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Inside the Creative Destruction Lab interviews

A look inside the application process for one of U of T's startup accelerators

Startups pitch themselves in 'speed dating'-style interviews in Desautels Hall

It’s a race against the clock as Chris McIntyre’s legal pad fills with details about the startup founders in front of him.

The table loaded with applications shakes as he writes, wobbling from the force of his fast-moving pen and the twitching knees of one of the anxious interviewees.

“Help me understand your target customer,” says Megan Dover, McIntyre’s interviewing partner. She’s mining the company for facts that could either reveal their startup to be one that might fold next week or, perhaps, hold the potential to transform the tech landscape and even the North American economy. 

Dover’s eyes dart up to the alarm, projected on a huge screen, counting down the nanoseconds left in their 15-minute window. Time is short but she and McIntyre are on schedule.

They’ve honed their speedy interview process over the morning of grilling startups as part of their MBA responsibilities. Together they form one of more than a dozen teams of Rotman MBAs taking the Creative Destruction Lab elective as part of their degree. Today’s task: interviewing potential ventures.

Megan Dover and Chris McIntyre

The few startups that make it into U of T’s prestigious Creative Destruction Lab accelerator will gain access to intense, ongoing mentorship from Rotman professors such as Ajay Agrawal and a group of influential Canadian business leaders including Daniel Debow, co-founder of Rypple, Tony Lacavera, former CEO of Wind Mobile, Geordie Rose, founder of D-Wave, and others.

(Read about U of T entrepreneurship and accelerators)

The companies vying for entry are diverse; among the hopefuls today are a medical biotech startup, a developer of pet monitoring devices and maker of wireless phone charging stations, to name a few. If there’s one common theme, it’s that the entrepreneurs are all nervous, excited, and often forget to share the most important details of their pitch until the last few moments. (Dover and McIntyre pictured above)

The MBA students performing the interviews are focused and intense but make sure to call the founders by name and demonstrate genuine interest while madly investigating the strength of each company’s potential.

Throughout the sun-filled Desautels Hall, 54 teams of founders have been rotating from table to table, hoping to convert MBA duos like McIntyre and Dover into believers that their venture should be in the minority selected for the next cohort of Creative Destruction Lab – and they have to do so before their 15 minutes run out.

“The good thing about having this kind of ‘speed dating’ is it helps startups refine how they communicate to people,” says Tom Lowden, an associate director at the Lab. “MBAs have knowledge of the company’s application form, plus anything they’ve scoured over the internet, and they’ve got a business mind so they’re going to be asking those kinds of questions. It helps companies feel out their pitch.”

Ted Livingston giving advice to a startupThe groups being interviewed were whittled down from an initial pool of 135 applicants, says Noopur Parmar, another of the lab’s associate directors. 

But convincing one of the interviewing duos isn’t enough: after today, the MBAs will debate each other until they agree on the 25 companies going on to the next stage.

Those companies will still have to impress the “G7,” a group of seasoned entrepreneurs and industry leaders who serve as coaches – and, often, investors – before they make it into the final cohort of startups accepted into the program. (Pictured: Ted Livingston, G7 Fellow and founder of Kik Interactive, giving advice at a Creative Destruction Lab meeting with startups)

So long as the startups are able to meet business development ‘milestones’ set out for them by the G7, and continue to show potential for growth, they’ll keep earning face time with the mentors until the program wraps in June. 

McIntyre, Dover and the other MBAs conducting interviews are fitted in suits and ties, skirts and heels – a range of formal office clothes. The founders on the other side of the tables wear t-shirts and hoodies, flannel button-downs with sleeves rolled up – carefully casual.  

The plaid-shirted young man speaking to Dover and McIntyre now describes his company’s approach to market risk, team dynamics and its aspirations for growth. His two co-founders are silent. They smile occasionally. One tugs at his collar, the other shakes his leg. 

“One minute left, one minute left,” Lowden’s voice comes over the PA system.

interview room with countdown clockMcIntyre turns his attention to the two quieter, fidgeting founders, asking, “What’s an example of something that would make you guys walk away from this company?”

One laughs, explaining that the group are long-time friends; their friendship and respect will keep the business together. 

Dover follows up by digging deeper into team dynamics.

“You guys are friends, but how do you make decisions – important decisions? How do you resolve an issue when you disagree?” 

Later, she and McIntyre explain their framework:

“All the interview teams are using their own rubric or process or method for evaluation. There’s no standard,” Dover says. 

“For us, the order of magnitude of importance is: people, product and market,” adds McIntyre.

Companies who make it into the program can sometimes crack under the pressure, and others find they simply don’t want to pursue the ‘milestones’ set out for them by the G7. Not all startups that begin the Creative Destruction Lab program will graduate at the end of its term in the spring. And that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve failed.

But ventures completing the process leveraged the program’s experience and connections to launch their companies into international headlines and new markets. Nymi (formerly Bionym) and their biometric wearable wristband called the Nymi Band have been profiled in the New York Times, The Economist and beyond. Y Combinator invested in the smart keyboard software developed by Whirlscape (pictured right). And DJ Armin Van Buuren is already using Thalmic Labs’ Myo armband as part of his live performances across the globe. (Read more about U of T startup success stories)

The Nymi Band kit

“We’re trying to look for things that are going to be significant,” says Lowden. “The Lab was created for the sole reason of creating massively scalable companies. Sometimes the ventures have an idea of how they can do that, but other times they have a really neat technology but aren’t sure how to connect it and grow it within a market – that’s when we provide guidance to create that massively scalable company. Working with the G7 they can start to see that vision a lot clearer than they did before.”

They also get a few free sets of helping hands as their business moves through the accelerator’s rigour.

McIntyre, Dover and the other MBA students taking the Creative Destruction elective do more than interview potential startups for entry. Through the course they’ll assist teams selected for the Creative Destruction Lab by providing research and analysis – basically, free assistance. 

And, since many of the founders are coming from research or tech backgrounds, the MBAs can offer the perspective of business acumen – while testing the waters of entrepreneurship themselves. 

“I would love to be an entrepreneur, but it’s just having the guts to do it,” says Dover, who works at a corporate job full time while completing her MBA. “That’s why I respect these people so much: they have so much courage. It’s hard to turn them down.”

Brianna Goldberg writes about entrepreneurship and produces the cities podcast for U of T News.