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Student entrepreneurs bring big ideas to India

By Will Sloan

Global Innovation Challenge

Three winning teams from the Global Innovation Challenge traveled to Goa, Bangalore and Mumbai to connect with potential business partners.

Sometimes it takes a trip to another country to realize how different it can be. Just ask Erin Pollock, a student at the Ted Rogers School of Management who recently returned from India as one of the winners of the Global Innovation Challenge.

“It’s funny – coming from Canada, we understand that 30 million people live in our country, but when you speak to them about 30 million people, that’s less than 3 per cent of their (India’s) total population,” said Pollock. “Our understanding of large-scale is very different from their understanding of large-scale.”

Launched last fall, the Global Innovation Challenge, asked students and alumni to develop ideas to improve social conditions in an impoverished country. Three winning teams were chosen from the 23 submissions to travel to India from Jan. 18-30. In three cities – Goa, Bangalore and Mumbai – they connected with potential investors, built prototypes, and wrote business plans. This initiative is another example of learning beyond the classroom at Ryerson.

“Some students didn’t know anything about creating a business model canvas or creating a one-page, two-page proposal and talking to partners,” said Osman Hamid, manager of student engagement for Ted Rogers School of Management, and staff advisor of the Ryerson Commerce Society. “The partnerships they’ve created – whether it was investors, seed funders, foundations, public policy think tanks – they’re able to come back now with a new vision.”

He continued, “There is a 1.2 billion-person population. The country has a lot of history, and the students learned that every state is different. They learned you can go from one state to another, and though they’re all bordering each other, they have different cultures and languages – different everything.”

The three winning projects were: School for All, a school bus that would pick up and drop off students in rural communities to ensure their safety, which would also double as a “pop-up shop” for local vendors; Project SAAF, a water purification project from Enactus Ryerson; and Water GY, which is developing a water-purifying container that can also harness energy for electricity.

“Prior to going, we did Google searches and secondary research, but there’s nothing more beneficial than going on the ground speaking to people in the actual environment,” said Pollock, one of the creators of Water GY.

“India is the most heterogeneous state. You walk one block and it’s completely different from the last block – demographics, income level, status, etcetera. They now understand how different the Indian market is, and how to orientate your business plan towards what’s successful in Indian culture.”

With help from Zone Startups India, the student entrepreneurs were able to meet with potential investors and business partners, and get a feel for the burgeoning Indian marketplace. “In terms of the business market and opportunities for growth, India is amazing,” said Pollock.

“The country is rapidly growing, and people are interested in international help. Prior to going to India, I had the mindset that some people wouldn’t be positive about North Americans coming to their society. But the Indian market is very responsive, and they’re looking for as much information to generate new ideas as possible.”

Zone Startups India is a collaboration between the BSE Institute (a subsidiary of the Bombay Stock Exchange), Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone, Ryerson Futures Inc. and Simon Fraser University.

For more information on the Global Innovation Challenge, go to