Executive Director, Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking
PhD student, Computer Science, Ontario Tech
Master’s Student, Experimental Psychology, Memorial University
As a catalyst for change, Experience Ventures is equipping bright, young students with homegrown skills to tackle real-world problems.
The majority of Canada’s professionals, most of whom trained at colleges and universities in Canada’s urban centres, are largely choosing to live and work in those centres. Even if limited purchasing options push them into more rural and remote communities, most are only making the move when their work no longer requires them to regularly attend meetings in downtown offices.
Given the shift, it could lead to the belief that Canada’s rural and remote communities are not benefitting from the influx of young talent, or that quaint towns are being turned into a virtual form of “bedroom communities.” Thankfully, this is not the case.
Strong, capable talent is coming out of Canada’s rural and remote communities and turning to Canada’s colleges and universities to seek education, training, and experience. With the pandemic moving classes online, many students have pursued their education without leaving those communities. And most importantly, some of the country’s brightest young minds are taking the innovative skills they’re learning in school well outside the city centres to better the rest of the country.
Experience Ventures, led by the University of Calgary’s Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking and in collaboration with post-secondary institutions across the country, is looking to lead that future change.
Strong, capable talent is coming out of Canada’s rural and remote communities and turning to Canada’s colleges and universities to seek education, training, and experience.
Last year, in partnership with Experience Ventures, Ontario Tech University’s Brilliant Catalyst innovation hub launched the Catalyst Challenge. A more inclusive take on a hackathon, the challenge focused on how to improve issues in rural and remote communities. Student participants spent days learning about some of the issues facing rural Canada, from aging telecommunications structure to talent depletion in favour of big cities to issues facing isolated Indigenous communities.
After learning about challenges specific to the region, participants were taught some tools key to innovation—from design thinking to valuation—that they would need to devise real-world solutions to these challenges.
The results were not only innovative, but had practical applications as well. Sara Motlagh, a PhD student in computer science at Ontario Tech, worked with her team of students across multiple universities to come up with the blueprints for their project, “Study Room.” Motlagh and her colleagues learned through the program that access to high-speed internet is a challenge in remote communities given the absence of infrastructure. Study Room places retrofitted shipping containers, which have been designed to create an accommodating work/study space for students and professionals, in areas where such services are not readily available.
While the idea is effective, Motlagh and her colleagues had to wrestle with practicalities such as cost and feasibility. “The difficult part for us was the financial part because we were dealing with different supply chain costs for the equipment and looking at how to make the containers affordable,” said Motlagh. “We’re currently in the customer validation process, meeting with teachers and students in rural Canada, and working on how to manage the money we’ve been given to make the solution better. Through all of this validation, we’re slowly realizing that our final product will look very different to what we originally had imagined.” The team is aiming to have a prototype ready by winter 2022.
Motlagh and her peers credit the program with teaching them skills that extend not only into their future in entrepreneurship, but into other professional pursuits as well. The ability to understand what makes an idea viable, to communicate with investors, and to turn passion and creativity into reality are invaluable skills in any field.
Meanwhile, Down East…
On the eastern tip of Canada, Experience Ventures students are also learning about innovation and entrepreneurship. Unlike their peers in the Greater Toronto Area, students at Memorial University know firsthand that rural and remote communities are never more than a short drive away. St. John’s, home to Memorial, is the province’s only major city at roughly 110,000 people. Students wishing to pursue a university education while staying in Newfoundland and Labrador have no choice but to head to the big city. However, that does not mean rural students have abandoned their roots completely.
Jared Trask, a master’s student in experimental psychology, has been commuting to Memorial from his home in Holyrood, some 40 minutes away. Trask is completing his thesis in behavioural psychology by studying the effects of psychiatric disorders on laboratory animals such as mice and rats. Trask is also interested in entrepreneurship, and came to Experience Ventures through the school’s Entrepreneurship Training Program.
Through the program, Trask has been working with EcoBloc, a company focused on building ultrasonic technology to prevent rodent infestations in manufacturing facilities and commercial settings. While the product is perfectly suited to Trask’s science background, the work experience gives him an insight into business development that he would not have received in the laboratory. “When I first signed up for the program, I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Trask. “In terms of a company to match my interests, it couldn’t have gone any better, and probably contributed to why I felt it was so useful.”
While Trask may have come to the program with a thorough understanding of the science behind his ideas, he credits the program with teaching him how to pitch ideas, prospect for investors, and properly structure his business.
There’s no question a large percentage of talent from Canada’s rural and remote communities leaves to seek lucrative opportunities in the country’s urban centres.
Yet all hope is not lost for rural Canada — far from it. Innovative national programs such as Experience Ventures are equipping students around the country with the skills they need to stay in their home communities over the long term and creating opportunities for them and for generations to follow. An increasingly digital world, combined with new and exciting opportunities for innovation, means that Canada’s youngest entrepreneurs can create homegrown solutions from anywhere and target real-world issues right in their own backyards.