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How Ryerson plans to strengthen Toronto by partnering with Indian institutions

In 2012, Abhishek Gupta did something his peers likely found questionable; he and his friend Saurabh Kumar took a semester off school to come to Canada and build their startup, Zumbl, at the Ryerson Digital Media Zone.  
His alma mater, the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT Delhi), is one of the toughest schools to get into in India. Gupta was admitted because he ranked 129th among the 500,000 that applied in his year. The university is selective for good reason; graduates from IIT Delhi are in high demand in India, and many get job offers from Silicon Valley firms as they complete their schooling. 
In other words, he took a break from the education that was guaranteed to provide a safe and lucrative job to instead try something different. Had they known about his course of action, the countless applicants that didn't get into his school would have likely been dismayed. "We don't have a culture of dropping out in India," Gupta says. 
Thankfully, he wasn't forced to drop out. His trip to Canada was part of the beginning of an innovative new international fellowship program between Ryerson and several universities in India. The ongoing program allows student entrepreneurs like Gupta the opportunity to spend four months at the Ryerson Digital Media in the hope that they will become successful digital entrepreneurs. Almost two years after taking part in the program, his company has a growing platform with 200,000 users to its name. 
"From basics to the details, we truly became businessman because of our time at the DMZ," says Gupta. 
Like the Digital Media Zone itself, the international fellowship program has its genesis with Sheldon Levy, the President of Ryerson University. It was during a trip to India where Levy was introduced to students like Gupta, that he conceived of the program. "The idea was that having them here would allow us to get to know them, and help them grow and scale their businesses,” says Matt Saunders, the DMZ's entrepreneur in residence. Gupta found out about the program when Levy gave a speech at his school in India announcing the partnership.
Since he took part in the initial run of the program in July of 2012—where eight other students from IIT Madras, IIT Delhi and the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad also came with him to Toronto—Ryerson has now welcomed student entrepreneurs from China and Israel. Although the university has yet to announce details for future fellowships, Saunders says that the Zone is in the process of finalizing details for its next group. 
Economical Ecosystem
For the students that end up coming to Toronto, they can expect to gain two main things from the program. "First, they get to know the North American market, which they might not have a lot of insight into having started their business in India. Second, they also get plugged into a community of like minded entrepreneurs that are likewise growing and scaling their business," says Saunders.
There are tremendous benefits both for the university and the city in general, according to Saunders and Reza Moridi, Ontario's Minister of Research and Innovation, 
"If the companies we bring to Canada remain here and want to setup shop, then they’re going to end up hiring people from the local market. They can end up hiring Ryerson students, graduates or other people involved in ecosystem," says Saunders. "So it’s an opportunity to infuse additional talent into the ecosystem."
"India’s economy is generating strong demand in areas where Ontario has expertise, including infrastructure development, information technology, medical and clean technology. Research and commercialization links strengthen relations through the implementation of joint projects, and lead to increased scientific discovery, commercialization, as well as increased trade," adds Minister Moridi. Ultimately, "Partnerships like this benefit both economies."  
As for the entrepreneurs and students that are already at the DMZ, they get something out of the arrangement, too. "It’s tremendous what happens when you have a large number of companies working out of the same space. They sometimes share resources, potential customers and stories of success and failure," says Saunders. "It’s a great place to accelerate your business in a short period of time.” 
From Toronto to Mumbai
Agreements between post-secondary institutions in different countries—particularly when it comes to research—are increasing in popularity. In 2013, for instance, Minister Moridi flew to Germany to sign an agreement between McMaster University and the Fraunhofer Institute for Technology and Innovation Management that would see the latter start construction on a research centre in Burlington, Ontario. In fact, all the major Greater Toronto Area universities, including York University and the University of Toronto, have agreements with institutions outside of Canada.
What is perhaps unique about Ryerson's program is that it positions entrepreneurs and private sector knowledge as the token of exchange, and it does so in a way that is extremely ambitious. In May of 2014, Ryerson and Simon Fraser University plan to open a DMZ-like accelerator on the 18th floor of the Bombay Stock Exchange in Mumbai, bringing the DMZ’s brand of startup acceleration and education to the global stage. 
"It makes a lot of sense," says Gupta of the university's plan. "We have an emerging economy with a lot of problems that have been already solved in Canada, and those solutions can be adapted to our market with input from people here that have a better sense of how things work in the Indian market. Moreover, it should help Canadian companies expand their reach to one of the fastest growing economies in the world."
Minister Moridi agrees. "This type of cultural exchange helps to cement the GTA’s ties to the rest of the world, and makes it a more prosperous and globally connected place to live." 

Igor Bonifacic is a Toronto-based writer interested in exploring the intersection of technology, entrepreneurship and life.
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