How to get accepted into the UTEST startup accelerator: drive and differentiation

Jackie Yan focuses on tweaking his PowerPoint slide deck despite the chaos unfolding around him.

Near the entrance to the office space he shares with teams from the six other startups that are part of the UTEST accelerator program, a phone spits distorted tones of an investment-related conference call at Hanna Janossy, CEO of a fatigue-management startup called Syncadian, as she scratches a list of notes.

A few steps down the hall, Marissa Wu, founder of the digital sports coaching wearable startup called Onyx Motion, goes over presentation notes with her co-founder Vivek Kesarwani. They discuss the finer points of athlete training with the intensity of so many layup drills performed on the basketball net propped against the wall of their desk space.

Across the table in the conference room where Yan is feverishly editing his slides, James McCrae pieces together 3D sculptures of horses, wasps and dinosaurs created with software from his startup, FlatFab.

“We’re hoping to make more stable structures with our 1.0 design, maybe integrating finger-joints,” McCrae explains as he prepares to demo FlatFab’s wares for a video crew from the Privy Council Office.

The videographers are producing a video about MaRS Innovation today, which co-directs the UTEST accelerator program with the University of Toronto, and are capturing b-roll of UTEST founders at work on their ventures. With seven companies currently sharing the working space, there’s always something happening. Each startup is led by students, recent graduates and faculty looking to commercialize early stage ideas with $30,000 in funding. (Read more about the growing network of accelerators and entrepreneurship supports offered by U of T’s Banting & Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship)

At the other end of the conference room, UTEST co-director and MaRS Innovation entrepreneur-in-residence Mike Betts scrolls through the site for Yan’s startup, Nvest, an online platform for socially-driven stock recommendations.

“How do you want me to report bugs?” asks Betts, eyeing the font size that’s changed since he last visited the website.

“I think you’re reporting them right now,” Yan says, looking up from his screen for the first time in 20 minutes, smiling.

This is the personalized support that Nvest and the other UTEST startups get when they sign on for the funding, mentorship and office space that comes with the year-long program. The customized approach has helped develop companies such asWhirlscape (whose founders Will Walmsley, Severin Smith andXavier Snelgrove are pictured left), Granata Decision Systemsand Coursepeer, which continue to make their mark on the North American tech scene. (Read more about applications to the UTEST accelerator)

Betts and his co-director Kurtis Scissons are accepting applications for the next UTEST cohort from now until May 8. The program will take on more companies than ever for its upcoming session in June – between 10 and 15 ventures, up from the seven currently in the program.

“With other accelerators you’ll see short programs focused aggressively on sales or product development, but our program is made for early stage ideas by design. They need a year to figure things out and it allows us to take a more tailored approach to working with a company,” he said. “We don’t want to apply any artificial pressure. Our support doesn’t stop on a clock.”

Jackie Yan’s dedication as an entrepreneur doesn’t run on a clock, either. His vibe is quiet and calm but the electrical engineering student, taking a year off to incubate Nvest, takes on risk with little regret.

He’s already founded one startup through the Entrepreneurship Hatchery incubator program, based on a motion-tracking ring designed to replace the computer mouse. That’s where he was paired with mentor Hadi Aladdin, co-founder of Coursepeer (pictured right, with co-founder Marwan Aladdin) – part of the first-ever cohort of UTEST and now a growing venture with offices in the United States, China and the Middle East. Aladdin stayed in touch with Yan and continues to provide guidance to Nvest. (Read more about CoursePeer)

“I enjoy the challenge of building something,” says Yan, who was recruited as chief technology officer of the Nvest team by its founder, Harry Chen.

“Harry convinced me there was a frustration in the market – that there wasn’t a reliable way to assess the credibility of stock recommendations. I liked the challenge of designing a finance site that’s clean, easy to understand and that users will like.”

Chen left the company to relocate to Hong Kong, and since then former chief operating officer Fred Zhoustepped up as CEO.

Nvest started out as a social platform where investors could check on the credibility of market watchers recommending stocks.

“I’d encountered the problem myself,” said Zhou. “Anyone can lie or boast about which stocks will perform. I followed someone’s recommendation and lost – when I asked what happened, he gave no response. There wasn’t any way for him to take responsibility for his actions.”

Nvest combines stock recommendations with a platform for user comments, a “like”-style endorsement button and other social feedback options to assess a recommender’s reputation and consistency. Once Nvest signed on to UTEST, Zhou says the company realized it could differentiate by adding in a public/private paid option.

Users can follow publicly available recommendations or can choose to pay for subscription to “private” recommendations from a specific user. This way, consistently performing recommendations can result in a source of income for market watchers sharing their tips and opinions. Zhou says one user has even used his performance record, tracked on Nvest, as part of a portfolio in applying to a job.

“The Nvest product has developed tremendously and their team has grown from three to 13,” said Betts. “I went to a talk the other night where Fred spoke to a room of 60 people and they were all so engaged around the product and the brand. I’ve been really impressed with how they’ve developed in terms of leadership.”

Now Nvest has 1,500 registered users and averages around 200 sessions of seven-minute use per day, with 50 per cent of sessions coming from new users. Betts says getting the team to that point was a result of the entrepreneurs’ dedication and UTEST’s ability to provide the essentials to grow a company:

“For us it’s all about providing the startup equivalent of comfortable housing, food and water… and a bit of money to ease the early pressure. We build an environment where very early stage companies founded on academic research at U of T can thrive.”

And, while Nvest continues to develop with help from the ecosystem at UTEST, they’ve already caught the attention of The Globe and Mail and Techvibes.

“What we look for is a good team,” said Betts. “Our companies are so early stage that almost anything else about them can change. But, no matter what, the team needs the right ingredient mix of complementary skills and dedication.”

Betts says startups with innovative tech jump out from the application pile. But he and Scissons also look for strong monetization plans and clear examples of how applicant startups are different than other companies working in their specific market.

As Betts jokes with Jackie about which font to use on the Nvest site, a videographer walks in and starts filming the FlatFab animal sculptures on the conference table.

“You’re next. We’ll interview you in the other room,” the producer says to Yan. “Are you ready?”

Yan nods, smiles and closes his laptop. He walks down the hall framed with patents of University of Toronto-developed discoveries and inventions, the trophies of commercialized research like that his team is developing with Nvest.

“I’m ready,” he says.

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