One of the most buzzed-about startups in Toronto started with a friendship at UofT

“If you just throw yourself into it and apply, there’s so much to learn,” says Marissa Wu.

Marissa Wu continues to grow her smart-watch sports coaching startup, Onyx Motion, as she shuttles between New York basketball courts, Rocky Mountain startup retreats, and her office in the heart of Toronto’s thriving wearable tech scene.

But the beginnings of her company? They sparked with an undergraduate friendship at U of T. (Read more about Onyx Motion)

Wu says many of the skills and connections that helped her take Onyx Motion from a casual interest in entrepreneurship to a startup featured in The Globe and Mail,Canada AM and countless tech blogs came out of her undergrad experience at the University of Toronto.

(U of T News: NBA’s Ben Gordon signs on to U of T wearable tech sports coaching startup, Onyx Motion)

The diverse student clubs, internships, alumni and peer networks – not to mention, actual learning in classes – that new students tap into by choosing U of T helped Wu grow into a headline-making tech leader.

As a new crop of students join the U of T community this September, Wu shares her advice on how first-year students and other budding entrepreneurs can best use their experience at the University of Toronto.

Talk about what interests you with other students. It might help you find your future co-founder.

“I was nervous about making friends when I first came to U of T – I think everyone worries about that,” said Wu.

But she says her path to Onyx Motion began when Wu started chatting with a friend in her engineering program about startups and wearables. They stayed in touch and eventually joined The Next 36undergraduate entrepreneurship accelerator as a team, launching the first iteration of Onyx Motion. The startup later joined the UTEST accelerator, run by U of T and MaRS Innovation.

Join entrepreneurship programs to gain support and experience.

“I don’t think I would have had the guts to start a company without them guiding me through it,” Wu said, describing The Next 36. The program was co-founded by U of T entrepreneurship professor Ajay Agrawal. It helps students develop as entrepreneurs by learning from mentors and the Next 36 community as teams work together to build a startup.

Wu also suggests looking into The Entrepreneurship Hatchery, which welcomes students from all academic disciplines. U of T is home to many accelerator programs tailored to diverse types of startups and entrepreneurs.

Learn more by visiting the Banting & Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship. That’s where you can also find information on undergraduate “Introduction to Entrepreneurship” course, IMC200 from the Faculty of Arts & Science.

Join clubs and apply for leadership roles in them – even if you don’t think you have enough experience.

“A lot of times if you’re in first or second year you think, ‘Oh, I can’t do that role, it’s for older students who know what they’re doing.’ But if you just throw yourself into it and apply, there’s so much to learn.

“I was a leader in several clubs and can tell you, there aren’t as many people to pick from as you would think.” Wu says often students will hold executive roles in several clubs. “It’s because there aren’t enough people applying! If more people applied, it would be better for everyone.”

But how can you land a leadership role if you don’t yet have any experience?

“It’s the same as any other job. You do your best in preparing your resume, try to make your cover letter appeal to that specific club and explain why you think you’d be good even though you might not have much experience.

“If you make it, great. If you don’t, ask why and come back next year with the right experience.”

Reach out to U of T alumni working in your field. They might even become your mentors.

“Karl has been super helpful,” Wu says of her mentor, Karl Martin, CEO of Nymi – another U of T-developed wearable startup, featured in The Wall Street Journal and other international outlets. “He meets with me all the time to offer advice, and just to talk things through. I try to run every major decision by him first.”

Martin also introduced Wu and her team to the NBA’s Ben Gordon, who’s now an official part of the Onyx Motion roster.

“The partnership between Onyx Motion and Ben Gordon, as facilitated by Nymi, speaks to the power and reach of the entrepreneurial ecosystem here on campus,” said Karen Sievewright, director of the Banting & Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at the University of Toronto. “I’m confident that as our network keeps growing, connections like this one will continue to build success within our community, city and beyond.”

Explore the city and try new things – try not to let studying become your whole life.

“I didn’t do a very good job of getting out because I was so busy all the time,” says Wu. She says that’s a regret from her time as an undergraduate.

“The city has all kinds of great events, like Winterlicious, and all sorts of music and food festivals. I would say, make time for that. It’s the best way to explore.”