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Digital Specialization program inspires business launch

By Antoinette Mercurio

Image by Emil Trifonov

From left: Graduates Zach Weingarten and Damian Matheson turned their urban farming idea into Foodstory, a digital marketplace for farmers’ markets and consumers. Image by Emil Trifonov.

The Digital Media Zone (DMZ) has added a couple of urban farmers to its roster of entrepreneurs.

Graduates Zach Weingarten and Damian Matheson co-founded Foodstory, a website that allows consumers to purchase food from farmers’ markets online. Weingarten is an RTA School of Media ’12 graduate, and both he and Matheson completed the digital specialization program (DSP), which helped cultivate Foodstory into a feasible company.

“We always wanted to connect consumers to local producers,” Matheson said.

The digital specialization program was a major factor in Matheson and Weingarten starting Foodstory. Started in 201?, DSP provides students from all faculties a chance to acquire digital skills and receive academic credit for pursuing entrepreneurial ideas in business and social innovation. The program includes two 12-week courses, including a boot camp for building a startup.

Matheson discovered program by fluke. Initially prepared to begin alaw career, he re-considered his law school acceptance after receiving an email advertising the DSP.

“I gave it a second thought and decided to pursue it,” he said. “In school all I did was reading and writing. I thought better digital skills will be useful for the real world.”

The program is open to any students who have completed their first year of study, and Matheson says the course welcomes everyone – no matter their skill set. An important part of the lesson is learning how to write a business plan.

“They give you all the pieces of Lego and you do the building,” Matheson said. “If you’re interested in starting a company, you learn how to in 12 weeks with the technical background as well. Students who are working to get a leg up – generation jobless – should take the DSP. It’s great experiential learning. Ryerson has always been a leader in experiential learning and entrepreneurship.”

Foodstory was one of 10 finalists for the $20,000 grand prize in the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) student social enterprise competition. It also competed for the $25,000 Slaight Business Plan Competition and although Foodstory didn’t win the grand prize in either competition, Matheson remains optimistic.

“We didn’t lose anything. Toronto has a lot of opportunities for startups,” he said. “Being in the OCE competition got us invited to another competition [in addition to] resources and workshops just for being finalists.”

Foodstory started out as a rooftop farming idea to provide an alternate means of producing food in the city. Bureaucratic challenges forced Weingarten and Matheson to reevaluate their idea and it morphed into Foodstory. The company has been in the DMZ since Dec. 2012, allowing the duo to interact with a diverse set of entrepreneurs.

“Physically it helps to actually have a place to meet instead of a coffeeshop,” Matheson said. “The biggest asset is the staff, people and community atmosphere. Everyone’s sharing the same struggles. Once a month teams hold meetings all together to share updates and someone always knows someone else who can help.”