Note: This post originally appeared in The Toronto Star as “MaRS research hub nurtures entrepreneurs.”

At 9 years old, Hanna Tegegne can throw around business lingo to explain why a tea-brewing robot being tested at the MaRS Discovery District is a smart invention.

“First the entrepreneurs interviewed customers at tea stores—because they were the target of their customer research—and asked, ‘Do you guys like standing in line?’” said the student from Scarborough’s John A. Leslie Public School. She was on a recent class trip to the MaRS research hub to meet innovators like the whiz-kids behind the TeaBOT kiosk that blends designer loose-leaf tea in 30 seconds. “When customers said ‘No,’ the entrepreneurs got the very cool idea of building a big machine to provide tea when people need it.”

Added classmate Joyce Han, “That’s what entrepreneurs do; they think outside the box, they take risks to solve problems and don’t give up.”

The Grade 4 students understand these buzzwords because their teachers have been working entrepreneurial smarts into the curriculum this year to nurture the skills of inquiry and creativity hailed as 21st-century basics. The visit to MaRS is meant to show them how real-life innovators get it done.

“Learning to pinpoint a problem, then think of a solution, then develop a prototype and then pitch to potential investors – we’re really asking students to create the ‘why’ behind what they learn,” said Arianna Lambert, who, with fellow teacher Alison Fitzsimmons, took a crash course at MaRS last summer on how to give the curriculum an entrepreneurial twist. They observed teens on a MaRS summer “entrepreneurship boot camp” and now use an “entrepreneurial toolkit” designed at MaRS to help teach students how to think like an entrepreneur.

As controversy swirls around Ontario’s bailout of empty space in part of the MaRS complex, the former Toronto General Hospital building has become a hive for entrepreneurs, where established upstarts such as Airbnb and Etsy rub shoulders with newbie startups.

Launched 10 years ago as a public-private partnership to promote the commercialization of research, the “Medical and Related Sciences” (MaRS) centre also has become a hub of entrepreneurial education, preaching the gospel of innovation to students and teachers and also young adults through a GAP-style fellowship that builds entrepreneurial chops.

These are the tour guides for Hanna and her classmates, 25 young would-be entrepreneurs of MaRS’s “Studio Y” program, an eight-month fellowship for people aged 18 to 29 that provides mentors, a place to brainstorm, private partners to consult and a $20,000 living stipend so they can focus on turning their ideas into reality.

Hanna Tegegne, 9, listens to the business manager of the teaBOT during a visit to the MaRS building by classes from John A. Leslie Public School. Photo credit: The Toronto Star
Hanna Tegegne, 9, listens to the business manager of the teaBOT during a visit to the MaRS building by classes from John A. Leslie Public School. Photo credit: The Toronto Star

Selena Lucien Shaboian has degrees from the University of Toronto, Berkeley and the London School of Economics, but was itching to be an entrepreneur. She got the idea of creating an online “wizard” of guidelines to help people defend themselves in small claims court. But where to start? She figured it out as part of Studio Y.

“I’ve always been a graceful hustler, but this program gave me an opportunity to make connections with people who have (computer) coding skills and access to justice officials and figure out what I need to do to make my idea happen,” said Shaboian, 26, who hopes to launch her program in May.

Hamoon Ekhtari is the director of Studio Y, a program he said is a bid to re-think higher education as a way to help students “build their own future” by coaching rather than lecturing, by helping them collaborate and find partners, by figuring out the problems before tackling solutions and by not being afraid to “pivot” (change direction) if something doesn’t work out.

“So often education is about skills, skills, skills, but often what falls through the cracks is character,” said Ekhtari. He told the Grade 4 students to “talk about your dreams and what you want to build for the future and then working on it together.

Read more

Louise Brown

Louise Brown has covered education for the Toronto Star on and off for more than 30 years, with a broad focus that ranges from kindergarten to grad school.