Startup syllabus: how Dal Innovates embraced innovation education in Atlantic Canada

Halifax Canada Skyline
Dal Innovates focuses on practical innovation education through multiple programs.

University is traditionally a place for young people to identify—and prepare for—different life and career paths. Increasingly, that path is likely to involve starting a company. But how can universities teach the tenets of entrepreneurship?

“This provides an opportunity for people to really learn by doing, by practicing.”

Halifax’s Dalhousie University (“Dal”), through its award-winning program Dal Innovates, is working to provide this education with multiple programs that encourage and support academics considering or otherwise joining the innovation economy.

Speaking with BetaKit, Jeff Larsen, the Head of Dal Innovates at Dalhousie University and Head of Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) Atlantic, explained more about the supports available for students across Atlantic Canada interested in entrepreneurship.

A new pathway for PhDs

Dalhousie University is a hub of research, ranked in the top 20 in Canada for sponsored research income and research intensity. Larsen sees a huge opportunity here—he noted most PhDs don’t go on to become tenured professors.

Larsen wants to see more PhDs and other individuals with advanced education become more exposed to the innovation ecosystem and, possibly, commercialize their research into a thriving startup. This is an area Dal Innovates helps with, including recent success stories like Halifax-based 3D BioFibR raising seed funding and Dartmouth, NS-based Planetary Technologies, formerly Planetary Hydrogen, winning the $1 million XPRIZE for carbon sequestration.

But Larsen is cautious to note that his focus is more on people than strictly on research commercialization.

“It’s not so much focus on commercialization of research,” said Larsen. “What we’ve focused on is the talent that happens to be graduate students, master’s, PhDs. The innovation may be commercializing some of the research, or it may be another aspect of what they’re working on.”

The startup syllabus

To accomplish Larsen’s bigger goal of exposing more academics to startup life and possibly launching their own, Dal Innovates has a wide range of programming available, all open to any student in Atlantic Canada.

Path2Innovation: a three-day virtual bootcamp built to “dip your toes” into the world of innovation and entrepreneurship, said Larsen, with programming focused on understanding entrepreneurial thinking as it applies to career development.

Scientist2Entrepreneur: a 11-week, part-time program to help scientists (master’s, doctoral, or postdoc in a STEM field) understand entrepreneurship as an alternative career path to academia. The program also helps these individuals look at—and develop a plan for—commercializing their research.

Invention2Innovation (i2I): an eight-month, part-time skills training program to help scientists and engineers understand the theory and frameworks of commercialization. Larsen added that Dal Innovates runs versions of this program in partnership with Queens University in Ontario, the Memorial University of Newfoundland, and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia to offer training nationwide.

Lab2Market: a 16-week program focused on market validation, where participants conduct up to 100-plus customer interviews to identify problem-solution fit with their research or startup idea. Participants also receive $15,000 in funding to offset any lost employment earnings while participating in the program.

Larsen said the idea for Lab2Market came in part due to research showing one of the top reasons startups fail is building a product no one wants or is willing to pay for. This program helps solve that problem before launch.

Ready2Launch: a three-month, full-time program to identify business models and launch your startup. Ready2Launch came from a partnership with MIT to build a program that helps commercialize scientific research that’s already proven to solve a customer need. Participants get a further $15,000 in funding to offset living costs and lost employment earnings during the program.

Larsen explained the goal behind the multiple-program approach is to offer exposure to the broader innovation ecosystem rather than push every participant to start a company. Dal Innovates instead wants people to understand the overall ecosystem and make the right choice for themselves, their careers, and their ambitions.

“This provides an opportunity for people to really learn by doing, by practicing,” said Larsen. “And we believe that these are critical skills for the future.”

One pillar in an extensive ecosystem

If someone goes through all these programs, they will hopefully come out with a startup in the market. That’s when the real work begins, but Larsen noted the support doesn’t stop there.

Not only is there the Emera ideaHUB—a physical building in Halifax where entrepreneurs can access office space and prototype manufacturing resources through the BUILD program—there’s also the Creative Destruction Lab Atlantic (the east coast chapter of the program), Atlantic Canadian Opportunities Agency (ACOA) that provides various funding opportunities, Volta (a startup accelerator ecosystem similar to the DMZ or Communitech in Ontario), MindFrame Connect (a nonprofit that teaches resiliency and mentorship to entrepreneurs), and Invest Nova Scotia (formerly InnovaCorp, Atlantic Canada’s government-backed venture capitalist).

Finally, there is direct government funding in Nova Scotia that covers partial salary for startups to hire advanced researchers on their staff. This Nova Scotia-based support sits on top of many locally-focused programs across Atlantic Canada like the Genesis Centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Innovation PEI in Prince Edward Island, or Propel’s New Brunswick-based virtual accelerator for anyone in Atlantic Canada.

While some program participants may ultimately launch startups, others will gain what Larsen called “necessary” skills to thrive in the innovation economy: a growth mindset, resilience, and exposure to life in a startup. This might translate to someone starting their own company down the line, joining another startup, or bringing an entrepreneurial mindset to other types of roles.

All of these outcomes are good, said Larsen, because it fosters a deeper understanding of innovation across industries. Ideally, that means more support will flow to startups as intelligent people join them and like-minded people work in companies or governments that could become customers.

“It takes an ecosystem to build a startup,” said Larsen. “We can play a role in catalyzing that.”


Learn more about Dal Innovates and register for the
Ready2Launch Pitch Day event here!


Photo courtesy of Dal Innovates.

Stefan Palios

Stefan Palios

Stefan is a Nova Scotia-based entrepreneur and writer passionate about the people behind tech. He's interviewed over 100 entrepreneurs on topics like management, scaling, diversity and inclusion, and sharing their personal stories. Follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios or send an email to stefan.palios@gmail.com.

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