You have an idea, but where can you go to launch your business? Ryerson President, Sheldon Levy, recognized a need to support the young entrepreneurs of the community. The concept of Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone was born when aspiring entrepreneurs came to him with ideas established from basements to coffee shops. They wanted space, like minded people, mentorship, and access to funding to kickstart their business ideas. In April 2010, Sheldon asked Valerie Fox for her support. Together, they co-founded the Digital Media Zone as a hub for entrepreneurs.
I spoke with Valerie, the current Executive Director, about entrepreneurship, innovation, and the collaborative environment:
We have about 65 companies at the DMZ right now, they’re all digital. They hit every type of sector: health and wellness, finance, education, entertainment, transportation, gaming, accessibility, social innovation and all kinds of different applications.”
–Valerie Fox, Executive Director, Digital Media Zone
What is the Digital Media Zone?
Val: The DMZ is a combination of incubator, accelerator and learning environment.
When I say we’re an incubator and accelerator, we incubate companies, we don’t have any set time to come in or leave.But we also accelerate companies because we offer them through a new entity called Ryerson Futures – we are able to offer a seed fund or pre-series aid fund so we can also help with funding as well.
How has the DMZ grown since it’s establishment?
Val: We started with the very entrepreneurs that went to speak to Sheldon. We had about 40 people, including Hossein Rahnama, who was getting his PhD at Ryerson at the time, and also starting a business. Hossein has been recognized by MIT as the Top 35 Under 35, Forester, and more.We’ve grown from to 6400 sq ft. to about 37, 000 sq.ft We’re now helping just under 400 people at a time. We have about 65 companies at the DMZ right now, they’re all digital. They hit every type of sector: health and wellness, finance, education, entertainment, transportation, gaming, accessibility, social innovation and all kinds of different applications.
What is the application process like?
Val: It’s a 2 tier process:
- Apply online: Fill out multiple forms
- Present in front of the screening committee: We make sure people have the criteria. We’re looking for a unique idea with commercial and social value. You must also have a business plan and prototype so you’re ready to launch or have launched.
- Be highly collaborative: This makes sure you’re giving as much as you’re getting, meaning that you make yourself available to other zone members.
- Be ready to pitch: This is essential since there are so many people coming through the DMZ all the time. We’re looking for people who we think have the ingredients to persevere, passion, drive, that they’re teachable.
Tell us about the collaborative work environment.
Val: What we’ve created is an environment for peer to peer mentoring. The companies who come in here are always in to launch. That’s part of our criteria to come in, you must have a business plan and a prototype. What we do is help those companies grow. We’ll help them from from one person, or three people to twelve people, to eight or twelve.We have between 2-4 activities a week, pub nights, ways people can intermingle with other people. Our weekly newsletter highlights different people, our events, and events in other institutions so other people can be informed.We have other mechanisms when we keep in touch with one another like portals.
How much of a role does coaching play?
We bring in 8-10 company founders monthly (every week) and do peer to peer mentoring. Each company reports on milestones, if they met the milestones, barriers and ask for help from the entrepreneurs or peers at the table. They meet once a month to do that.
- Acceleration program: We have advisors and mentors available for specific needs – legal, IP issues, finance, or design
- Master class: Every few months, we have a whole bunch of expertise to give a program – educational
- Mentor meetups & other events where they’re expose to expertise.
How do you connect entrepreneurs with the industry?
Val: We have a constant flow of industry and interested parties from government and other academic institutions coming through doors from every week. What they do is meet up with the companies every week as potential customers. What we are very much interested in is enabling our startups with their first customer. People can come and invest, but they can also partner, pilot, acquire, we have all different ways to connect the startup companies with industry.
Are there job opportunities for people who are not entrepreneurs?
Val: The opportunity for recruitment is unbelievable in multiple ways! We have companies who actually make money so they are ready to hire people and pay them. It’s an incredible opportunity because if you work for a startup, you see things from the ground up, which means that you’re wanted because you have certain vertical expertise. Because you’re seeing how a company is going to grow, it give s you gives a breadth of skill experience that you wouldn’t normally have in a larger company.
Do you offer internships?
We can bring in interns, that’s something we definitely do as well. We find that Internships are a great interest of to lot of people who come to the Zone. This includes: graphic designers, administration, HR, financial, salesmanship, programmers, marketing, business, technical opportunities as you’re designing platforms. It depends on the subject matter expertise that you want to hire and bring in.
The Digital Media Zone gives a platform for entrepreneurs, start-ups and creative minds to work together in a productive space. Whether you a run a business or not, the knowledge, mentorship and transferable skills will benefit an active mind and successful career in whatever path you choose.
How will incubators like the DMZ influence future careers in entrepreneurship and technology? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Photo credit: Mark Blinch