McGill X-1 recap: eight student startups demo in Montreal, NY, Boston, Toronto, and SF


Although the third edition of the McGill X-1 accelerator kicked off in June, it was only a few weeks ago that the eight student startups finished their final Demo Day in New York City.

This year saw an expansion of the program’s Demo Day tour, adding New York and Toronto to last year’s locations in Montreal, Boston, and San Francisco. And thanks to the $2 million donation from the Dobson Foundation in July, the program has support to continue to grow for the next ten years.

McGill’s X-1 accelerator, started in 2015, is an intensive 10-week summer program designed to accelerate the growth of later-stage McGill startups toward investment readiness and launch in the fall. The program is open to teams, of which at least one must have a McGill affiliation, as a current student, recent alumni, faculty or staff. It runs from June to August, and concludes with demo days in the fall.

I think the X-1 is to be understood within that context of it being a process, and each year we’re improving and growing and continuing to make sure that the experience overall is getting better every year. I think in five years or ten years it will almost be normal for startups to go through our process. And then not just have demo days in the five cities, but potentially other cities where there’s a sizable number of McGill alumni. That includes London, Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and so on. So that to me is exciting, because that’s when you truly think global, but you can act on it here in Montreal.

This year, the eight startups selected ranged from manufacturers of decontamination toothpaste (2D-CrystaLab) to the whole grain nutrition company co-founded by our of our WMNinTECH, Zoey Li (YUMiTRITION). Other companies include: Basilisk, Dialysave, Kiffin, Pelcro, Saccade Analytics, and Will + Zack.

“It went really well,” Renjie Butalid, Associate Director at the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship told MTlinTECH. “I think the $2 million gift from the John Dobson foundation really helped to solidify a lot of the work we had done in the past two years. We were able to grow the program because Maher [Ayari], who was the program manager with the X-1 last year, came back this year, so we hit the ground running.”

The expansion of demo days was also thanks in large part to McGill’s vast alumni network. Alumni in New York and Toronto reached out and expressed interest in hosting the program.

“I told the audience three things in each city to keep in mind as we were doing the events. Number one, this was a way for us to engage with McGill alumni in a very different way. This was us stepping outside the walls of McGill University in Montreal and going to these different cities and engaging with alumni who were interested in the university’s progress of innovation and entrepreneurship in the years since they’ve been in school. Number two, we’re operating under the premise that we can build world-class companies out of Montreal, out of McGill. But in order to build world-class companies, we had to get out there into the wider world. Number three, it’s really an opportunity for the startup founders to grow as entrepreneurs and to see the possibilities that exist.”

The demo days are an effective way to reach out to alumni and show them the myriad ways they can stay involved at their alma mater.

“Part of our approach is drawing upon McGill’s global reputation, a reputation backed by an alumni network of over 250,000 alumni around the world. It’s letting us be who we are anyway, letting McGill be McGill. And that makes sense for entrepreneurs coming out of our program. I think the reaction we’ve gotten from the alumni themselves is they wish this had been around when they had been in university. And the next comment is how can they get involved? There are opportunities for them to come in and either be a guest speaker or lead a startup program, be a judge for the finals or the semi-finals of the Dobson Cup, or drop by an X-1 session in the summer.”

The time spent in multiple cities was useful for the time and opportunities available outside the planned events as well. Startups had the opportunity to schedule outside meetings and pitches if they so wanted.

“When we were in New York City, Pelcro had a number of meetings lined up with VCs and media organizations. Because that’s what they’re in, the business of changing the way digital publishing is done. They went off and booked meetings on their own. I think that’s another way we can move forward with the Dobson Centre. That way we don’t have to have every single minute of every day scheduled while we’re in those cities. We can build more open time for them to book their own meetings, really giving them an opportunity to get out there and explore.”

The potential for more free time, to allow the startups to use the resources of the program while chasing down additional opportunities on their own, is partly possible because of the advanced development of this year’s cohort.

“I think as the program matures we’re also attracting founders who have a stronger vision of what they want to build. What I mean by that is they could be an undergrad, they could be a grad student or pursuing a PhD. When we talk about the X-1 catering to later-stage McGill teams, there was a bit more of an emphasis on the later phase, meaning in most cases they had a product, they had customers, some of them had tech teams. They didn’t necessarily have revenue, but they potential other partners lined up to work with them and help test their product. In that sense I think it made our jobs a lot easier. Because as we built out the program, adopted and adapted from MIT’s methodology, we were also able to really hone in on the types of people that they would want to get in contact with, whether it was in Medtech or the health space or the retail space. Especially with the $25 million gift to build the new Bensadoun School of Retail Management, there’s a lot of links that could be made with this new school that’s just been funded.”

As the X-1 program comes into its own, it is also improving upon the larger innovation and entrepreneurship cycle that the Dobson Centre is trying to foster at McGill. It functions as an outreach method for later stage startups who, theoretically, will have already gone through the centre’s earlier stage Lean Startup Program and Dobson Cup competition.

“We started the X-1 on the notion that entrepreneurship is not just a one time intervention, it’s a whole process of learning. The Dobson Cup is approaching its 10th anniversary in 2018, and it really has been the engine of growth and our driver for the past few years. But then recognizing that there wasn’t a program or place for us to take our most promising startups, ideally winners of the Dobson Cup but they don’t have to be, but startups who have been vetted by judges and mentors. We started because we thought there was a need for that. Likewise we also built the McGill Lean Startup because we needed something for earlier, before the Dobson Cup, to help at least a small handful of teams be competitive and then hopefully go on to the X-1. And then the X-1 exposes them to the larger community by way of the Demo Days. And continuing to repeat that process over and over again is powerful. And I think we recognize that we’re building a social scalable process.”

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