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A little more than 20 years ago, MIT developed a mentorship program that challenged notions about competition in the world of business. They called on local titans of business to volunteer to guide the school’s researchers and scientists in commercializing their intellectual property.

Within a decade, this in-house service was drawing so much praise from schools around the continent, MIT turned its entrepreneurial mentorship program into a platform for other programs looking to support entrepreneurs.

Today MIT’s Venture Mentoring Services has more than 100 sister programs around the world, but none have had greater buy-in than one of its earliest adopters, the University of Alberta Alumni Association, which licensed the program in 2013.

Lazina McKenzie

Lazina McKenzie

“They kind of hold us up as an example to other VMS programs learning this mentorship model,” said Lazina McKenzie, manager of the U of A’s ThresholdImpact Venture Mentoring Service.

“We model a lot of what we do after the MIT program in terms of engagements, the type of people that are involved – both mentors and entrepreneurs – and the rigour and the structure, which has led to significant success for our program.”

The program has more than 100 mentor volunteers with a wide range of business backgrounds. The mentors are paired up with an even more diverse array of startups, with the only stipulation being the startup has to have a U of A connection, whether that connection be alumni, faculty, students or staff.

“We have businesses and mentors that are at different stages of their career,” said McKenzie. “Maybe a company needs help gaining traction in the market while another might be trying to expand globally. Regardless of the stage of growth, we can put the right mentors around the table.”

Before joining VMS as an administrator, McKenzie – a U of A graduate herself, having earned an MBA in 2008 – was an entrepreneur looking to grow her style consulting company, L Squared Style.

McKenzie said having some entrepreneurial experience means she understands the many hats entrepreneurs wear – something the service’s board and team of mentors also understand.

“We have the right team and pool of volunteer mentors in place who understand the needs and challenges that entrepreneurs face.”

And though nobody has ever gone through a pandemic, she said VMS’s combined experiences have allowed their entrepreneurs to navigate the unknown with expertise and support all around them.

“I know that my business would have been in a similar place as a lot of our entrepreneurs – feeling like it’s over or I can’t do this anymore or how do I move forward,” she said. “But because we’ve built in the ability to be virtual, many months before the pandemic, we were able to help entrepreneurs with the stressors that emerged in real time.”

She said the mentors shifted just as fast, whether it was human resources professionals walking entrepreneurs through staffing issues or seasoned CEOs sharing their experiences leading in times of challenge.

“There’s that relatability and the ability to meet entrepreneurs where they’re at in terms of what we can offer them,” she said. “I think that’s an important piece of why this program has been successful.”

Jana Rieger

Jana Rieger

One of the program’s recent success stories featured in its 2020 annual report is True Angle Medical, based on the work of Jana Rieger, a researcher in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. Reiger’s team developed a therapeutic device, called MobiliT, that cuts out much of the need for clinic visits for those learning to swallow again in the aftermath of neck and throat surgeries or a stroke.

“Some of our mentorship is for those professors, scientists and researchers who are strong in the lab and need support thinking about how to grow a business – they’re not yet business brains,” said McKenzie.

And while the many prominent business leaders could volunteer anywhere, she said they choose ThresholdImpact VMS because they care about entrepreneurship, they want to help the city of Edmonton and our economy, and often just want to give back to their university.

“When you’re the type of person who puts your hand up to help an entrepreneur think through business problems, you are typically a lifelong learner,” she said.

For example, McKenzie said at the end of 2018 when cannabis became legal, there were a few companies in the program in that cannabis space.

“Some of our mentors were eager to work with these entrepreneurs. They wanted to learn about these business ventures and learn about the emerging cannabis industry,” she said.

Today 43 companies, including Blindman Brewing and Poppy Barley, are using the service, and more than 85 companies have used the service in the last seven years.

“It’s just a great way to engage a different group of alumni that happens to be entrepreneurs,” she said. “It has become a flagship program in our U of A Alumni Association.”

| By Michael Brown

Folio, a Troy Media content provider partner, is the University of Alberta’s online publication.

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