Brothers Hadi Aladdin and Marwan Aladdin, U of T alumni, founded the academic talent management company, CoursePeer (photo by Jon Horvatin)

Student entrepreneurs get the green light

U of T, MaRS Innovation collaborate to launch UTEST software incubator

Ever have trouble making group decisions? What if there was software that makes the process less painful by gathering preferences and facilitating data-driven decisions that maximize value for everyone?

Hate job interviews? What if you you could find a job based on how you performed in a class, forgoing the need for traditional resume-tweaking and interviewing?

These ideas are the basis for student-run companies launching this fall through the University of Toronto Early Stage Technology (UTEST) Program.

A joint project of U of T’s Innovations and Partnerships Office (IPO) and MaRS Innovation (MI), with support from the MaRS Discovery District, UTEST provides nascent software companies with work space, mentoring and business strategy support. The program is part of a growing ecosystem of incubators and commercialization support services at U of T, including the newly-launched Banting and Best Institute.

UTEST is unique among incubators on campus in that its companies receive start-up funds — $30,000 each in this inaugural year — and because it accepts companies in the very earliest stages of idea generation, before they’re ready for traditional incubators.

“Creating a software company is tricky,” said Kurtis Scissons, commercialization manger, IPO and co-director of UTEST. “The time between the initial idea and getting the product to market has to be quick because the market is so competitive — it’s only a matter of time before someone else comes up with the same idea. It takes weeks, if not months, to apply for traditional sources of seed money. By providing an initial infusion of funds and guidance, UTEST accelerates the process.”

Because the program is housed jointly within IPO and MI, fledgling companies have access to the best business intelligence.

“We can help inventors avoid the mistakes that new companies often make when taking their inventions out of the lab and into the world,” said Lyssa Neel, project manager at MI and co-director of UTEST, who has taken several now-successful companies to market. “We advise on everything from filing patents to brand creation to perfecting an investor pitch.”

Tyler Lu, a PhD candidate in the Department of Computer Science and founder of Granata Decision Systems Inc., said that UTEST provided him with the entrepreneurship education he needed to transform an academic project to a commercial product. “I get support from the UTEST team on patents, corporate issues, strategic relationships, marketing and company leadership. Running a start-up business is not a nine-to-five job. I can call or email my UTEST advisors any time and get a quick response.”

Professor Paul Young, U of T’s vice-president, research and innovation, believes that UTEST is example of how U of T supports its student researchers.  “UTEST enriches the student experience by introducing them to entrepreneurship at the same time that it contributes to a culture of entrepreneurship in Canada,” he said.

Open to students, faculty members and recent graduates, the inaugural UTEST cohort includes six companies:

 CrowdMark collects and distributes the labour of marking papers in massive online open courses, which are exploding in popularity and do not lend themselves to traditional evaluation methods. By creating incentives to mark papers, CrowdMark empowers students to contribute to the assessment process.

• CoursePeer is an academic talent management program that links students with each other, with professors and with potential employers, using social and classwork interactions to automatically assess students’ creativity, problem solving and soft skills.

• Granata Decision Systems helps business and consumers make complex, data-driven decisions by gathering preferences and evaluating decisions to maximize value when group decisions have to be made.

• Thotra has developed software that transforms hard-to-understand speech into fluent, easy-to-understand speech in the speaker’s own voice, making it easier for people with speech-language disorders to progress in their therapy and for speakers of English as a second language to improve.

• ShotLst allows digital or physical objects to be annotated, facilitating collaboration by groups who don’t work in the same physical space, such as teams working on construction projects.

• Whirlscape has created an algorithm that allows mobile touchscreen devices to recognize even the most imprecise letter entries, allowing keyboard size to shrink and making it easier to enter text on mobile devices.

UTEST directors anticipate that the program will accept five new companies every six months and hope to issue their next call for applications in late fall. 

Click here for information about UTEST.

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