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Starting Lean keeps students in Nova Scotia

Dal’s hands-on entrepreneur class spins out successful start-ups

Starting Lean gives students the chance to bring their skills outside of the classroom. ••• Photo by Jesse Ward
Starting Lean gives students the chance to bring their skills outside of the classroom. ••• Photo by Jesse Ward

Tyler Zemlack graduated from Dalhousie with a PhD in biology last year, yet he couldn’t find any job offers that wouldn’t require a move back to his home province of Ontario. So, he took a job in Halifax pushing hospital beds.

Zemlack saw the inside workings of a hospital and started wondering how he could create a technology to make communications among hospital staff more efficient. With this question in mind, he went to Dal’s Starting Lean class.

Starting Lean was founded in 2012 by Mary Kilfoil, a professor in Dalhousie’s School of Public Administration, to leverage research coming out of the university. She said she saw students in situations like Zemlack’s – unable to remain in Nova Scotia – and saw this as an export of talent. Zemlack returned to this year’s Starting Lean class to continue working with his idea.

“Starting Lean is one of those things you don’t just take once,” says Zemlack. “It’s one of those things that helps you exercise that muscle for innovation. The more you take it, the better you become as an entrepreneur.”

Kilfoil based the course on the Lean Launchpad Model from University of California (Berkley), which focuses on customer discovery. Every week, the Start- ing Lean students must talk to at least 10 to 15 people who could be interested in their product – potential customers, industry professionals – so they can learn more about their market.

“Don’t build anything until you find out you’re building something that your customers want,” says Kilfoil. “And just keep tweaking and pivoting it until you get it right.”

Callum Mayer and Costa Zafiris came into the 2013 Starting Lean class with an idea for mobile purchases at bars. But through talking with strangers almost every other Sunday at the Seaport Farmers’ Market, they discovered their idea wasn’t going to work.

Neither Mayer nor Zafiris said they can remember how it came about, but in the class they created Peanut, a social gaming app where sports fans challenge each other about game outcomes by using peanuts as wagering currency.

“They’re [Kilfoil and Leach] running a start-up, in a sense,” says Mayer. “They’re going out and they’re talking to people, which they echo to us … and seeing them do it, and seeing them have success, just drives you to do the same thing.”

Mayer and Zafiris hope Peanut will launch at the end of October. Zafiris says they want to create a revenue model behind the app so they don’t have to eventually sell the app to turn a profit.

The pair are trying to form partnerships with sports bars and stadiums, who would pay to have challenges within these venues and receive monthly analytics about who’s playing. Users will also be able to make in-app purchases to acquire more peanuts.

Kilfoil says she wants Starting Lean to be hands-on: students take the economics theories learned in class and apply them. A textbook, online course and mid-term are still included in the class, but the focus is on learning more about the market through conversations with potential customers.

Every Tuesday, Kilfoil lectures about a new point of the “Lean methodology”. At the end of the class, there’s time for teams to get together and talk about their progress. Thursdays are pitching nights, where each team pitches their new or improved ideas.

Students aren’t required to enter Starting Lean with a business plan. Justin Javorek didn’t come in with an idea in the 2013 class, but left with one. Javorek is now the CEO of Salubrian Health, an online platform where patients can see if their physicians are running behind schedule.

“It’s extremely helpful for them to save time from the admin stuff, and also maximize the patients coming through the door,” says Javorek. “But it’s also a differentiator for the patient experience.” Starting Lean is open to any Dal student in their third year or higher. Kilfoil says she wanted to open the class to all faculties so that there would be a variety of expertise among the students. Javorek, who has a background in business and computer science, met healthcare students in Starting Lean, who helped him create Salubrian Health.

Each team in Starting Lean receives a mentor from the start- up community to give them extra guidance for creating their business. Kilfoil says she added this element to provide a connection between the university and the outside world.

Kilfoil added that she sees many mentors offer jobs to Starting Lean graduates almost immediately after they complete the course.

“Having those students that know how to spot a great idea, how to understand the market,” says Kilfoil, “and having them be hired by our companies that are already in place in Atlantic Canada, means that we are bringing those skills to companies here in Atlantic Canada.”

Sabina Wex
Sabina Wex
Sabina is the Gazette's Managing Editor. Email Sabina at

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