YSpace helps startups ease into the Canadian marketplace


York University’s flourishing entrepreneurship hub, YSpace, is drawing the attention of many international companies seeking a market foothold in Canada.

By Elaine Smith

Nafis Ahmed
Nafis Ahmed

As York University’s hub for entrepreneurs and startups, YSpace is committed to fostering innovation in its many forms and stages.

“We develop programs to help companies get launched and develop traction,” says Nafis Ahmed, entrepreneurship manager for YSpace, which, to date, has supported 410 ventures that have generated $33.8 million in revenue and created 606 jobs. “We have credibility and a network of relationships that we’ve been building for five years that can assist. Once a company joins YSpace, they are part of a select community and can connect with each other and with mentors at any time.”

Increasingly, YSpace programs draw international companies seeking a foothold in Canada in food service, technology and other sectors.

“Given Toronto’s diversity of cultures and the Greater Toronto Area’s growing reputation as the leading Canadian entrepreneurial hub, it is an extremely attractive proposition for international businesses interested in breaking into the North American marketplace,” says Amir Asif, York’s vice-president of research and innovation.

Enhancing internationalization is a major priority and a multipronged effort at the University.

“Internationalization and global engagement include supporting global entrepreneurship. YSpace is a perfect vehicle for making that happen,” adds Vinitha Gengatharan, executive director of York International, the University’s globalization arm.

YSpace began its international outreach in 2020 with an accelerator program for Chilean food and beverage companies eager for an introduction to the Canadian marketplace. YSpace worked with the Pro-Chile Trade Commission to mentor startups entering the United States about the differences in marketing their products in Canada.

Judy Chang
Judy Chang

“The companies said they wished they had received similar guidance when they were trying to get traction in the United States,” says Judy Chang, YSpace program adviser. “Understanding the cultural nuances and different regulations is invaluable.

“As we helped the Chilean companies, we realized we could apply this knowledge to other countries by offering similar workshops, mentorship and a networking-cum-pitch opportunity.”

YSpace tailors its approach to working with newcomers – whether they are startups or mature small enterprises – to their needs. The hub’s recent work with Korean companies, for instance, grew out of an inquiry from an entrepreneur with a Korean background who connected YSpace with the Korean Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA)

KOTRA asked YSpace to put together a 12-week program focusing on assisting Korean companies to validate an approach to the Canadian marketplace, engage in conversations with potential investors and understand the appropriate way to sell products to local consumers. The program also included a mentorship component, giving each company the opportunity to work one-to-one with a successful entrepreneur who could review their plans.

“The ultimate goals we set for them were to determine if Canada was a good market for them and what they could bring to Canada was unique,” says Ahmed. “Once they decided it would be viable, we wanted them to create a pilot for building a customer base.”

Ellen Kim, research analyst and project associate at KOTRA Toronto, says, “We developed a great partnership with YSpace by co-hosting the 2021 Canada Acceleration Program for Korean startups. The YSpace team and community have actively offered amazing support to the Korean startups so they can have better ideas about entering the Canadian market. Mentors from YSpace have built such a meaningful relationship with each Korean startup, which contributed a lot to the success of our three-month program. Unlimeat and HeyIam – two promising Korean startups – found great partners and business connections in Canada by joining this program.

“We hope our partnership strengthens the bilateral ties between Korea and Canada,” adds Kim.

Ellen Kim
Ellen Kim
Sunjoon Mun
Sunjoon Mun

The KOTRA program culminated in a pitch evening for five companies – one food services company and four technology businesses – that offered them the opportunity to test their offerings and their newly acquired understanding of the Canadian business milieu with investors. Now, these companies are fine-tuning their offerings based on the feedback they received and deciding when or if they will enter the Canadian marketplace.

“It was a great opportunity for KOTRA to co-operate with YSpace in 2021,” says Sunjoon Mun, manager of KOTRA Toronto. “We hope many Korean startups find their business opportunities in Canada with the continuous support of YSpace.”

The team at YSpace encourages international startups to take advantage of their offerings.

“By working with us, startups new to the Canadian market gain access to reliable resources and a vetted network of mentors and supporters,” says David Kwok, director of YSpace. “We have an exclusive perk portal with over 30 different offerings unique to our members.

“Our roster of experts and seasoned entrepreneurs comprises people who are community driven. These vetted networks will provide pro-bono support. Meanwhile, working with the University provides companies new to the Canadian marketplace a level of credibility with potential partners and access to top talent,” says Kwok.

David Kwok
David Kwok

Kwok says that in addition to its training programs, YSpace can connect startups with policymakers or government for additional insight on procurement processes and also put them in touch with a steady stream of York talent from more than 100 countries, pursuing a wide range of professional or research-oriented programs, and at various stages in their careers.

“We continue to refine and tune our own systems and strategies to help international companies better in the long run,” adds Kwok.

YSpace is York’s entrepreneurship hub at Innovation York in the Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation. Innovation York facilitates and maximizes the commercial, economic and social impacts of research and innovation, and creates a culture of engaged scholarship and experiential learning. Visit Innovation York to learn more.