University of Windsor Alumni Magazine

An Epic Concept

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Matthew Lapain (l.) and Vincent Colussi at Epic Innovation
Feature
Jennifer Ammoscato (with files from The Windsor Star)

“If you want to be taken seriously, you can’t be working out of your parents’ basement.”

Wise words, indeed, from UWindsor graduate students Matthew Lapain and Vincent Colussi who also happen to be the owners of a neophyte business.

After incorporating their fast-growing roofing supply estimate company, the two soon realized they would need to move quickly to keep up with its growth. First and foremost, “We needed a space,” says Colussi. 

That’s where EPICentre entered the picture. 

EPICentre refers to all of the entrepreneurial activities on the University of Windsor campus. From in-class education to extra-curricular events and activities, the initiative, led by UWindsor president Dr. Alan Wildeman, provides students and recent graduates with the opportunity and resources to successfully start and grow a business.

A primary goal is to help develop innovative ideas into genuine businesses. To that end, students or recent graduates can apply to EPICentre Programs to ignite their entrepreneurial passion. They may be involved in business consulting activities, helping other businesses to succeed, or in developing their own venture. 

“Seventy per cent of kids now don’t want to work for a big company,” says business professor Francine Schlosser, responsible for the cross-faculty consultation component of the program that invites students and faculties from different areas to work together on a variety of projects. “They want to work for startups.”

Business consulting student Michael Douramakos says that, “My experience as an EPICentre student consultant bridges classroom theory and real world skills. I can leverage my Bloomberg certification from the largest educational financial trading lab in Canada (which is located in the Odette School of Business) to conduct industry research for my clients. This experience adds value to my Odette BComm degree and gives me confidence to take the next step in my career upon graduation.”

The EPICentre initiative engages students and faculty members across a range of UWindsor programs including Engineering, Business, Law, Fine Arts, English, Music, and Computer Science. Twelve faculty members are currently EPICentre Faculty Fellows, an internal board of advisors for EPICentre, who supervise students in a variety of entrepreneurial research, teaching, and outreach activities in their respective faculties. 

As Dr. Schlosser notes, “Entrepreneurship means something different to each person, and in the end it’s about being innovative and being able to make a living, doing the things you love, that you’ve gone to school to learn. If you’re an artist—then learn how to price and market your creation. If you’re a scientist, learn how to commercialize your discovery. Or, better yet, find a team with different skills and education to work with so you can focus on what you love to do.”

Students and recent graduates from all faculties are encouraged to apply for the EPICentre incubation program. Successful start-up applicants are given a six-month time frame to get their business underway, including free space to set up shop within one of three campus locations: the Industrial Courtyard (located in the Ed Lumley Centre for Engineering Innovation), the EPIC Innovation (Ron Joyce Entrepreneurship Centre), and the Biotech Courtyard (Biology Building).

The EPICentre
The EPICentre
Sam Burton and Jon Donais work with Nicole Anderson, director of the University of Windsor EPICentre.

The incubator space includes dedicated desk space and access to private meeting rooms. This allows a fledgling business the freedom to focus on building revenue, rather than paying out overhead costs.

“Students at the ideation stage of their venture work in our pre-incubation space, EPIC Odette (Odette School of Business)” says Wen Teoh, Venture Start director of EPICentre. “Once they have validated their idea and are ready to launch their start-up, they can apply to one of our three incubators to further develop their ventures. In addition to professional working environment, start-ups will have access to mentoring and business advice through our network of mentors, advisors and coaches.”

Lapain and Colussi applied to be one of the first to have “incubator” space in EPIC Innovation. Their company, MLVC Technologies, provides roofing material estimations to Enviroshake, based in Chatham, Ont., and its subcontractors for virtually any type of roofing material. 

Lapain, a St. Clair College graduate now pursuing a Master of Engineering at UWindsor, and MBA student Colussi moved in when the centre opened as part of a six-month free test. Today, they remain entrenched in the new space as paying members.

