York University's YSpace makes entrepreneurship more accessible with launch of YSpace Digital

As the COVID-19 pandemic has upended every aspect of our lives, the “new normal” of socializing, working and studying almost exclusively online has presented numerous challenges – but also new opportunities.

The entrepreneurial landscape changed drastically during the pandemic. YSpace, York University’s pan-University entrepreneurship hub, has quickly adapted to the changing needs of entrepreneurs by launching YSpace Digital, a new virtual talent and startup development hub that offers entrepreneurs customized support and a community-based support system in an online format.

Providing a platform to collaborate, learn and develop an entrepreneurial mindset, YSpace Digital allows individuals to embrace the changing work landscape and explore opportunities to ideate, launch and grow their business ventures – no matter where they are located.

YSpace Digital establishes virtual entrepreneurship programming as a permanent offering at York. ELLA and YSpace Markham – programs housed under YSpace – are currently operating in virtual formats during the pandemic, but will return to in-person programming post-pandemic.

With this new expansion, YSpace will be able to break down geographical barriers and grow its community of entrepreneurs, bringing even more new ideas and perspectives from across Canada and the world to its programs.

YSpace Digital will offer a variety of programming support, mentorship and knowledge development opportunities to serve entrepreneurs and their startups at all stages, from ideation to growth. Programming includes: educational opportunities for individuals at the ideation stage, including the Alumni Speaker Series, Founder Fundamentals workshops and Idea Consultations; the Venture Catalyst program to support early-stage technology ventures; and the Tech Accelerator and Food & Beverage Accelerator programs to help ventures launch and scale their businesses.

The launch of YSpace Digital was sparked by necessity, as YSpace, along with the rest of York University, quickly shifted to virtual programming at the outset of the pandemic to comply with public health measures mandating physical distancing.

However, although the team expected that they would return to offering exclusively in-person programming after the pandemic, they saw that virtual programming presented exciting opportunities.

“Since the pandemic, we've seen overall interest in our programs more than triple,” said Associate Director of Entrepreneurship David Kwok.

He noted that as programs shifted to online formats, the team began to see a steep rise in attendees from York University, York Region, GTA and even internationally from Australia, India, the U.S. and Japan.

“At that moment, our team realized that we could provide a whole new suite of services and programming virtually to reach a much larger audience and make entrepreneurship more accessible. The natural next step was to expand YSpace and launch YSpace Digital for all of our programming that was better suited to virtual delivery,” he said.

YSpace Digital was announced by Assistant Vice President of Innovation & Research Partnerships Sarah Howe at the virtual celebration marking YSpace’s third anniversary last month. The event brought together members of the entrepreneurial community from York University and the wider York region, featuring remarks from York University's President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton and Vice-President Research and Innovation Amir Asif, as well as City of Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti, and a panel of YSpace alumni who reflected on their experience with YSpace programs and shared their entrepreneurial journeys.

YSpace panel screenshot

The virtual YSpace third anniversary celebration featured a panel of YSpace alumni who shared their entrepreneurial journeys. From top left: Nafis Ahmed, entrepreneurship manager at YSpace; Brittany Charlton, founder and CEO, Ohh Foods; Gobika Karunanithi, founder and CEO, UnlockEm; and Viraj Mane, co-founder and chief scientific officer, Lactiga.

YSpace has made a significant impact since launching in 2018, supporting over 317 ventures that have collectively generated $15.7 million in revenues, raised $23.3 million in funding, and created 343 jobs.

Even during a global pandemic, YSpace entrepreneurs continue to achieve remarkable success, demonstrating extraordinary ingenuity and resilience in a time of great uncertainty.

While completing YSpace’s Food Accelerator program virtually in 2020, Pooja Rao, founder and CEO of NAVA Foods (formerly got BALLZ inc.), scaled her company with a major deal that brought its healthy snacks to Sobeys shelves Ontario-wide.

“I have learned tremendous amounts of information in the last five months which I know will be so beneficial while I continue to grow my company. The relationships I have built and the speakers who have dedicated their time is something I have treasured,” Rao said in a testimonial about her experience at YSpace.

With the encouragement and mentorship of YSpace Program Advisor Judy Chang, Rao applied for – and won – a BMO Celebrating Women grant of $10,000 in November 2020, becoming one of only 10 Canadian women business owners to receive the award that year.

“If it was not for YSpace, I would have never applied for this grant,” she said, adding that the grant money will be crucial for marketing, packaging and re-branding efforts of her company.

In addition to programming and mentorship, the opportunity to network with and learn from fellow YSpace entrepreneurs is frequently cited by alumni as a highly valuable part of their experience, showcasing the open and collaborative culture within the YSpace community.

At the third anniversary celebration, founder and CEO of Ohh Foods Brittany Charlton said that the community’s willingness to share both successes and mistakes made a huge difference in her learning process as an entrepreneur.

Gobika Karunanithi, founder and CEO of UnlockEm and York University alumna, agreed, saying: “The community really taught me well, and having founders share their experiences and hearing their hardships was really important – especially as an early-stage founder – so that community was great.”

Kwok says that with the launch of YSpace Digital, the team is excited to bring their diverse portfolio of programs to support entrepreneurs and companies across the GTA and beyond.

Although they may never meet physically, future YSpace Digital accelerator cohorts and program participants will no doubt continue to benefit from being part of this vibrant community of innovators and changemakers.

By Ariel Visconti, YFile communications officer

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