Student Entrepreneurs Launch Startup Companies

The Hub incubator program offers funding and support to grow businesses

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Student entrepreneurs at the University of Guelph launch business with help from the Hub.

(l-r): Richard Preiss, Angus Ross and Brittany Burek.

Something’s brewing at U of G. Molecular biology master’s student Richard Preiss and PhD student Angus Ross are using the knowledge they gained while working in Prof. George van der Merwe’s yeast lab to start their own business selling brewer’s yeast.

Beer isn’t the only beverage that’s percolating at U of G. Brittany Burek, a recent bachelor of arts and sciences graduate in neuroscience and psychology, started The Custom Tea Company, which makes specialized tea blends based on customers’ flavour preferences.

The Custom Tea Company won Guelph’s first Start-Up Weekend competition last summer and went on to apply to the Hub, run by the Co-operators Centre for Business and Social Entrepreneurship (CBaSE), which provides $8,000 in start-up funding, mentorship and office space to successful candidates. The application process includes pitching a business idea to a panel of judges. The Hub selected both companies in December.

“We want to provide a custom tea-blending experience to retail customers and businesses looking for unique promotional material,” says Burek. The other members of the company are computer science student Jordon McKoy, and U of G alumni John Mamolitti and David Sum.

“Tea is a medium for flavour,” says Burek. “I was interested in the fact that tea is made up of components, and you can be creative in what you put together to make different flavours.”

The company is in the process of developing a website that would allow customers to order custom tea blends. Their first clients included CBaSE, housed within the College of Business and Economics.

“They are highly coachable,” says Ahren Brunow, Hub manager, referring to the The Custom Tea Company. “They are sitting on an opportunity to better serve tea aficionados and create a novel way for businesses to impress their customers.”

Working in a wine yeast research lab inspired Preiss and Ross to turn their passion for beer into a business venture called Escarpment Yeast Laboratories. “We realized that we were both pretty big beer nerds,” says Ross. Not only do they love drinking beer, they also make their own home brews.

The idea to start their own business began fermenting when Ross met a friend for drinks – beer, of course. The entrepreneurs saw the potential for locally-grown yeast when they started to hear from breweries that wanted specialty yeasts as well as more traditional strains.

Preiss and Ross have collected a variety of yeast strains that can be used independently or combined. “Yeast is a key determinant in the flavour profile of a beer,” says Ross. “Having access to a wide range of yeasts enables brewers to make as many beer styles as they want.”

Most Canadian breweries currently import yeast from the United States, he adds, which can be costly. Escarpment Yeast Laboratories plans to compete by offering more affordable locally-grown yeast. They currently propagate yeast using borrowed equipment at local breweries, but they plan to purchase their own equipment with funding they received from the Hub.

“They’ve identified a clear business opportunity and have set themselves up to turn this opportunity into a successful company that can supply the continually growing craft-brewing industry,” says Brunow.

As part of the Hub, the entrepreneurs are required to attend weekly sessions where they learn the fundamentals of business and are required to meet specific goals. They also have access to a pool of local entrepreneurs as mentors through a partnership with Innovation Guelph.

“It’s really valuable instruction,” says Ross. “Before we started this venture, we didn’t know much about running a start-up, and the Hub is helping us learn those valuable skills.”

The Hub is based in the uoG-BIZ building on the corner of College Avenue West and Smith Lane. The next application deadline for the Hub incubator program is March 27. For more information, visit the Hub’s website.