When Kayley Reed and Kyle MacNevin came up with the idea of Wear Your Label, they envisioned T-shirts emblazoned with mental-health labels such as “depressed” and “anorexia” – a way to take ownership over illnesses, upending their negative connotations by thrusting them into the open.

The two had met working at a Fredericton mental-health organization. Both had grappled with illnesses of their own – she, anorexia nervosa, and he, generalized anxiety disorder and ADHD. Frustrated with the stigma that can come with such illnesses, they thought clothing with literal labels would start more, and better, conversations. They pitched the idea around the community, and most found it a little bold.

“People who live with this mental illness know more than anybody what our labels are and what they mean to us,” Ms. Reed says. “What we need is something positive to remind us that we’re so much more than that.”

Wear Your Label’s co-founders decided to enroll in a small-business accelerator in 2014. At the University of New Brunswick’s Summer Institute in Fredericton, they spent three months honing their business model, emerging with a changed business: a positive-reinforcement clothing line bearing slogans such as “anxious but courageous” and “you are enough.”

The company, which has since gained attention around the world, exemplifies how a university can support business innovation beyond the regular classrom.

Campuses across Canada are home to a growing number of business accelerator programs like the Summer Institute, offering entrepreneurs of all ages the chance to grow and refine early-stage businesses with funding and mentorship.

University accelerators and incubators have a natural advantage in nurturing young businesses, thanks to their in-house support facilities, research capabilities and experts – and provide a crash course in entrepreneurship without the high costs of a degree.

Nurturing business ideas

“Canadians need to reflect on the current state and structure of our economy, where most of our businesses are small and medium enterprises,” says Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, the network of higher-education leaders.

“Most of them could benefit from the ideas and tenacity of young entrepreneurs,” he continues. “The MBA may be perfectly appropriate in some settings for some sectors – whereas accelerators and incubators are another tool, another approach that can meet the needs of both young people and the local economy.”

About 75 Canadian universities have entrepreneurship programs, Mr. Davidson says, with at least 30 offering accelerators, incubators or other startup programs.

Where incubators are a familiar sight in the startup world, accelerators – such as UNB’s Summer Institute, Simon Fraser University’s VentureLabs, or the Ryerson Futures program – entered the popular consciousness with the launch of U.S.-based seed accelerators Y Combinator and Techstars a decade ago.

Offering both mentorship and capital, accelerators generally nurture business ideas that are more developed than in incubators, and have a set length of time for completion. Like incubators, the funding often comes in exchange for an equity stake in the company. (UNB’s Summer Institute doesn’t take a stake.)

“Not every company is at the right stage for an accelerator program, but those who are can benefit immensely from the program,” says Ian Hathaway, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington, D.C., whose research has focused on accelerators. “This whole thing is about compressing, so company founders learn by doing.”

University support, mentorship

Ms. Reed and Mr. MacNevin joined the Summer Institute’s three-month program in the summer of 2014, giving them access to business and prototype funding plus its network of mentors. It was a steep climb for the pair.

“Being naive at the time was a really good thing, because had we known that we were actually going to create a business and all of the things that come along with that, I don’t think we would have actually started it,” Ms. Reed says.

Dhirendra Shukla, the school’s chair of technology management and entrepreneurship, founded the Summer Institute in 2014, the year Startup Canada named UNB the postsecondary institution of the year. Named after the season in which the program takes place, the accelerator first focused on arts and creative-focused companies, but has since begun offering a separate sustainable technology stream.

The professor says Ms. Reed and Mr. MacNevin’s original business proposal first had a lukewarm reception, but that they blew the accelerator’s leadership away when they were interviewed. “They have the passion, drive, ambition to do something meaningful, something very exciting, and we can work with that,” Dr. Shukla says, recalling the program leaders’ first impression.

Over a dozen weeks, with the help of Dr. Shukla and other mentors, Wear Your Label built a brand identity, set up a website and store, and sold a total of 35 shirts. “It was by no means a lot,” Ms. Reed says. “But we had all the support from the unversity and these really amazing mentors.”

