The journey from bright idea to business success can be fraught with challenges and frustration. With its mission to discover, support and promote top-notch startups, the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship organizes an annual Startup Tour, which showcases some of the most promising young entrepreneurs from the Dobson Cup competition and its affiliated X-1 Accelerator Program.
This year’s six-week fall tour brought 10 promising startup teams to cities including San Francisco, Toronto and New York, with the final stop in London, England, on October 23. The tour offers these teams a chance to network with successful McGill graduates, meet industry experts and attract potential investors.
One of the teams that took part in this year’s tour was Arkangel AI, which describes itself as “like Siri for health.”
When his grandfather was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, José Zea, MArch’18, became interested in how factors like stress, poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle trigger progressive health problems.
His research into how chronic conditions could be reversed or prevented by introducing healthy habits drove him to create Arkangel AI, a one-on-one prevention program for people at high risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. The software analyses behavioural data and customizes a roadmap for each user, providing tips and guidance for a healthier lifestyle.
Launched in January, Arkangel AI offers an affordable way to help control what Zea calls ‘the invisible pandemic’: the World Health Organization estimates that chronic diseases kill 41 million people annually, accounting for 71 percent of all deaths worldwide.
“Since Arkangel lives on the cloud, we can deploy it to anyone, anywhere,” says Zea, who co-founded Arkangel AI with José Elias Gomez and Laura Velasquez.
“We want to provide more accessible and affordable access to healthcare for everyone, and we feel our technology can expand to other conditions like mental health, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity,” he says. “We can provide personalized coaching on a daily basis and help more patients.
“I started with an idea, and have taken advantage of everything the Dobson Centre provides; it was all amazing,” says Zea. “Our main target now is to find partnerships with research centres, and we’re hoping to raise money through private investment, grants or government funding.”
Connecting grocers in emerging countries
Before coming to Canada in 2017, Julio Castañeda, MBA’19, spent seven years working at Unilever in Mexico, where he visited hundreds of small stores. He soon realized they all faced the same problem, one that he’s determined to fix with Turbodega, a collaborative software management tool that creates a virtual network of small grocers in emerging countries and tracks their daily sales in real time.
With more than two million grocery stores in Latin America, most owners find it difficult to compete with large retailers that use modern tools to operate their businesses, says Castañeda. By digitizing their ordering process and operations, Turbodega can help independent grocers access better prices, advanced analytics and more affordable working capital credits, he adds.
“I envision our software as becoming the Amazon for small grocery stores,” says Castañeda, who co-founded Turbodega with Daniel Franco, MBA’19.
Turbodega has been running since July, and Castañeda’s team has been fine-tuning the process for storeowners to make the software more intuitive and easier to understand.
“We’re making sure it doesn’t require a lot of training and isn’t too disruptive – it must be a very low-effort, high-value solution for them to adopt,” says Castañeda.
Not everyone welcomed Turbodega, however. As Turbodega began enrolling stores in low-income areas, some of the local distributors that served the stores eyed Castañeda suspiciously — even issuing threats. Castañeda negotiated with them over a few beers.
“We told them we weren’t there to take their jobs, and instead suggested how we could help them reach more stores; soon, they became our clients, too,” he recalls.
Turbodega placed first in the Social Enterprise track at the Dobson Cup, winning $20,000 and it also won the 2019 Social Business Creation competition at HEC Montréal.
“The tour’s been very helpful; we now have a solid network of mentors, advisors and partners thanks to McGill,” says Castañeda. “We’re getting top-level interviews with leading names in every city we go to, and through McGill’s networks, people in Southeast Asia, Northeast Africa and the Middle East are showing interest. There’s no way we would be where we are now if we had done this anywhere else.”
Food for thought
While studying at McGill, Laura Al Khoury, BEng’18, and her friends had little time to shop for and cook healthy food, so they often ordered prepared meals from catering services. After brainstorming with fellow student Adam Albarghouthi, BSc’16 about how to deliver that same convenience to the workplace, the duo launched Yuma, a weekly meal subscription plan.
Offering $7 lunches based on a user’s dietary profile, Yuma automatically re-stocks the office fridge each week anywhere in Montreal. Pre-cooked meals are vacuum-sealed in compostable containers, and stay fresh for five days.
Yuma users indicate their preferences when ordering. Vegan and vegetarian options are available. Allergies and dietary restrictions are factored in.
“You don’t have to choose meals every week; they just arrive,” explains Al Khoury, noting that Yuma outsources meal production, driving volume to big catering services that allows them to boost their efficiency on the back end because customers are charged in advance.
Yuma now delivers 5,000 meals each month to companies including Lightspeed, Borden Ladner Gervais and Sportlogiq. Al Khoury hopes to launch Yuma in Toronto within six months and then go after the U.S. market.
Yuma placed third in the Dobson Cup’s Small-Medium Enterprise track, winning $8,000, and the co-founders also took part in the X-1 Accelerator program. Al Khoury participated in every stop on the tour except Los Angeles.
“The network the Dobson Centre provides was invaluable; we were able to meet some of our best advisors and mentors through the program.”
Reaching out for expert help
The Dobson Centre taps many successful McGill alumni to contribute to the competition as judges, mentors and hosts for the tour. Independent investment research firm Third Bridge hosted the New York segment for the second year in a row. Third Bridge’s global head of strategy and operations Mergen Davaapil, BCom’07, has also served as a judge and mentor for Dobson’s programs.
“McGill’s Startup Tour really aligns well with our company’s interests and values, and also my own,” says Davaapil. “We’ve always nurtured a startup mentality of build, grow and really focus on how to tweak sustainable startup businesses that can have a positive impact on people’s lives.”
Davaapil adds he is always impressed with the calibre of participating entrepreneurs coming up through the Dobson programs.
“Every year, I see students and recent alums who are so motivated, smart, driven and passionate about what they’re building and creating; They have a very purposeful presence and a ton of raw energy,” he says.
“Some of these ideas may work, some may not, some may need to pivot and refocus, but they’re trying, building, and putting the effort behind it, and they have McGill to help them structure their plans and take them through some of the unknowns together. The tour is a fantastic opportunity for students and alums to learn how businesses run and how to present, negotiate and set up relationships.”