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How Dal Helps Power Nova Scotia’s Economy

From cutting-edge classes to extracurricular activities, Dalhousie is fostering student and faculty interest in entrepreneurship and business creation, all with the goal of fuelling growth in Nova Scotia’s economy.

The countdown is on for members of Shiptime, one of the five hastily arranged teams here at Hackamarine 2015—a student-led, weekend-long event designed to bring Dal students from various faculties together to tackle problems in the ocean and marine-technology field. In just over an hour, Jesse David, an ocean engineering student, and his three team members will pitch their freshly hatched business idea to a panel of judges. Their goal: to snag $2,500 in prize money to put towards further exploring their concept.

Knowing that Dalhousie President Richard Florizone—who has made a commitment to investing in just this sort of entrepreneurial initiative at Dalhousie as a way of boosting the university’s contribution to the regional economy—will be in attendance during their pitch has upped the stakes. David and his team decide a practice round is in order and start their slideshow. They immediately encounter a problem, quickly regroup and carry on.

There’s a lot about ShipTime that’s still rough around the edges and David and the others are not afraid to admit it. Consider that this diverse crew of students from  Oceanography, Engineering, Management and Philosophy first formed this group two days ago, though, and their progress seems impressive. The team has rallied around a problem of concern to Dal and other institutions conducting oceans research: the dearth of advanced research vessels available for ocean researchers in North America. To help fill that gap, they are exploring the idea of creating an online brokerage to help connect ocean experts with large-scale commercial ship owners who might be willing to rent out their vessels for research use.

It’s the kind of disruptive business idea that might just work. And without Hackamarine, the brainchild of international student Justin Javorek, the members of ShipTime and the four other teams created here may never have crossed paths in the first place. This gathering is one of many like it that have popped up at Dal recently, all aimed at fostering an experiential learning environment for students interested in entrepreneurship and business creation from all faculties.

Fostering startups

Gathered loosely together under the umbrella of the Norman Newman Centre for Entrepreneurship’s (NNCE) Launch Dal programming, these initiatives range from cutting-edge classes to extracurricular activities such as Startup Weekends, Launch and Learns, business-model competitions and Dal’s very own eight-week startup accelerator. “Everything we do is geared toward bringing motivated people from different disciplines together,” says Mary Kilfoil (PhD’98), who along with fellow Dal professor Ed Leach (BComm’72) has been instrumental in overhauling the way entrepreneurship is taught at the university in recent years.

“We want to launch a student entrepreneurship movement.”

By enabling the cross-pollination of ideas among students from different faculties, facilitating valuable mentorships with members of the local startup community and encouraging the use of the so-called “lean” approach to business-model development, the programming developed by Dr. Kilfoil and Dr. Leach bears many of the same hallmarks you’re likely to find at universities in Silicon Valley and other startup hubs. That’s not by chance. Prior to approaching faculty deans in the summer of 2012 about launching a cross-faculty course on accelerated business creation called Starting Lean, Dr. Kilfoil worked with a cross-country team, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, to investigate how Canada can do a better job at leveraging research out of its post-secondary institutions to help boost economic growth. Encouraging more student-led entrepreneurship ended up being the focus of her research and has informed her efforts to move the university’s programming away from the single-faculty, book/midterm/exam model of years past and into the experiential, cross-faculty style that had proven so successful at creating an entrepreneurial culture and unlocking economic potential at other universities around the world.

“A lot of people would say, ‘Yes, but Mary, that’s Silicon Valley. That’s MIT and Boston. We could never have that here,’” Dr. Kilfoil remembers being told at the time. “But I feel that yes, we can have our own version of that here, and I feel collectively we’re making a dent in the universe.”

It helps to have a university administration committed to that same vision. The Now or Never report released in early 2014 by the One Nova Scotia Coalition underscored the importance of initiatives such as these in helping build a more sustainable economic future for Nova Scotia. In a speech to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce in the fall of 2014, President Florizone—an MIT graduate himself—outlined Dalhousie’s emerging game plan for helping expand the university’s contribution to Nova Scotia’s long-struggling economy. Dr. Florizone ended his speech with a challenge to the business leaders in attendance: “Dal is committed to unleashing this province’s potential. Are you willing to work together with us to do that? Because we can’t do this alone.”

