Why Giving Matters

Igniting The Spark of Creativity

March 3, 2015

The McGill Dobson Cup is using donor dollars to nurture entrepreneurial start-ups

From duct tape to smartphones, every great innovation started with a simple idea. Thanks to the generosity of alumni and donors, some of the game-changing ideas of the future are taking shape right now in the annual McGill Dobson Cup start-up competition.

Launched in 2009 and funded through donations from alumni and friends, the McGill Dobson Cup has been showcasing some of the best entrepreneurial notions to come out of the McGill community – including current students, alumni, and staff from all of the university’s faculties – and giving them a boost to make these ideas a reality. The annual competition is hosted by the Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship, based in the Desautels Faculty of Management.

In the last six years, the Dobson Cup has helped create more than 80 successful start-ups that continue to employ nearly 500 people. “They’re employing people, generating revenues, and attracting investors. That’s very exciting,” says Professor Gregory Vit, BCom’80, Director of the Dobson Centre.

In 2015, winning entrants included start-ups that are developing biomaterial for bone-replacing implants, offering custom tailoring services in a mobile solar-powered truck, and providing solutions to sanitation issues in India with portable toilets and a waste collection service that converts waste to biogas, electricity and fertilizer.

Among the Dobson Cup’s exciting past successes is 2013 “For Profit” winner Hypejar, an online platform where consumers, and not brands, dictate the level of anticipation for films, video games and assorted gadgets before they hit the market. In the process, through user activity, Hypejar compiles market intelligence by aggregating demand levels for the future. Also having an impact are “Social Enterprise” winners (in a tie) Decode Global, which develops mobile games for social change, and Sanitru, which has created a technology to reduce the frequency of drug treatment errors.

Plenty of other initiatives are also still in the game: for instance, 2010 winner The Hot Plate has gone from providing online cooking shows for McGill students to offering a high-end test kitchen for a wide range of clients; 2012 social enterprise winner Hearing Express has begun rolling out inexpensive hearing aids in developing countries where such technology is usually beyond the means of those in need.

In the competition’s first stage, teams present a start-up plan; the most promising ideas continue to the second round, which sees teams present a pitch before a panel of twelve judges. They receive feedback on their pitch, and the survivors continue to the finals, where they develop a 15-page business plan and make a second presentation before the panel. The top three entries (of two dozen teams) at the first 2009 competition split $1,500 in prize money, but in 2011 the competition was transformed by a generous $500,000 gift from the National Bank of Canada.

At the same time, the competition expanded to include a “Social Enterprise” component alongside the original “For-Profit” category, in response to students’ interest in having a venue to test ideas of broader social value. In 2014, the “For-Profit” category as divided into “Innovation-Driven Enterprises” and “Small and Medium Enterprises,” again to reflect the realities of the marketplace and student interests. The 2014 competition attracted 156 entries, with the winners sharing $60,000 in seed money and gaining valuable mentoring from industry leaders – thanks not only to the National Bank’s gift, but also the support of individual donors.

The money isn’t the only draw. “The benefits of the event are clear. Business is all about networking, and by participating in the McGill Dobson Cup we were able to talk to people with significant expertise in the Internet domain,” says Grant Yim, BCom’03, who, with Dylan Jude, BEng’13, Mike Kwon, BCom’09, and Won Jun Bae, BEng’08, had already begun developing Hypejar when they decided to enter the McGill Dobson Cup. “The money was cool, but the value we got out of the networks outweighs it.”

Building on its Dobson contacts, Hypejar has since circulated among the big Silicon Valley players, and is poised to make a major impact in the world of product promotion.

The McGill Dobson Cup judges are entrepreneurial leaders – many also McGill alumni – from across North America. Designated “Dobson Fellows,” they donate their knowledge and energy in judging the competitions, providing insightful feedback on presentations and mentoring winners well after the competition has ended.

“They’re really enthusiastic,” says Jassi Pannu, a science student who, with arts student Jessica Wang, created Sanitru. “They provide you with lots of feedback; you end up learning so much through the McGill Dobson Cup, whether you win or not.”

Thanks largely to philanthropy, the McGill Dobson Cup is able to offer students like Pannu and Wang the opportunity to turn their ideas into reality. “The next decade will introduce some transformative ideas, and McGill will be at the epicenter of this activity,” says Vit. “Our students want to create things.”