Startups need talent support, and students need resume-building opportunities, but how does one find the other? The Apprentice Program at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Innovation Boost Zone, powered by Experience Ventures, provides the answer.
Finding early talent and connecting that talent to a venture or startup is what Experience Ventures is all about. Experience Ventures, powered by the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking at the University of Calgary, focuses on creating entrepreneurial thinking placements (with honoraria) for post-secondary students with innovative companies in Canada. Identifying the right talent and mindset is a priority for startups and social ventures.
“The Apprentice Program, originally, was a volunteer-based program,” explains Grace Lee, who runs the program. “It was only after we got introduced to Experience Ventures through Paul Hacking at Zone Learning that we were able to make it an opportunity with honoraria. That was a life changer for this program and for attracting students.”
Dan Tim, a fourth-year business management student at TMU, was one of those students.
Dan remembers the pandemic made it especially difficult to find opportunities. “I was looking everywhere to find experience and build my resume. Then I got this email from my program advisor about the Apprentice Program powered by Experience Ventures. I think, ‘Perfect, I get to build up my resume and get skills from working with a startup.’”
The startup that Grace matched Dan with is Epiloid Biotechnology, co-founded by Mark Aquilino. Epiloid’s business is intriguing: most preclinical drug studies (i.e., before drugs are given to humans) are done on rodents — but human brains are very different from rodent brains. This makes neurological pharmaceuticals very difficult to test, and over 90 per cent of neurology drugs fail to make it to market.
“In non-technical terms,” Aquilino explains, “we grow mini human brains in a lab and test how the tissue responds to being treated with new drugs.”
It takes a remarkable amount of knowledge and education to get a company like Epiloid off the ground. Aquilino’s background is in biomedical engineering, and his two co-founders are a neuropharmacologist and a machine learning engineer who is now a doctor. Clearly, they have the science bonafides — but some of their skills were lacking.
“None of us know anything about art and design,” Aquilino admits. “We had a mock-up of a logo that I believe one of us did in PowerPoint really quickly — choose a font from the drop-down menu, that’s our logo. We really needed help in being able to present a proper face to investors.”
Experience Ventures, The Apprentice Program, and Dan were the answer.
At the same time Mark Aquilino was running up against the limits of his graphic design skills, Grace was getting The Apprentice Program up and running. She reached out to startups to see who needed support — and Mark answered. Then, it was a matter of getting the word out to students that these companies were looking for this kind of support.
“People like Dan submit their applications to the startups,” Grace says. “They do a vibe check. If everything is good, we confirm the student wants to work with the company, and they move forward.”
It’s similar to a traditional job application process but with Innovation Boost Zone as an intermediary. Once the student and the startup are connected, each one flourishes. It’s not just the startup that benefits: Innovation Boost Zone was so impressed with Dan’s application to Epiloid they hired him as a summer intern.
Students get access to the Innovation Boost Zone network of advisors and a quiet space to work.
Grace says, “The support doesn’t end once the program does. Participants can always contact me, I’m a forever resource. It’s important that students know the people running the program have their back and feel comfortable reaching out for any questions or concerns.”
Post-secondary education is great at teaching skills, but initiatives like The Apprentice Program are vital for teaching networking, the importance of identifying your support networks, and learning how to rely on them.
So what did Dan do for Epiloid as an intern? A lot.
“Dan developed an entire brand guide. He defined what our communication will be,” Mark says proudly. “What it should look like, how we should continue to expand upon how Epiloid presents itself.”
As it happens, Dan’s tenure with The Apprentice Program ended at the same time as another Innovation Boost Zone program. Raise allows ventures to engage in a pitch competition for funding, and Epiloid was on the pitch list. Dan was able to use his own style guide to revamp Epiloid’s pitch deck and showcase the work he had been doing for the company for over four months. That, along with a revamp of Epiloid’s website led by Arib Kamal, another Innovation Boost Zone student, paid off: not only did Epiloid win funding, thanks to Raise, but they were also able to hire Dan and Arib full-time.
The success of the Experience Ventures-facilitated partnerships with university groups like The Apprentice Program and startups like Epiloid just keeps paying off. It proves that investing in the careers of young people pays dividends for companies and post-secondary institutions.
Mark is thrilled by the success of the program. “It’s been a great experience to not only have the benefit of the solid package that Experience Ventures provided, but it allowed Dan the opportunity to keep working and see the product that he developed to be applied.”
Dan is even more ebullient. “It was very beneficial to see what I can actually do. I can do as many side projects and watch as many YouTube videos as I want, but actually doing it in person with a real organization is completely different. I get a real feel for the positive impact I can have. It’s win-win.”