Ryerson University’s Digital Specialization Program Prepares Students for the Startup Life

It’s just two month’s away from the Digital Specialization Program’s (DSP) one-year anniversary at Ryerson University. But if you talk to Michael Carter it seems like the program has been around for ages.

The program manager teaches one of two courses available in the DSP and calls it a unique undergraduate experience where, “students can effectively graduate with a degree as well as a company.”

Carter’s class is EID 500, or Experiential Semester in Digital Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Ryerson students don’t solely go to the school for the DSP, but rather complete their four-year degree alongside the complimentary program. EID 500 is a 12-week intensive course that begins with a one-week “boot camp,” where students learn from instructors and mentors everything from collaborative concept design to agile project management to the art of pitching.

Following this students are told to form a team, brainstorm an idea and get to work for the eleven remaining weeks at the Digital Media Zone (DMZ). “It’s embedded in the DMZ over the summer so students get to experience the thrills, the chills and the disappointments of the day-to-day life in an incubator or an accelerator,” said Carter.

Resources, mentors, and constant feedback are provided to students as they develop their projects during 40-hour workweeks. No lectures are given. If a student has a question, says Carter, “they can swivel their chair around and ask me and if I don’t have the answer, I’m going to go out and find the next industry expert or guru who does.”

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The DSP was originally conceived by the president’s office at Ryerson as an opportunity for students from all academic backgrounds to understand how digital media is changing industry via an entrepreneurial mindset. The second course in the program is called Digital Skills and Innovation for the Global Economy, primarily designed to give a critical analysis to new information technologies.

“What Ryerson has done is they’ve taken that applied, experiential learning and combined it with a traditional academic approach to provide real golden nuggets of experience and mentorship,” Carter told Techvibes.

While the program is still yet to break the one-year mark, it has already produced tangible results.

One startup that emerged from EID 500 under Carter’s tutelage is FoodStory, an online local food hub that makes fresh local produce accessible for Toronto. It re-creates the farmer’s market experience online, “bringing it into the 21st century.”

Users can select individual markets and learn more about each farmer or vendor including their family story and growing practices, what products they’re selling and even their recipes. Orders are delivered to users’ homes of offices with a story rather than a sticker. Carter calls the group lead by Damian Matheson, “a pure success.”

Throughout the 12-week course Matheson and his two cofounders pivoted twice, from offering a solution to growing and selling vegetables on rooftop gardens to the present form. Now they’ve benefitted from a Cara Commons grant from Ryerson and are working out of the DMZ. They’re planning to launch in May, coinciding with the start of the market season.

“In Damian’s case I immediately saw that this guy was pure business development,” said Carter. “He was able to listen attentively to people’s needs and concerns and was able to offer up solutions immediately.”

Matheson said the best part of the program was the atmosphere at the DMZ. Serial entrepreneurs and other startups are always happy to help. He also credits the DSP with FoodStory’s beginnings.

“FoodStory really was a product of the course,” said Matheson. “The course gave us its legs. It gave us all the fundamentals from learning how to pitch to doing the business plan to working with a team.”