Freshly graduated from UNB’s interdisciplinary Renaissance College program, Ms. Reed decided to delay her dream graduate studies – in fashion at The New School’s Parson School of Design in New York – and make a go of Wear Your Label. (Ms. Reed is Wear Your Label’s chief executive officer; Mr. MacNevin recently left the company for mental-health-related reasons, though Ms. Reed says she is open to his return.)

At first, Wear Your Label screen-printed everything in their Fredericton studio. Less than a year after finishing at the accelerator, though, a story on The Today Show’s website set off a media firestorm, leading to so many product orders that the company had to halt all sales. The company spent weeks working on the hundreds-strong backlog of orders, and figuring out how to restructure its supply chain to avoid future problems.

Today, Wear Your Label is well back on its feet. Soon after the restructuring, the company took part in New York Fashion Week. It gives 10 per cent of profit to a number of mental-health initiatives, and has four employees in Fredericton and two in Toronto, where Ms. Reed travels on a near-monthly basis for meetings, including with the Joe Fresh Centre for Fashion Innovation. Joe Fresh has been a fruitful partner for the still-expanding business: Wear Your Label has already made exclusive collaborative shirts with the brand.

Spillover effect

Last year, business incubation analysis firm UBI Global named Ryerson University’s DMZ, University of Calgary’s Innovate Calgary and the University of Alberta partnership TEC Edmonton among the top university incubators in the world; they also named Laval University’s Entrepreneuriat Laval the world’s top university-affiliated accelerator.

Laval’s program is different from many accelerators; while it’s one of the oldest in Canada, launched in 1993, it doesn’t have dedicated floorspace to offer participants and is restricted to students and alumni, says its CEO, Yves Plourde. But it’s helped birth more than 700 businesses.

This is crucial for Laval students, Mr. Plourde says. “Youth … want to create their own workplace, and have different values than my generation,” he says. “They want to start something. That’s the evolution of youth in society.”

The University of Toronto was a founding partner in MaRS, one of the world’s largest “innovation hubs,” and has nine campus-linked accelerators, including the Creative Destruction Lab. Ryerson, Simon Fraser University and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology have banded together, meanwhile, to form the Incubate Innovate Network of Canada, allowing them to share local strengths and talent across the country.

“Having a business accelerator is an important part of an ecosystem for innovation at a university,” says Joy Johnson, vice-president of research at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. Knowledge mobilization, she says, is a crucial part of a school’s research enterprise, and an accelerator like SFU’s VentureLabs fits squarely into that.

“It provides a mechanism for us to link very closely to our communities and to make sure we’re working in partnership for the benefit of society – and making sure our great ideas have benefit,” she says.

The Brookings Institution’s Mr. Hathaway says research has shown acclerator programs tend to have a spillover effect: In concentrating investment and entrepreneurs in a given community, even non-accelerated companies find greater access to capital. “It’s a process of getting more collisions,” he says, “where people are meeting one another and finding opportunities to collaborate.”

The Summer Institute, which usually takes in four or five companies a year, has already drawn lots of fresh attention to Fredericton. This year, Dr. Shukla says, it received 350 applications from around the world. UNB’s entrepreneurship programs have drawn attention around the country, too: Royal Bank of Canada recently donated $1-million for hands-on education at its technology management and entrepreneurship centre.

Holding the giant novelty cheque across from Dr. Shukla at the funding announcement was Ms. Reed, who has stayed involved with the Summer Institute. She’s now a mentor there, giving advice to new startups in the program coming full circle in just two years as she builds Wear Your Label.

In the long term, she imagines a world where a fashion brand fighting mental-health stigma isn’t necessary any more for public dialogue. But until then, she’s just building company partnerships, both in the retail and mental-health world, to keep growing the conversation.

“We’ve found collaborating with larger brands and larger organizations is such an impactful way to elevate the message,” she says.

The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Nov. 08, 2016 8:37AM EST
Last updated Tuesday, Nov. 08, 2016 8:37AM EST