Techstars Startup Weekend gives Calgarians a taste of the startup life

Over 40 Calgarians spent this past weekend experiencing the twists and turns of entrepreneurship. The aptly-named Techstars Startup Weekend brought developers, designers, business professionals, and students together to take an idea from conception to early prototype in just 54 hours.

Startup Weekend began as a volunteer-led initiative through Startup Calgary in 2012.

“Startup Weekend is a globally-recognized event,” said Danielle Torrie, manager at Startup Calgary. “Techstars – they’re basically the masterminds behind it – they provide volunteer organizers with the resources and tools that they need to make these events happen all around the world.”

Startup Weekend is a flagship program of Techstars, a seed accelerator and mentorship group. The model is similar to that of TEDx events – organizers follow a set of guidelines but are otherwise free to inject their own local flavour into the program. Over 17 events were held around the world this past weekend, in countries such as Zambia, Colombia, Austria, and Indonesia and the only other Canadian event being held in Trois-Rivères, QC.

Participants pitch ideas to the group and form teams around them. With the help of coaches and mentors, teams learn how to apply ‘Lean Startup’ methodology to refine their ideas towards a prototype. This all leads to the final session on Sunday evening, where teams get five minutes to pitch their prototype to a panel of judges.

Building a sustainable startup community

Startup Weekend began as a volunteer-led initiative through Startup Calgary in 2012. Thanks to support from Calgary Economic Development and community sponsors, Startup Weekend has experienced significant growth since 2017 and is now one of the group’s major events. Three Startup Weekends happen every year in Calgary. Disclosure: Patrick Wu was an event volunteer for this Startup Weekend.

Techstars now also has certified facilitators based in Calgary – Torrie being one of them. The other facilitators include Jenn Delconte from Startup Calgary, as well as Kari Gordon and George Damian from Creative Destruction Labs – Rockies. Gordon was also the former executive director of Startup Calgary.

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“Having local facilitators means that we can keep the costs affordable for our attendees, which is super important,” said Gordon. “In my opinion, there’s no barrier to entry in terms of cost because we have so many resources from the community.”

Historically, Startup Calgary invited facilitators from out of town to come and run the Startup Weekend sessions. Gordon explained that local facilitators meant that cost savings can be passed on attendees. This makes the event more accessible to students and lower-income individuals.

Alumni of past Startup Weekends were also present to give their support to the new cohort. Kelcie Miller-Anderson, who developed BumbleChain during the 2018 Startup Weekend, was the keynote speaker. OYO Cater, another spinout of a past Startup Weekend, provided all of the meals for the attendees.

B2B, security, and groceries

Over the course of the weekend, participants formed teams to try and address a wide range of challenges, including:

  • ArtRoll, a subscription service for art enthusiasts to discover new pieces from up-and-coming local artists.
  • e-Groceries, a tool to help consumers determine which grocery stores currently offer the best prices for their grocery lists.
  • Foodnetic, a platform to help legitimize home cooks who want to sell their food online by giving them access to certified, health code-compliant, commercial kitchens.
  • Neurotherapeutics, a software platform that aims to support patients with spinal implants that help them regain mobility without needing an external remote control.
  • RadSpot, a proximity-based marketing platform for small businesses to offer personalized discounts and deals to customers as they walk past storefronts.
  • Shields Inc., a decentralized zero-trust security system that aims to reduce the number of data breaches that happen in large organizations.
  • Smart Sprinkler, an internet-of-things (IoT) device that can be retrofitted to existing emergency sprinkler systems to automatically regulate water flow when fires are no longer detected.
  • Uniche, an online marketplace that connects customers to small businesses based on their shared social values, such as sustainability or ethical sourcing.

Some participants brainstormed on the spot, while others had their idea brewing for a little longer. “RadSpot was an idea that I came up with in 2014,” said Sabahat Naureen, who pitched the idea on the first day of the event. “The furthest I went was building a landing page with an infographic about the value proposition, but I never did anything with it. But when Startup Weekend showed up on the radar in Calgary, I said ‘You know what? It’s time to give my idea the light of day and see if there’s anything there. If not, I’ll just burn it.’”

Uniche was awarded first place at the final competition, while ArtRoll and RadSpot won second and third place, respectively. e-Groceries received an honourable mention.

“I really wasn’t expecting to actually be able to get this far,” said Angela Wang, who originally pitched Uniche. The University of Alberta student described how nervous she was to stand in front of the room and share her idea for the first time. But she was glad that she did.

“I loved working together with our team to build something,” Wang continued, “I loved seeing [the idea] come together and actually getting out and talking to local shop-owners and the customers.”

The Uniche team won a six month free membership with coworking space provider Work Nicer, the venue sponsor, as well as all-access tickets to attend Startupfest in Montreal in July.

Startup Calgary intends to do two more Startup Weekend events in 2020.

Image courtesy Startup Calgary

Patrick Wu

Patrick Wu

Patrick is a Calgary-based graphic designer, writer, and miscellaneous freelancer. He is passionate about sharing stories in tech and life science in Alberta. He's also a bit of a tea snob. https://wujpatrick.com Twitter: @PatJWu