Last week, the province announced it’s given Ryerson a $2 million grant as part of its Campus-Linked Accelerators program to fund student entrepreneurial projects.
Ryerson University president Sheldon Levy said this funding will “allow us to extend even further our commitment to build a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation across our campus, city and region.”
But what does this mean for students?
“Really, the idea is to provide a new way for students to gain a career-relevant education at Ryerson,” said Randy Boyagoda, English professor and director of Zone Learning at Ryerson.
Stemming from the success of the Digital Media Zone, Ryerson grew its Zone Learning project to include six different interdisciplinary zones: fashion, design and fabrication, transmedia, social ventures and the centre for urban energy.
A portion of this week’s grant will go towards a biomedical zone in partnership with St. Michael’s Hospital; a zone in the new Student Learning Centre and the further development of the design fabrication zone.
Wendy Cukier, vice-president of research and innovation at Ryerson, said that the focus for this grant will be to get more of the student body interested and involved in entrepreneurial projects.
She says this is not limited to marketable products and business ideas, and there will be an emphasis on individuals who are interested in pursuing social endeavours—for example, education, sustainability or poverty alleviation.
“Lots of people equate entrepreneurship only with dotcom startups when, in fact, entrepreneurship is a mindset—not accepting the status quo, chasing goals and using the resources available to you to be a change maker,” said Cukier.
The school’s goal is to help 3,000 entrepreneurs through a series of programs over two years: approximately $340,000 of the grant will be set aside for individuals and student groups to propose workshops, events and programs, according to Jennifer MacInnis, the senior director of applied research and commercialization at the school.
Aside from an introductory event scheduled for Oct. 2, no programs have been proposed as of yet.
Cukier also said that there will be programs specifically for students who “face barriers,” like recent immigrants who need help familiarizing themselves with the Canadian banking system, or women who may not think of themselves as entrepreneurs.
A portion of this funding will also go toward increasing accessibility of facilities.
According to Boyagoda, part of this money will be dedicated to keeping facilities open later, buying more equipment and getting advanced mentorship from discipline experts for students.
He says the goal is to offer students the opportunity to get involved with something outside of what their curriculum can provide.
“You don’t even have to want to be an entrepreneur yourself. You just may want to check something out and be a part of a multidisciplinary team with kids from around the university working together on something,” he said. “It’s not about, ‘Oh, (the project) failed. Who cares?’ I’m not looking to turn everyone into an entrepreneur here. I’m looking to give students a cool opportunity to try something out that they couldn’t get out of their current curriculum.”
Excluding the biomedical zone, all zones at Ryerson are open zones. This means that non-Ryerson groups can apply to use the resources. MacInnis said a condition of the grant is that the zones be used not only within the specific Ryerson community, but to help support the broader community of which the school is part of.
In the last year, the DMZ received approximately 200 online applications, of which the acceptance rate was between 15 to 20 per cent, said DMZ director of marketing and communications, Brendan Dellandrea, in an email.
Of those total applications, he said approximately 45 per cent were from the Ryerson community.
Currently 48 per cent of the companies working out of the DMZ are led by founders with a Ryerson affiliation.
Boyagoda emphasized that this grant money will be used to make the zones more available and accessible to a wider selection of students, provided they are interested in pursuing a project that has something to do with one of the zone’s disciplines.
“It goes well beyond the initial success of the Digital Media Zone with app development and that kind of thing,” he said. “The idea of (these zones), especially social ventures, is to provide students with a whole variety of options with wanting to create things beyond the classroom.”
He said that the zone learning initiative is not meant to replace the academic-driven university experience, but complement it.
While he says academics remain the core purpose of the school, Ryerson has a mandated responsibility to provide “career-relevant, professionally-connected education” to its students, which will put them in a better position to find a job in a competitive economy.
“When people say ‘marketable skills,’ I hate that phrase because it just seems to me like everybody has to be a business student. This isn’t what zone learning is about,” said Boyagoda. “It’s about giving you a chance to work with a student from [a different discipline], learn from a different culture of activity and have to translate what you do to someone else.”
The CLA program is part of the province’s youth jobs strategy and includes $20 million to be invested into different schools to “transfer academic expertise and knowledge into the marketplace,” according to the province’s website.
A full, detailed budget for Ryerson’s $2 million piece will not be released at this time, said Cukier.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Oct. 1, 2014.