The Ryerson Venture Zone (RVZ) focused on healthtech startups for its first cohort, but is now expanding its focus to include smart cities, mobility, and logistics startups.
Speaking with BetaKit, Usha Srinivasan, the Executive Director of RVZ, explained how the expansion came to be, how RVZ differs from other incubators and accelerators, and what the program looks for in startup applicants.
Expanding into new industries, said Srinivasan, was the “plan from day one.” The team chose five sectors based on the economic makeup of Brampton, where the program is located, then ordered their rollout based on the economic dependencies between and across industries. Starting with healthcare made sense due to the advancing age and ethnic diversity of Brampton, said Srinivasan. Adding smart cities, mobility, and logistics became a natural next sector given the recent supply chain disruptions due to the pandemic.
Future cohorts will expand further to welcome applications from food processing and sustainability, advanced manufacturing, and film, media, and entertainment startups.
RVZ pitch to founders
The Greater Toronto Area is home to many incubators and accelerators, including the Ryerson DMZ in downtown Toronto, and Srinivasan’s previous employer, MaRS Discovery District. For Srinivasan, the proximity provided an opportunity to think about a unique angle for RVZ.
“We wanted to be very distinct in the type of services we offer to make it competitive” for startups to choose RVZ, said Srinivasan.
The desire to offer a unique program that served founders led to a four-pillar approach to helping companies scale through RVZ:
1. Adding value back to Brampton and Peel: This is reflected in the industries that the RVZ program has and will expand to, said Srinivasan. Further, RVZ program applicants do not need to come from Brampton, but they must be willing to add value back to the Brampton community or industries in some way.
2. Being industry-driven: Srinivasan said the program only accepts founders building for-profit, industry-driven technology companies that want to grow with, pilot, and work with large players in either healthcare or smart cities for cohort two. RVZ brings in industry partners, including SMEs and community organizations, to identify any potential strategic relationships with RVZ startups for future engagement.
3. Offering funding: The RVZ program takes no equity, charges nothing, and gives accepted startups a $20,000 grant.
4. Human-centred programming: While other accelerators typically focus on business frameworks, Srinivasan said RVZ focuses on the humans behind the business first. Once you understand how your teammates make decisions, for example, the execution of business goals becomes more effective.
“The key challenge startups face is validating the problem they solve is a marketable product and if their proposed solution can scale to address those problems in a meaningful way,” said Richard Ebach, the CIO, Americas, for DB Schenker and RVZ Executive-In-Residence (EIR). “What a program like RVZ can provide is access to many different experts to ensure success and mentorship which help guide those critical first steps.”
Further, a key to RVZ’s model is embedding corporate partners – and the general expectation of running pilots – into its program’s DNA. Srinivasan said large local corporations are invited to contribute to programming, mentor startups, and even select companies that get into the accelerator.
“An entrepreneur needs to understand that they can’t build everything on their own.”
“RVZ is continually engaging with industry from day one,” with the intention of potential pilot opportunities, Srinivasan said. With this model, startups can validate their business model faster, corporations have more of a vested interest in the startups, and the two “aren’t strangers anymore.”
Manny Abraham, founder and CEO of rEVEN.AI, an RVZ alumni company, said this is exactly what happened during his time in the program.
“RVZ Brampton’s unique approach with industry focus and pilots is quite different from other accelerator programs and is very beneficial for startups like ourselves to achieve validation and commercialization,” said Abraham.
For those pilots, RVZ plays the role of matchmaker, ensuring corporations are at the table and getting to meet startups. But beyond that, Srinivasan said it’s up to startups to figure out the details such as implementation timelines.
“We very much let the startups manage the relationship with the industry partner or institutional partner,” said Srinivasan.
How to get into RVZ
The first cohort got 70 applications for 10 spots, and Srinivasan expects a similar situation for cohort two. Given the low acceptance rate of the program, Srinivasan provided more insight on what types of startups are likely to be competitive for cohort two:
Full-timers only: Srinivasan said the accelerator is only for people working full-time on their business, meaning no side-hustles or hobbyists. If the business started out as a side-hustle, that’s fine, but Srinivasan said founders have to be ready to go full-time on it now.
MVP-ready: Startups must have a functional prototype at least, if not a full market-ready initial ‘V1’ product.
Industry expertise: Throughout the application process, Srinivasan said the admissions team will be looking for entrepreneurs who know their industry, can back up their claims with experience or numbers, and know what key players may need.
Individual passion: Srinivasan said a clear reason or story as to why the founding team cares about the problem it’s aiming to solve is critical. Srinivasan noted this usually comes from working in industry and seeing the problem firsthand, but she also added that industry experience matters less than an authentic reason for caring about the problem.
Coachability: Srinivasan was explicit that it’s no issue if founders haven’t solved every problem or need help to progress. Instead, the admissions team will be looking for evidence that founders (and businesses) are evolving, changing, and open to feedback.
Beyond that, Srinivasan said it’s about mutual fit. RVZ wants startups that value pilots and resonate with the four pillars of their programming, so going through the application process is about making sure the program works for both sides of the table.
“RVZ ensures startups can succeed by vetting not only the business model but also the founders as well as provide an excellent runway of guidance and mentorship to guide the early phases into a viable business,” said Ebach.
Throughout the RVZ program, Srinivasan is clear that she’s interested in startup founders who want to build with other stakeholders: namely, RVZ program experts who provide feedback and industry partners who share what problems they are trying to solve (and willing to spend money on). For healthcare or smart cities, mobility, and logistics tech companies with a big vision and a willingness to work with others, RVZ could be a perfect fit.
“An entrepreneur needs to understand that they can’t build everything on their own,” said Srinivasan.