“It’s far more than just a rental space,” explains Colussi. Workshops and seminars are offered, in addition to mentoring and business advice, legal and intellectual property advice and networking opportunities with other entrepreneurs, industry experts, funding agencies and potential investors.

“It allowed us to access the services that EPICentre offers as part of the package—expos, EPIC Breakfasts with guest speakers that specialize in things like taxes and marketing. We can network with other business owners. The value added of being in here is tremendous.”

Part of that value added was the mentorship Lapain and Colussi received from Gerry Simpson BComm ’71, MBA ’77, CEO of Polaris Group Management Consultants. “He helped us develop a strategic plan as to where we wanted to be in three years,” says Lapain. “It gave us a sense of how we were growing and where we could go. It was a good reality check and shed light on what was feasible.”

Simpson says that he appreciated the opportunity to help support students establishing new entrepreneurial ventures. “This has allowed me to give back to the university from which I graduated and to the community in which I was able to have some measure of success in my business life.”

“Matthew Lapain and Vincent Colussi had already launched MLVC when I was assigned to the project,” says Simpson. “I hope my efforts helped expand their understanding of strategic issues they face as the business develops.” 

Lapain and Colussi were actually the second team that Simpson mentored: the first was Substrata This Film Solutions, launched by Mike Miller and Stan Amyotte. 

“I enjoyed participating in this important program and compliment the university on this initiative to help kick-start new business opportunities for budding entrepreneurs.”

Inspired by Simpson to create their strategic plan helped the team obtain an EPIC Cross Border research grant of $5,000. The cross-border program was launched in January 2015 with $100,000 worth of funding over two years provided by the university’s Cross-Border Institute, which received the seed money from FedDev Ontario.

The EPICentre has five $5,000 grants available to hand out each semester to business start-ups trying to break into the American market until March 2016. Applicants must be current University of Windsor students or have graduated from the school within the past five years. Applicants must be running a start-up business or be on the verge of launching one aimed at accessing the U.S. market.

Colussi says that the grant “allowed us to see how feasible it would be to move to the Detroit market and the broader U.S. market, and what the legal implications might be.”

The EPIC Founders Program attracts innovative thinkers. And, it doesn’t get much more innovative than two University of Windsor engineering students born on the African continent trying to solve the classic Canadian conundrum of snow removal.

“We were looking for a problem that wasn’t just in a nice neat environment,” says Nyasha Kapfumvuti, who was born in Zimbabwe. “We wanted something messy. We were looking at approaching an old problem with a different solution.”

Kapfumvuti and his partners Michael Gyan, born in Ghana, and Windsor native George Mitri, found their problem in the snowy winter of 2013-14. They believe the solution to trying to develop their idea of a vehicle that can collect snow but doesn’t need to cart it away for disposal is the EPIC Founder’s Program.

The 12-week program offers training in how to launch a lean start-up business. It includes funding, mentorship and intensive workshops to help participants take an idea from its birth to a tangible concept or product.

The program was launched this past May with financial support from the Ontario Centres for Excellence and a private donation of money and mentorship from Anchor Danly CEO/president Roy Verstraete.

“To be able to support young, bright-eyed, high-energy budding entrepreneurs as they move from conception to start up is very rewarding,” says Verstraete of the program. “And, it is a combination of money, mentorship and community that this program provides them.”

Thirty applicants with 10 teams pitched their business plans. The 12 individuals forming the eight teams selected worked out of the Odette business building. Participants were paid for their 35-hour work weeks, which allowed them to focus on developing their business plans and products.

“It’s open to students or recent post-secondary graduates in Windsor/Essex County who aren’t working full time or going to school full time,” says program director Nicole Anderson. “It’s not just for university students. We have a St. Clair College student here who is working on a health app.” 

Anderson says the program’s other real advantage is students get to work with leaders of industry through mentorship programs and workshops. “It also allows them to pitch their ideas to them,” she says. “They’re making important connections. Learning what industry wants and what the market wants.” At the end of the program, it’s hoped the teams will continue developing their businesses by setting up in the centre’s incubator, as Lapain and Colussi did.

