Ryerson University stands for encouraging great ideas and entrepreneurial spirit. So, it was no surprise that when students approached Ryerson President Sheldon Levy in 2009 asking for support for their innovative business concepts, he rose to the challenge. In April of the following year the Digital Media Zone (DMZ) opened its doors with 6,400 square feet of space overseeing Dundas Square—an incubator for budding digital entrepreneurs where they receive access to space, mentoring, consulting, and fund
ing to help their ventures thrive.
The first companies in the DMZ were founded by Ryerson students and alumni. As interest grew, applications were received from many young entrepreneurs including students from other universities and colleges as well as others in business and education. The DMZ expanded its mandate to include not only the Ryerson community, but also digital media entrepreneurs from a variety of backgrounds. Today, the DMZ stands apart as a multi-disciplinary workspace for young entrepreneurs infused with the energy and resources of downtown Toronto. This hub of digital media innovation, collaboration and commercialization is home to both entrepreneurial startups and industry solution-providers.
In order to be accepted into the DMZ applicants must satisfy and number of criteria, and present their business plan to the Digital Media Zone’s steering committee. Once accepted, teams have access to open flexible workspace, equipment, utilities, business plan counselling, mentoring, workshops, networks, and industry showcases at no cost (or equity) to the user. The entrepreneurs access the resources and the mentoring according to their needs as they move their ideas from prototypes or research to a digital business product or service.
In two short years, the DMZ has achieved significant success. Since its official opening in April 2010, the DMZ has seen:
- 45 companies incubated and accelerated
- More than 88 projects initiated
- 438 jobs fostered and created through newly formed startups and market-driven research, plus 60 new jobs at Ryerson, and
- 12 alumni companies
Presently the DMZ houses approximately 184 innovators in 45 teams. These teams represent a real variety of sectors and industries, with everyone helping and learning from one another.
The DMZ continues to expand and grow. To meet the demand to accommodate more entrepreneurs and start-ups, the DMZ recently expanded to three levels within its downtown hub. Currently encompassing a total of 16,400 square feet, it has almost tripled in size since it opened in 2010.
So, what is the secret to the DMZ’s success? What sets us apart from other incubator programs? Location, for one. The Digital Media Zone is situated at the corner of Yonge and Dundas streets, and is infused with the energy and resources of downtown Toronto, facilitating access to networking opportunities and industry partnerships. Also, most incubators have set terms for everything from admissions and team size to length of stay and equity asks.
The DMZ is flexible and inclusive. Companies can enter at different stages and through a variety of supported pathways. They can remain and grow here until they feel ready to move on. And equity exchanges for eligible companies are optional. The DMZ’s model is also constantly evolving with the needs to its entrepreneurs. Finally, the DMZ is a unique multi-disciplinary environment where companies in different stages of development and with different backgrounds are encouraged to work together and learn from one another. The DMZ facilitates cross-pollination as the companies meet and share and even use each others’ products or create new companies.
The results of Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone experiment speak for themselves. DMZ alumnus company 500 px is a photographic community powered by creative people from around the world that lets users share, rate and discover inspiring photographs. Currently 500px is one of the hottest and fastest growing photography websites globally. Its iPad app is one of the top free photography apps in iTunes, and the company was voted the number one start-up in Toronto in January 2012 by Techvibes.
TeamSave, another DMZ alumnus, is a social buying website and platform. Teamsave has partnered with classifieds giant Kijiji, and both the Kijiji deal site and Kijiji Daily Deals run on the TeamSave platform. The company now operates in 20 cities in North America and has 48 staff.
The DMZ began as an experiment by Ryerson University to help students and alumni not only learn the skills to get great jobs, but also to work with them to create great jobs. Two years on, the DMZ is creating a digital media hub for our city, province and country, stimulating Canada’s emerging digital economy and helping to ensure budding entrepreneurs commercialize their products and services right here. For further information on the Digital Media Zone, visit: http://digitalmediazone.ryerson.ca/.