Over the past 10 years, the DMZ has evolved from an informal student coworking space into the world’s top university-based incubator and accelerator program. How was this made possible? Through a vision to empower people to go bigger. Bigger than themselves. Bigger than our space. And bigger than imagined.
As we celebrate our tenth-year anniversary, we reflect on how the DMZ became a globally-recognized, powerhouse incubator for tech startups.
How the DMZ came to be
In 2010, a student at Toronto Metropolitan University approached the school’s then-President, Sheldon Levy with a request. The student had an idea for a business but he couldn’t find support on campus to bring it to fruition. Sheldon, as the visionary leader behind Ryerson’s transformation to what it is today, recognized the opportunity and founded the DMZ, then known as the Digital Media Zone.
When the Digital Media Zone was launched in April 2010, it was conceptualized as an open space for Ryerson students to work on business ideas. It had a 100% acceptance rate and the initial goal was to simply fill the space, test the concept and build energy. Spearheaded by its first Executive Director, Valerie Fox, the space was given its name because most students at the time were working on business ideas in the digital media field.
From the beginning, there was significant interest in the Digital Media Zone. Showing signals of early success, Valerie Fox and the leadership team made a transformative decision to open it up to the public. No longer would you have to be a Ryerson student – or even a student at all, for that matter – to belong to the space. This change marked a turning point, and the Digital Media Zone started receiving applications from tech founders across Canada, as well as volunteer mentors, advisors and corporate partners who wanted to be part of something new.
Then came another turning point for the Digital Media Zone. With the tech startup market growing quickly, the space was being flooded with applications and increased attention. The Digital Media Zone was becoming the benchmark for incubators, so a decision was made to give it a new face and further develop its programming. First, the Digital Media Zone was rebranded to become the DMZ, signaling it had become tech sector agnostic. Second, additional staff members were hired to build out its internal capacity, startup programs and investor network. And third, the Entrepreneur in Residence (EiR) program was established to attract additional outside industry mentors and community champions. Together, these changes set the course for the DMZ’s accelerated growth and success.
In July 2015, Abdullah Snobar took over the role of Executive Director, after working at the DMZ for several years as the Director of Business Development and Community and before that with startups in several capacities. Building on the momentum already underway, Abdullah had a vision to take the DMZ even higher, driven to uncover new ways to help its startups grow. He set to work, talking to entrepreneurs and listening to their pain points, trying to understand how the DMZ could serve them better. He invested in rebuilding the DMZ so it offered more functional workspaces, better communal areas to host events and investor meetings, and home-like amenities, such as coffee, snacks and showers. Abdullah knew that if he could get more people into the space – from founders, to EiRs, to investors – it would elevate the DMZ’s visibility. He also knew that a comfortable environment would support founders as they spent long hours taking advantage of their short runway to build a startup.
Next, the DMZ set out to build a mission statement and clarify its values. The DMZ took a different approach to other incubators, deciding to put an emphasis on supporting founders, rather than startups. This, in turn, led the DMZ to begin accepting applications from founders who showed incredible potential, even if their startup idea wasn’t there yet. The DMZ also put considerable resources into expanding its program team, growing it to become the largest department.
Finally, with much success at home in Canada, the DMZ turned international, quickly attracting global attention and bringing founders from around the world to within its four walls.
What does the DMZ look like today?
Today, the DMZ is ranked as the top university-based incubator in the world by UBI Global, standing out as the best amongst over 200 programs in its category.
The DMZ has a growing team of over 30 staff and it occupies more than 40,000 square feet of space overlooking downtown Toronto. As of 2019, the DMZ has supported over 448 startups, which have collectively raised more than $714 million in seed funding and fostered over 4,000 jobs.
The DMZ is also home to world-class mentors and partners. It has opened international offices in New York City and Amman and is doubling down on a number of local initiatives.
What has helped the DMZ succeed?
Perhaps the biggest factor that helped the DMZ get to where it is today has been an unwavering commitment to its values: Founders first. Equity over everything. Be great. These values have set the course and helped the DMZ make difficult decisions along the way. They’ve also given rise to the DMZ’s four core offerings for founders: coaching, community, support with customer acquisition and access to capital.
Another factor that has contributed to the DMZ’s success has been its leadership. The DMZ has brought on an advisory council made up of exceptional individuals – including Ryerson’s President, Mohamed Lachemi – who are committed to the DMZ’s values. Some of the individuals who have been foundational in shaping and leading the DMZ include Raymond Chang, Alan Shepard, Valerie Fox, Sheldon Levy and Hossein Rahnama.
By thinking big, acting with laser focus and bringing in people who believe in its vision, the DMZ has grown its impact larger than it ever could have initially imagined.
What makes the DMZ special?
Reflecting on the accomplishments, challenges and victories of the past decade, these items stand out as particularly salient:
- The DMZ has had the ability to influence post-secondary curriculum and policy. It’s brought industry and academia together (and also kept them separate at the right times) and developed a new model for experiential learning.
- The DMZ has created a place where people are supported to work on their dreams. It’s a space infused with passion, purpose and energy. Founders are putting themselves out there, knowing that their ideas could either fail fast or impact the world significantly.
- The DMZ has helped shape tech startup culture, transforming it from something that was considered simply “cool” to something that’s more mature. The majority of founders at the DMZ no longer set out for the coolness factor. Rather, they do it to fill an underserved gap in the market – often investing and risking serious time, money and resources.
- The DMZ has helped change the conversation on employment. By empowering people to become job providers, rather than job consumers, the DMZ has helped the wider community rethink their view of tech startups.
- The DMZ has helped bring attention to Toronto’s burgeoning tech sector. Over the past decade, the DMZ has been honoured to host notable visitors, including Prince Charles, Arlene Dickinson, Jack Dorsey and Prime Minister Trudeau. The DMZ has also expanded Canada’s presence internationally and helped high potential founders from around the world make Toronto their home.
- The DMZ has created a benchmark across the world, offering best in class support that’s structured and customized around the needs of each individual founder and startup. Respected as the top incubator globally, other programs look up to the DMZ as the gold standard and are asking how they can model on its success.
What’s in store for the DMZ?
This year, and in the years ahead, we’ll continue to be driven by our values and mission, seeking answers to our most important questions:
- What else can we do to support our founders and community?
- How can we work more closely with governments to facilitate relationships with tech startups?
- How can we embolden more corporations to work with tech startups?
- What can we do to push even harder on the international scene, helping Canadian startups become global powerhouse businesses, while also attracting even more talent to Canada?
- How can we continue to foster a “grit effect” and attract founders to our space who have both passion and perseverance?
- And perhaps most importantly, how can we ensure that what we’re doing is not just a hidden secret for the DMZ? How can we continue to put equity above everything, supporting different communities and ensuring no one is left behind?
Building the momentum of the past ten years, our vision is to keep going bigger. Bigger for our founders, bigger for our community and bigger with our impact.
If we’ve gone from being an informal student coworking space to the world’s top incubator in only 10 years, just imagine what we can achieve in the next decade.