Indeed, community partnerships have been integral to the early success of NNCE’s Launch Dal and similar initiatives underway at the university and will be even more essential in the days ahead, says Matt Hebb, Dal’s assistant vice-president of government relations. “We want to scale relatively quickly at the front end in terms of generating activity in this space, and we are going to need more than just the Dal community to do that,” he says. That means bringing in mentors and partners to help run activities and support student enterprises.  “We see example after example of how that generates a rich project environment and great ideas,” he says.

From zero to 16

Take Analyze Re, for instance. The Halifax-based startup emerged from the inaugural Starting Lean class back in the fall of 2012 and within the span of three short years has become one of the most promising companies developing big-data technology to improve the reinsurance business—a growing global industry worth close to $500 billion. The company currently employs 16 people out of its office in west-end Halifax and plans to open offices in financial centres around the world in the coming months and years. It also counts Nephila Capital, a Bermuda-based investment firm with $10 billion in capital under management, as one of its customers.

Oliver Baltzer, the company’s chief technology officer and one of its three co-founders, says if it weren’t for the mentors they met during Starting Lean he suspects his team wouldn’t have gotten very far with their business idea. “None of us had startup experience before and we didn’t know where to begin,” explains Dr. Baltzer, who graduated with a PhD in computer science from Dal. “What it really brought us was a connection to the community and some rigour around how we should start thinking about [our project].”

About 50 mentors from the local business community are now involved in the course and bring real-world insight to the learning experience. They encourage teams to refine their business ideas by asking the right questions and open up their Rolodexes to connect students with the right people in the community.

Baltzer and his Analyze Re teammates managed to parlay their new connections and pitching skills into a stint at Launch 36, a New Brunswick-based six-month startup accelerator that helped them get business ready. From there they joined Halifax-based startup house Volta Labs, where they refined their investment pitch further to land a $1.4-million financing round from Innovacorp, the Business Development Bank of Canada and Rho Canada Ventures in the fall of 2013. The company has since hired six additional Dal grads.

Building on co-op success

Of course, encouraging individuals to build growth-ready companies from scratch isn’t the only way Dal creates value for Nova Scotia’s economy. About 1,775 students secured co-op work terms in 2014, many of them with companies in the province. President Florizone has said he would like to double or triple the number of co-op positions available in the province.

Saeed El-Darahali, president and CEO of Dartmouth, N.S.-based marketing startup SimplyCast, remembers being a new grad looking for work and being hit with the realization that most employers were seeking someone with at least three to five years of work experience. Now, El-Darahali gives back by bringing young people with no experience into his company through co-op terms, internships and straight hiring.

“One of the reasons I keep SimplyCast in Nova Scotia is because of the great talent that Dalhousie brings,” he says. “Some of our best and brightest at SimplyCast actually come from Dal and without the constant graduation of great talent, we wouldn’t be able to sustain the business that we have.” El-Darahali, who is also a member of the One Nova Scotia Coalition, says both of his six-year-old company’s chief technology officers so far—including its current one, Ryan Ernst—are Dal grads. More  than half of his 45 or so employees come from Dal.

Ultra Electronics Maritime Systems employs about 150 people out of its Dartmouth, N.S.-based facilities and prides itself on providing a rich and rewarding co-op experience that draws students back again and again. “A number of students have come back for two or three work terms and then that’s transitioned into graduate employment,” says Paul Reeves, head of HR at the company, which designs, develops and manufactures undersea surveillance and underground communications tools that are sold to navies and other organizations around the globe. He says many of the company’s engineers have come from Dal.

From the classroom to the real world

Co-op is an important way Dalhousie has enabled its students to work on real-world problems and make an impact in the community. Another way is by expanding class projects outside of the classroom. All second-year MBA students in the Rowe School of Business now take part in an eight-month capstone project called Make a Difference (MAD), which partners five-person student teams with N.S. firms, NGOs and governments looking to resolve issues of strategic importance. Jay McNeil, who graduated from Dal with an MBA last spring, was part of a student team that worked on a MAD project for PolyCello, a nearly 60-year-old Amherst, N.S.-based packaging manufacturer with more than 350 employees in N.S. and Bellville, Ont. The company supplies packaging to a broad range of industries across North America, including many multi-billion-dollar global giants. “They are a perfect example of the type of company that Nova Scotia’s economy needs to do well,” says McNeil, whose team provided PolyCello with a fully-fledged implementation plan for expanding into the fresh-produce market.

