DMZ a gift for entrepreneurs

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As Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone celebrates its first birthday, Jeff Lagerquist looks at how the DMZ has aided student entrepreneurs

In the Ryerson Digital Media Zone’s inaugural year, 113 Ryerson students have launched 49 projects, 17 products, services developed at the DMZ are now on the market, and four companies have moved into offices of their own. The DMZ even outgrew its space on the fifth floor of the AMC building. More room on the third floor was added in January.

The DMZ will celebrate its one-year anniversary on Thursday, April 7. The high-tech, open-concept workspace overlooking Yonge-Dundas Square is gaining a reputation as a hotbed of innovative digital design and student entrepreneurial success. The project has already caught the eye of industry and government leaders in Canada and around the world.

Notable guests included Dalton McGuinty, Glen Murray and Atom Egoyan.

Other universities are taking notice as well; some are predicting a shift in classroom culture.

“Universities tend to help students get jobs, but they aren’t helping students create jobs, that’s what the Digital Media Zone is all about, creating jobs,” said DMZ director Valerie Fox.

At the DMZ, students develop their ventures by collaborating with peers s and industry experts. They also get opportunities to network with industrial and political heavyweights.

The DMZ is open to students from any program. Getting involved begins with an idea consultation by StartMeUp Ryerson, a program run by Students In Free Enterprise (SIFE).

SIFE provides advice from industry experts, faculty, and peer mentors on how to prepare a business plan and presentation. The DMZ steering committee evaluates each plan and the skills that presenters bring to the table. If approved, you get to develop and run your business out of the DMZ.

Entrepreneurs are able to collaborate with other students, have 24-hour access and pitch their ideas to every potential investor that walks through the door.

“Can you imagine groups of the top CEO’s in the country just walking into your office, where you have the opportunity to directly pitch to them? If I was in my basement that would never happen,” said Brennan McEachran, a third-year entrepreneurship student and founder/CEO of HitSend Inc.

Their premier product, SoapBox, was integrated into Blackboard last year, allows users to submit questions and concerns online. Other users can then vote on the topics, to push the most important issues to the top.

Christopher Alleyne, CEO of Fanfare, graduated from Ryerson’s finance and marketing program in 2009.

“My co-founder and I are not tech people. We needed to know what kind of online framework to use, and how to go about development. It really helped that we could pick people’s brains and bounce our ideas off them,” said Alleyne.

Fanfare streamlines job postings for companies seeking out new grads to hire. Employers cut out duplication by posting to one centralized board that reaches students at several universities. So far, 30 companies and four universities, including Ryerson, have joined.

“These projects are entirely developed by Ryerson students,” said Hossein Rahnama, DMZ associate director. “We help them move from an idea, to a proposal, then through development and commercialization.”

Rahnama said that the DMZ’s learning environment is going to set the trend in post-secondary education.

“We’re not trying to replace the curriculum, be we really think that the next generation can learn more in this type of setting than in classrooms and labs,” he said.

Photo by: Mohamed Omar

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