From the vantage point of its Princess Street campus, Red River College has the perfect perspective on the potential of Innovation Alley.
Thats why it launched a new program that some believe could become the missing link between the education system and the burgeoning entrepreneurial eco-system in Winnipeg.
RRC has been pumping out 200 graduates every year of the 28-month diploma course called Business Information Technologist (BIT).
Students are required to complete a co-op work experience of at least four months, typically with some of the big IT companies or the IT departments of some of the large corporations such as Great-West Life or Investors Group.
But more students are expressing an interest in trying to launch their own ideas and becoming entrepreneurs.
So in May, RRCs accounting and computer education (ACE) department started an alternative to the co-op placement.
Now, students have an option to work with a startup entrepreneur and become immersed not just with the technology, but with the whole collection of challenges necessary to launch a tech startup.
Haider Al-Saidi, chairman of ACE, said the idea is for the entrepreneur to work with the student so they can work on the development of the software or the product or whatever the technology part of the project is but also for the student to be exposed to everything the entrepreneur is going through.
This is my ninth year at Red River, and to tell you the truth this is the first year students have come to my office and say they want to be entrepreneurs, Al-Saidi said.
The program, called ACE Project Space started in May with one entrepreneur, Dan Blair, a 25-year-old recent grad from the BIT program.
Since last May, Blair — who gets to be called entrepreneur-in-residence — has mentored 16 students through his startup company called Panopla.
Blair characterizes his technology as the YouTube for spherical panoramas and virtual tours. Its looking to become part of the hot virtual reality space.
Last May when he took on six BIT students, Panopla was just an idea. By October he had 5,000 users and the start of a revenue stream.
This is not just like getting free work, said Blair. There is an exchange of knowledge. Theyre learning about business, working with a team, and theyre working with me as I go through the struggles of a startup. So far we have had quite a bit of success.
Blair does not get paid and the students dont either, but they get a credit for the next terms tuition.
Scott MacAulay, a RRC instructor and a leader in helping to create a functioning support system for the citys tech startup scene, believes this program can help more new grads get introduced to the growing support network for startups.
Its a way to activate more entrepreneurs, MacAulay said. I also love it because Red River spent all this money to come downtown, and this is a way to really get engaged with this great tech hub thats right next door.
And its not going to cost RRC much to do it. Office space has been leased in the Massey Building and Al-Saidi says some additional space will be secured later this year when he hopes to have four more entrepreneurs-in-residence signed up. But thats about it, from a cost point of view.
Right now, the beauty of this model is that we dont really have to have a big budget to manage it, he said. We are looking at the philosophy. That is the most important thing at this point.
But they do want to study how well it works and what the consequences are.
Connor Lloyd, a spokesman for RRC, said, I dont want to go so far to say no other post-secondary institute is offering something like this but to put something right in-house in a post-secondary to create that kind of access and support is not very common.
In addition to the give and take between the entrepreneur and the student, RRCs business department will also provide mentoring support to the entrepreneur.
And as well as the work experience, the students also get an introduction to Innovation Alley. Startup Winnipeg, the organization that runs AssentWorks the work-share and maker space, is around the corner and its expanding.
Al-Saidi said that in addition to initiating students into the startup world it could help more startups survive.
Many entrepreneurs (are forced to) give up because they cannot afford to continue pursuing the idea, said Al-Saidi. So we lose the entrepreneur and the idea as well.
ACE Project Space could help some startups get past the idea stage and get them to the point where they can access support programs and develop long enough to see if their idea really has what it takes.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.
Updated on Thursday, January 14, 2016 at 7:02 AM CST: Adds photos