“Dal is committed to unleashing this province’s potential.”

Management Without Borders (MWB) is another experiential project-based initiative at Dal. It’s offered as a four-month graduate course out of the Faculty of Management and pairs teams of students from many backgrounds with organizations across Nova Scotia. Rather than partnering with higher-revenue generating businesses, though, teams in MWB are often matched with small businesses, non-profits or municipal governments. “While we’re reviewing a proposal from partnering organizations, we’re generally looking at those that could not easily access resources and expertise which might allow the organization to better navigate the challenges and opportunities before them,” says Jenny Baechler (BSc’00), course coordinator for MWB. In 2014, for instance, the group representing lobster harvesters in Cape Breton wanted help in understanding why there was so little local interest in local lobster. “The work of the students produced some very actionable outcomes and as a result, last spring the organization launched a new website to promote the lobster industry,” says Baechler.

Turning failure into fuel for success

Not every community project, co-op term or entrepreneurial enterprise that emerges from Dal ends up a resounding success. Indeed, those failures are just as essential an ingredient to progress as the successes, says Hebb. “There are a lot of failures along the way. The question is can we help people [fail] quickly and cheaply and constructively so that it becomes a step in an evolution as opposed to a mark of dishonour?”

Back at Hackamarine, Javorek—the main organizer—knows there is room for further evolution in the event. He’d like to have more time, more people and a better framework in place for the next student-led event like this. The informatics and entrepreneurship student wants to ensure subsequent generations of students have something to build on. “We want to launch a movement within the student grassroots,” he says. “Success for us is just for people to know what entrepreneurship is here. To know that it is a choice.”

It’s fair to say the crew behind ShipTime will leave Hackamarine with just that in mind. Following five-minute pitches from each of the teams, they’ve just been crowned the victors by a team of judges that includes the CEO of Innovacorp, an early-stage venture capital organization, and the executive director for ocean-sciences group MEOPAR. How busy they are with their daily lives in the days and weeks ahead will likely determine whether or not they’ll actually pursue their idea beyond this weekend, but at least they’ve been given a taste of entrepreneurship’s possibilities.

Interested in Dalhousie’s contributions to strengthening Nova Scotia’s agricultural sector? See From Field to Fork in our Fall 2015 issue, available online at alumni.dal.ca/stay-informed/dalhousie-magazine/

Illustration: Sébastien Thibault

Building a stronger Nova Scotia

Ryan McNutt

The One Nova Scotia Coalition wants more Nova Scotian students to take part in the kinds of experiential learning opportunities described on these pages. In fact, it believes all students in the province should have the opportunity to do so as part of their degree program. That’s one of the many takeaways from the coalition’s Collaborative Action Plan, released in November—and just one of many ways that Dal is enhancing its contribution to the province. Dal’s list of contributions to Nova Scotia includes curricular and extracurricular education, stimulating startups, assisting existing industry, building research excellence and creating new knowledge for cultural and social understanding.

Dalhousie Vice-President Research Martha Crago was one of the One Nova Scotia Coalition’s 15 members, alongside the leaders of the province’s three political parties and several other leaders from the public and private sectors. She says that leveraging Dalhousie’s research expertise will be key to achieving the action plan’s goals.

“As the region’s largest research university, we’re looking at building ecosystems around Dalhousie’s research strengths,” says Dr. Crago. “We aim to be a national and international leader in our priority and emerging research areas, and we’re a strong advocate for utilizing the university’s institutional capacities to address the province’s economic, social and cultural development needs.”

Dalhousie President Richard Florizone says it is essential that what happens in Dal classrooms and labs ultimately benefits our city, our province, our country and our world. “Inspiring our students, connecting them with employers and improving the economy, quality of life and culture in our region is key,” he says. “We all have a stake in improving the Nova Scotia economy.”