GreenHouse helps students build skills, test dreams.
By Mike Strathdee
As printed in The Marketplace - November/December 2017
Tania Del Matto has a ringside seat on the next generation of people who want to change the world.
As director of the St. Paul’s Uni- versity College GreenHouse program, she walks alongside students who want to start businesses or non-profits, as well as folks who have an idea that they don’t know what to do with.
GreenHouse is a residential incubator program at a college located on the University of Waterloo campus. Unique in that students live onsite, it serves those in second year or higher of their studies. Partic- ipants are drawn from six different faculties, with the largest group being environment majors.
“We put a lot of focus on building people here,” says Del Matto, who launched the program in 2013.
Assessing skills, building on strengths and pushing people out of their comfort zone to “help them get their idea out there” are all part of the GreenHouse mission.
She works to meet students where they are to see if their approach to a problem is scalable and could form the basis of a viable business.
While some incubators judge success on the ability of grads to scale their firms, Del Matto thinks the primary value of campus-based incubators is skill-building, like a self-directed co-op term. Success is measured based on milestones students set for themselves. “That’s the bigger piece on where we add value.”
To date, 10 per cent of Green- House graduates have gone on to work on their ventures full-time. Some of them have made their way through several local business incubators, drawing on multiple areas of expertise and, in some cases, seed funding.
Many more pursue their vision “at the side of the desk” while doing unrelated work, join charities, or follow an “intrapreneurship” path, testing out their idea in an established company.
The most common success path for Greenhouse students is found by those who “have a lived experience with the problem they are trying to solve.” These students have a personal passion or experience that has caused them pain, so they want to tackle the problem for themselves.
Richard Yim of Demine Robotics (see story, pp. 13-14) is a classic example.
Others connect to their desire to make change via co-op or volunteer experience. “There’s something about this lived experience with a problem piece that is really powerful in getting them going.”
GreenHouse works out of 2,500 square feet of innovation space in a new residence the college opened this summer. The new facility also is used as a place for lab-based work to address business, charity or community-based problems, aiming to find balance between incubating ideas and more practical efforts.
Del Matto sees considerable merit in the number of incubators, all working in different niches, that exist in the region. “The last thing we want to do is to be replicating each other’s work in any way.”
The neighboring Centre for Peace Advancement at Grebel, for instance, has helped many of her students navigate dealings with government. “Some of these ventures, their customer is going to be government, as they produce a service to the public sector.”
CPA director Paul Heidebrecht does workshops for GreenHouse participants on working with government. Several have moved to CPA after graduating from GreenHouse.
Each term, GreenHouse hosts a social impact showcase where students pitch their business ideas. The most promising proposals receive grants of $1,000 or $2,500. ◆