The Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship, founded in 1988, has been gaining rising interest from the entrepreneurship community in Montréal. This is partly thanks to its Dobson Cup - a competition where startups pitch in the hopes of gaining seed funding, with total funds awarded exceeding six figures – as well as the quality of events it has organized this past year. The Centre’s last public event, titled The Business of Artificial Intelligence, garnered outstanding interest online and attracted more than 300 attendees!
A meeting with Renjie Butalid, Marketing & Operations Advisor at the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship and Publisher of the Dobson Chronicles, delves into this dynamic campus organization and its efforts to cultivate the best entrepreneurs in Montréal.
What is the Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship?
RB: The Dobson Centre is the hub of entrepreneur activity at McGill University. We find, teach and develop entrepreneurs at the University. It’s really a place where if people in the McGill community have an idea, we’re here to help these would-be entrepreneurs turn their ideas into reality. On the other side, it’s also a conduit for McGill alumni who happen to be successful entrepreneurs to find their way back to the university by giving back their time and expertise, opening their network to help these emerging entrepreneurs get their idea off the ground.
How did you get involved with the Dobson Centre?
RB: I started about a year and a half ago as a marketing operations advisor. I came by way of Waterloo and Toronto where I worked on a number of start-ups to some degree of success, before I came to Montreal… When I moved to Montreal, I wanted to start fresh but also find a way to lean on my own experiences and to give back. When this opportunity came up to join their team I thought it was the perfect job because it allowed me to leverage the brand and institution that is McGill whilst also being able to do some really good things at a university that is world-renown as a research institution and has 500 million of dollars allocated in research funding per year.
How is the Dobson Centre different from any other initiative offered in other campuses?
RB: There are two ways that we’re building an entrepreneurship culture here at McGill.
There’s bottom-up and there’s top-down. We have this pipeline of incredible potential – because McGill has a large number of students, incredible professors and world class researchers – where teams get formed around world-changing ideas based on scientific research. We’re developing that potential through the Lean Startup Program, through all our events and workshops during the fall and the winter that feed into the Dobson Cup startup competition. Building on the Dobson Cup, we go into the X-1 Startup Accelerator Program, where the idea is to help those later stage start-ups to the point where they are venture ready; ready to go to a roadshow [and] raise seed investment.
I think that the bottom-up approach is also informing the top down approach where you need the support of the university. We’ve had that through Principal Fortier, who’s made innovation and entrepreneurship core pillars of McGill’s agenda as it moves forward.
They’re beginning to work in tandem because we are really producing results. We’re not saying we will support startups, we are supporting startups. We’re not saying we will create active startups that will go on to employ people, we have created and helped to contribute to at last count 125 active startups that employ 1200 people, and collectively these 125 startups all raised 100 million dollars in capital funding.
Your X1 program started recently, on June 5th! Can you tell me a little more about it?
RB: The X1 is modeled after Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Global Founder Skills Accelerator, now called Delta-V. It stemmed from us having sent a McGill startup team to MIT in 2013 and 2014… and so in 2015 we decided instead of sending teams to MIT, why not create our own program? In 2015 we had five teams go through the X1 program, in 2016 we had six teams and this year we’re expecting 9 teams to graduate to the X1 program.
The premise is really building on the Dobson Cup where the winners of the Dobson Cup are ideally the startups that have been identified by the judges and mentors to have the greatest potential… We take those teams, [or teams that fit that profile] and we get them to a point where you know they could grow their company over the course of the year. We give $5,000 to each founder that participates in the program and up to a maximum of $15,000 for each team. If investors were to put in anywhere between 250K to 500K in seed funding for say a tech company or 1 million to 1.5 million for a med tech company, the startups are ready to pitch and seek investment funding. The caveat is that just because you raise a bunch of capital doesn't always guarantee success, but it is an indicator that you have a much higher chance of being successful because now you have the resources to grow your company. The idea is to really support the growth of those start up while still focusing on growth and development of the entrepreneurs in the X1 program.
Any success stories at the Dobson Centre?
RB: Flatbook, now called Sonder [an accommodation rental service similar to Airbnb providing hotel-standard consistency throughout its offerings], is one! Flatbook didn’t even make it to the finals of Dobson Cup… They didn’t make it into the finals but one of the judges took interest in them and helped to connect them with other mentors and investors, and help them through the initial lift-off stage, and now they’ve grown into this big company. Sonder is listed as one of the top tech companies to look out for, they’ve closed a 10-million-dollar round… That’s a pretty big success story.
How impactful do you think the university-level startup ecosystem is?
RB: If I were to take a much bigger picture approach to that question, I would say that if universities were to see themselves as the pipeline and pools of talent for these startups, that could really go a long way towards continuing to put Montreal, maybe even Quebec, on the map. I think a lot of universities are already taking that approach; we’re seeing a lot of disruption in many different fields, many different industries…. We’re seeing a lot of startups emerge taking on larger players and winning because the larger players have grown complacent and these startups have seen an opening. Even the way universities teach entrepreneurship has changed.
Overall, it’s healthy for the entrepreneurship ecosystem. Universities can change mindsets and equip people with resources to turn their ideas into reality beyond funding – you need tools, knowledge, a community of people you can bounce ideas off, you need to attend events where you could potentially through serendipitous collisions meet other people that could be your next founder, co-founder, supplier, investor etc. But for us, it’s not a zero-sum game. Just because Dobson is doing well doesn’t mean there isn’t any space for HEC, Concordia, ÉTS and other universities to succeed.
What position does the QI hold in Montreal, and what sort of collaborations do you think the Dobson Centre could foster with organizations outside campus?
RB: I see it as a conduit to help people who are in that specific geographic location or surrounding area to begin thinking in an innovative framework. It brings people together. There’s a lot of literature stating when you support clusters and startup clusters, you begin to see a lot more “innovation occurring” that could potentially translate into economic impact which at the end of the day means companies created, jobs created, people having more income and being able to contribute back to the economy. With QI’s triple bottom line focus, you’re looking at more than just the monetary aspect. That’s where I see it.
As a company, we can’t completely widen our mandate outside of McGill, because our mandate is to develop an entrepreneurship hub in McGill. That said, for the workshops and the events that we hosted [this academic year], we had a schedule of events planned, with dates and locations settled. That allowed us to get into the calendars of people who would be interested in attending. If there was an increase in our reach whilst maintaining the excellence of our core offerings, we would work in collaboration with events planned during the year that we could cross promote so that QI’s audience could attend. Creating synergy and a non-duplication of efforts can be recreated with collaborations with other organizations.
Who are some of the big players in the entrepreneurship scene in Montreal?
RB: The folks at iNovia Capital are people to look out for. Montreal NewTech is doing incredible work and coming out with so many events it’s hard to keep up! The first entrepreneurship event I went to in Montréal was an MTL NewTech event. FounderFuel, RealVentures… and of course Notman House as a hub for the collision of ideas – and it’s just generally a fun place to hang around!
So far, the McGill X-1 Accelerator’s training has been impressive – a weekly recap of the program can be found on the Dobson Chronicles. The Dobson Centre will be open all summer and available for consultation in the Bronfman Building at 1001 Sherbrooke Street.