Gyan says one of the invaluable aspects of the program is the cross-pollination of knowledge between the different areas required to develop a commercial idea. “Being engineering students, the help we’re focusing on is on the business side. We don’t get that in engineering. We’re learning how to create a start-up.”

Also in that first grouping, Sam Burton and Jon Donais worked on an app to aid teachers in tracking student performance in harder to grade concepts, such as creativity and playing well with others.

Burton, who graduated from the Arts and Sciences program, says it was about much more than just financial help. “This has shortened our time through the mistake cycle and accelerated our learning. It’s made us aware of alternatives. Instead of four months to get this out, maybe it’ll take only 10 weeks. Time is everything in the start-up world.”

With 12 people in the program, it also means not having to solve difficult problems on your own. In the first five days of the program, Donais says they were able to help a team and received help back from another group.

“It’s super useful because we’re learning stuff you don’t in the school system,” says Donais, who has a computer science degree. You’re not just theorizing in a classroom. We’ve had to change our thinking from the usual university mindset.”

The EPICentre initiative is also distinguished by a strong international element.

“One of our strategic priorities is borderless innovation,” says Anderson. “Of the number of incubators in border cities, we’re the closest to the border. It allows students to do research, have a presence in the U.S. and make the American contacts to get into the partnerships to get into the cross-border market.”

As an example, a group of University of Windsor students had an idea for an app that would have all the answers—except for how they’d find the money to perfect it.

Fortunately, they were among the first four groups to receive a $5,000 grant from the EPICentre Cross Border Entrepreneur program—which also funded Lapain and Colussi. Now their app, which provides someone to answer any question submitted to it 24 hours a day, is in the testing stage on Android devices before launching across all platforms.

“It (the grant) allowed us to survive for another 90 days,” says Jimmy Truong, who along with Scott Nguyen, and Donny Duong and Mike Ouellette founded the app. “It paid for our living expenses while we worked at developing it. During those 90 days, we got four other grants. We definitely wouldn’t have been here if not for that grant. I don’t think that was the program’s intention, but that’s how vital the grant has been.”

Truong said the grant program also helped them research corporate structure and what was required to run a cross-border business. The group received access to mentorship and introduction to potential American partners at such places as Wayne State University’s Tech Town.

The group was able to save on hiring tech talent by using EPICentre’s in-house experts.

Truong says though the program is just in its infancy, it’s having a significant impact for young entrepreneurs. One of the four original grant recipients is Pursue Sports, a sports recruiting business that has expanded on the original cross-border concept. In June 2015, the company announced that they had secured $100 million in contracts. “Pursue

Sports has already gone multi-market. They didn’t limit themselves to the U.S. They have clients now in Brazil and Europe. They’re exploring even further afield.”

As for would-be captains of industry Lapain and Colussi, the work the two continue to perform for Enviroshake and its subcontractors includes jobs from the Caribbean to Alaska. “We’ve done more than 300 reports since being in the new space. It’s been great,” says Lapain.

Post graduation, each will apply to engineering firms to obtain his professional engineering designation by working under a licensed professional engineer for four years.

“Even if we end up in different cities professionally, we expect to be able to continue on with our business,” says Colussi. “What we’ve learned here will help us create a strong foundation for moving it forward.” νv

FOR MORE INFORMATION

If you’d like to learn how you can become involved with EPICentre, you can learn more by contacting the following individuals:

Nicole Anderson and Dr. Francine Schlosser (Activities/Programs)

Nsleiman@uwindsor.ca, 519-253-3000 ext 4913

Fschloss@uwindsor.ca, 519-253-3000 ext 3017

Wen Teoh and Heather Pratt (Incubator Space)

Wteoh@uwindsor.ca, 519-253-3000 ext 3913

Hpratt@uwindsor.ca, 519-253-3000 ext 3917

Sign up to be a member at www.epicentreuwindsor.ca