Students Pitch Ideas to Gryphon’s Den

Posted on Thursday, November 15th, 2012

Teaching Innovation: Panel of experts will evaluate best entrepreneurial venture By Teresa Pitman Tuesday, November 20, 2012

At Guelph presents this story as part of a series that highlights University of Guelph leadership in teaching excellence and the scholarship of learning.

You’ve seen Dragon’s Den on TV: people pitch their products then brace themselves for the often-scathing comments from the judges. But they keep their fingers crossed that their concepts will find favour with at least one of the investors who host the show.

On Nov. 22, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., the U of G Library will be the setting for the Gryphon’s Den, an opportunity for students to pitch ideas to industry representatives, without the caustic commentary you’d get from Dragon’s Den. The pitches will be done in public, but the judges will share their scores privately. And while the students won’t get an investor’s money for their pitches, those scores will affect their final grades.

Grades? Yes, this event is actually the final project of the fourth-year entrepreneurship course taught by M.J. D’Elia, a learning and curriculum support librarian. “I believe thinking like an entrepreneur can help everyone, no matter where you end up working,” he says. “Some of my students in this course really want to start their own businesses; some are just curious about the idea of entrepreneurship. But I think they all benefit from learning the concepts.”

D’Elia’s knowledge of the entrepreneurial life comes in part from his own experiences. “Both my parents have their own businesses, so I’ve seen the ups and downs,” he says. “I ran a T-shirt business as a grad student and, more recently, I have been running a part-time facilitation business.”

Many entrepreneurship courses focus on creating a business plan, but D’Elia believes that can be overdone. “By fourth year, they’ve spent three years learning how to plan,” he says. Instead, he runs the class as a series of workshops where groups of students develop an idea, collect feedback from a prospective customer segment, and use it to further refine their concept and business model.

“We tend not to encourage risk-taking, but that’s necessary when you’re an entrepreneur,” he says. “We need to teach students how to handle failures and how to learn from them. In the real world, sometimes your plans don’t work out.”

The natural conclusion to the course seemed to be a class of presentations, but D’Elia felt that wouldn’t give students the kind of experiences they needed. So he approached library staff about hosting the presentations in the library’s academic town square on the main floor. To add yet another real-world touch, D’Elia partnered with Co-operative Education and Career Services to find judges among their contacts from widely-recognized companies. The students will be pitching their ideas to:

• Tom Dowler, senior business analyst, BioEnterprise

• Sebastian Brandt, director of new business, Pepsico

• Joao Donato, director of new business, Pepsico

• Ben Kelly, B.Comm. ’99, account director, marketing solutions, LinkedIn Canada

• Kate Galbraith, B.Comm. ’00, senior marketing director, Maple Leaf Foods

• Mathew Moore, director, source-to-pay, RIM

“The teams have three minutes to tell their stories,” says D’Elia. “No PowerPoint allowed – although they can use props or prototypes.” His students have done numerous practice presentations in class, but he points out, “the audiences for those are their friends and people who understand the jargon. They know they’re safe. This time they’ll be presenting in front of people they don’t know and who need to be convinced. It’s also their chance to demonstrate to me that they’ve put the techniques we’ve learned into practice.”

Besides getting better grades, the winning team will receive a $500 prize; second- and third-place teams will receive U of G Bookstore gift certificates.

D’Elia doesn’t want to spoil any surprises, but says there will be an interesting range of ideas being proposed. “Some are technology-based, others are new products or inventions,” he says. “Many are intended to solve issues that students have, or to make life on campus easier.”

After they’ve made their pitches and received the judges’ comments, D’Elia’s students will be expected to write a page or two reflecting on the experience. “That’s where the learning comes from – when they think about what went right, what went wrong, and why.”

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