The DMZ Revolution

Justin Trudeau received a tour of the DMZ last Wednesday. Yasmin Jaswal

Justin Trudeau received a tour of the DMZ last Wednesday.
Yasmin Jaswal

When the 2013 federal budget was announced by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, it had Ryerson’s president, Sheldon Levy very pleased.  The budget put aside $60 million for incubators to help young entrepreneurs.

Levy has been promoting the need for young entrepreneurs since the launch of the Digital Media Zone (DMZ) in April 2010.  To the uninitiated, the DMZ is a multidisciplinary workspace that acts as a business incubator for startups and technological innovations.

Since its inception, the DMZ has incubated 75 startups, initiated 125 projects, and has created about 668 jobs. Of those, about 85 per cent came from startups, and the rest were created by the university. It has also been the go-to hot spot for industry leaders, potential funders, and government representatives who choose to take tours of Ryerson.

Since its inception, the DMZ has incubated 75 startups, initiated 125 projects, and has created about 668 jobs. Of those, about 85 per cent came from startups, and the rest were created by the university.

Having done over 600 tours, the DMZ has opened its doors to Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, novelist Margaret Atwood, ex-Dragons’ Den star Brett Wilson and, just last week, MP Justin Trudeau.

When it comes to students and alumni at Ryerson, 31 alumni startups have been created, of which 23 have gone on to start alumni companies. As of March 1, 2013, the breakdown of entrepreneurs’ backgrounds is: 30 per cent Ryerson alumni; 10 per cent current Ryerson students; and 60 per cent independent entrepreneurs from outside of Ryerson.

Certain protocols create restrictions on how business ideas and startups are accepted.  To have entry into the DMZ, individuals have to propose a business idea that is comprised of a prototype that leverages digital media with a degree of sophistication.

Once a month, a meeting of the DMZ steering committee — comprised of DMZ executives, Ryerson professors, and industry experts —evaluates applications that might have an opportunity to join the DMZ. Applicants go through a rigorous interview and pitch protocol that is made up of three stages.

First, a team must go through an idea consultation and, if successful, will get a chance to pitch in front of a few business development advisers at the DMZ.  If a team is successful it will be offered the chance to pitch in front of the steering committee in hopes of being accepted.  At each process a team must have a clear business plan. A good business plan must have a convincing product proposal, as well as a precisely balanced budget proposal.

Currently the DMZ offers new startup teams that have been accepted three months of free access to the facility. After the three months are up, the teams have to pay a membership fee, which varies depending on how small or large the team is.  If the startup is offered as a service to the Ryerson community the membership fee may be waived.

The DMZ currently does not take any equity from startups and their profits.  Instead they may ask a startup to speak to media about their project, or be present for various events.  The startup team is not necessarily obligated to commit to these tasks, but generally the “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” environment is accepted by all startups.

There have been rumours suggesting the DMZ might move away from being solely an incubator and offer accelerator programs where the DMZ would give a startup a lump sum of money in return for a percentage of equity and profit earned by the endeavour in the future.



Having experienced the horror of online dating, Malcolm Wollach and Adriano Valentini looked to create a startup that requires no profile setup, an issue with sites such as eHarmony and that has led to many users misrepresenting themselves.

“Usually their picture is taken three years and 30 pounds ago and the person you were talking to was actually misrepresenting themselves. You end the date politely and go on to the next one,” says Wollach.

Valentini and Wollach looked to eradicate this problem by creating MoreThanFriendMe, an application that works in tandem with Facebook and checks what friends are interested in a romantic relationship.

Anonymity is guaranteed between the two parties until mutual interest is expressed by both and the two parties are revealed.

Online dating is a $2-billion market.  Within Facebook, apps such as Zeus and “Bang With Friends” have gained attention, but need access to profiles or only provide casual sex hookups.

Wollach and Valentini are looking to reinvent the whole concept of online dating by eliminating misrepresentation of profiles.

The two partners have invested under $10,000 on the startup and look to have a soft-launch at the end of April.



When your clientele list consists of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and a big chain store like Chapters you know you are making the right moves.

SoapBox, the first product from company HitSend, made up of Brennan McEachran, Warren Tanner, and Graham McCarthy, gathers together users and their ideas.

Ideas are voted on by individuals within organizations to understand their community’s needs.  SoapBox users can ask questions, suggest solutions or create discussion topics. Other users can then give the comments a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. The SoapBox program works by packaging discussions that have reached a certain volume of interest (thumbs-ups) and then presenting them to those who are in positions of power (managers, professors, etc.).

Co-founder Brennan McEachran works on SoapBox from 9-6 p.m. and does night school a few nights a week.

Despite his reliance on energy drinks McEachran is pleased with SoapBox’s results.

Currently, the team consists of seven people and is financed on sales from Ryerson and Chapters.



Last spring Damian Matheson decided to act on an email he received regarding a 12-week digital specialization program associated with the DMZ.

What grew out of those 12 weeks was an interest in creating an organic food service.  Originally the idea of his partner, Zacharie Weingarten, FoodStory was created to take advantage of the growing rooftop farming craze. They looked to offer a Farmville-esque view of what was growing so customers could view their potential purchase in real time.  But the team found a lot of liability and red tape regarding leasing rooftop property so they came up with FoodStory: a service trying to bring farmers markets into the 21 century.

The goal is to bring together over 25 farmers markets that run between May and October in Toronto and the users who check what products are available at specific markets.

“You can get a weekly box delivered to your house with exactly what you want grown from an hour away picked within the last 24 hours,” says Matheson.

“In five years I see FoodStory being the go-to source for finding local food across Canada,” says Matheson.

“We want to branch out to businesses and restaurants, I see it expanding and becoming a household name for local foods and restaurants.”

Currently FoodStory’s team is comprised of the two co-founders.

Matheson and Weingarten have received various grants and say they spent under $5,000 so far on the startup. It will launch in May.



Mauricio Meza came to Canada from Mexico with a  strong biomedical engineering background and started working in the research department of Toronto Rehab.  He was working with individuals and matching their goals and needs with one-to-one technology to open doors and use phones.

After completing an MBA at Ryerson and partnering with Jorge Silva, they founded Komodo: a startup that looks to make smartphones and tablets accessible to people with very little mobility.

The team has called the DMZ home for the past eight months and has created assisted devices for individuals with mobility issues to use touch-based smartphones and tablets.

The team has received requests from BlackBerry and Microsoft to make their platforms accessible to all users.  New accessibility legislation has been putting pressure on companies to make devices accessible to everyone.

In Canada the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) requires wireless access to phones for all types of disabilities.  From various government grants, Komodo has received around $200,000 and currently has a partnership with Apple.

Meza jokes and says he hates weekends because it takes a few days away from work.  “We want to be known as the mobile accessibility company of the world,” says Meza.


This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on April 3, 2013.

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