Hinton, known as “the Godfather of AI,” is also speaking.

All U of T programs reflect the university’s efforts to make entrepreneurship accessible to people who are underrepresented among the ranks of founders. FemSTEM, an initiative of the Health Innovation Hub in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, is focused on uplifting women who are looking to create their own businesses. Meanwhile, the Black Founders Network, which recognizes systemic barriers and provides entrepreneurs mentorship, allyship and access to capital for Black founders, is expanding its programming with assistance from the Ontario government.

Spontaneous creative collisions among entrepreneurs are also at the heart of the vision of the Schwartz Reisman Innovation Campus. With its first phase of construction complete, the iconic building located in Toronto’s Discovery District has become a hub for the university’s global leadership in AI and machine learning. It is now home to the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society.

But larger investments are needed for these initiatives to lead to Canadian companies that scale globally, Wolfe argues.

“When we get technology firms to a certain size, they need a different kind of funding to grow. At that stage they face competing bids to buy them out from mostly U.S. companies. We need more Canadian pools of capital to keep those tech companies in Canada, and we need to make much better use of procurement targeted to Canadian technology firms.”

While acknowledging there are challenges, Wolfe say he is excited about U of T’s role in helping to change the conversation about innovation and productivity.

“The university has an openness to letting initiatives flourish from the bottom up,” he says.

“We want to enable and empower our entrepreneurs. We’re creating the next generation of Canadian companies that have a bold outlook toward research and development, taking risks and getting things to market,” Newton says.

“The University of Toronto is a global institution – prospective students and innovators come here from across Canada and around the world. Whether they are passionate about health care, the environment, education or other sectors, increasingly they want to see their research have an impact in Canada and beyond. Starting a company is one way innovators can turn their ideas into impact – and make the world a better place.”