The Creative Destruction Lab experience: Students help turn innovations into enterprises

Posted 2017-04-24

UBC Sauder’s Creative Destruction Lab West (CDL West) isn’t just a program that stokes the progress of highly-scalable technology ventures – it’s also providing students with an unparalleled opportunity to work alongside world-leading entrepreneurs and gain valuable hands-on experience.

The experience

Recruiting skilled employees is a challenge for any business, let alone an early-stage start-up. But when UBC MBA grad Ryan Smith and his company FTSY, which created a foot measuring app set to revolutionize online shopping, joined CDL West this past January, they gained valuable assistance from Bachelor of Commerce student John Najafi.

“Working with John has essentially reconnected us to where we started,” explains Smith, who came up with the idea for FTSY with his business partners while working on his Part-Time MBA at UBC Sauder’s Robert H. Lee Graduate School. “He brings critical thinking, a beginner’s mind and a lot of hustle, which is exactly what we need in this stage of our business.”

FTSY aims to transform the online shoe buying experience through its AI platform, which uses smartphone technology to accurately measure feet in 3D. To date, the company has secured $1.5 million in funding and has partnered with leading brands.

Focused on massively scalable high-tech start-ups, CDL West provides coaching from world-leading entrepreneurs, support from dedicated business and science faculty, and access to venture capital.

Ryan Smith Quote

For Najafi – who transferred from McMaster University to UBC Sauder in part because of the school’s vibrant entrepreneurship ecosystem – working with FTSY has been a valuable experience in how to practically apply his education to help the company grow.

“I believe CDL West provides an amazing opportunity for any student, regardless of their major. The program’s mentors have helped me leverage the knowledge and expertise I’ve gained in my BCom in order to benefit high-potential startup companies,” he says. “It’s really a two-way relationship between the student and the venture. The FTSY team have been great in exposing me to everything they’re working on, so we’re both gaining a lot from this unique experience.”

Maximizing impact

According to Paul Cubbon of CDL West, the goal of pairing students with the ventures is to give them real-world exposure to high-potential start-ups in the process of rapid growth and investment, while also strengthening their abilities in market analysis, customer development and other key skills related to building early-stage start-ups.

Paul Cubbon

“CDL West allows students to break away from the theory of business and exposes them to the pre-revenue stage of start-ups, where there’s a high degree of uncertainty,” explains Cubbon. “Students are exposed to a level of rigour and clarity that they normally wouldn’t experience in the classroom, making CDL West an incredibly hands-on learning experience.”

For the ventures themselves, CDL West provides an opportunity to learn from coaches who are skilled entrepreneurs and investors, to gain legal and accounting expert advice, and attract investment. The program initially began at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management in 2012 and since then, CDL ventures have generated $950 million in equity value – and are on track for $1 billion in total valuations this year.


Aside from providing BCom students with valuable business skills, CDL West is also an opportunity for MBA students to connect with the entrepreneurial world and build that all-important network. In Toronto last year alone, eight students gained full-time employment with CDL ventures after the program concluded.

Recent UBC MBA grad David Washer’s experience with CDL West ultimately led to a role with Plurilock, one of the 25 ventures currently in the program. The company’s software continuously authenticates users based on behaviour analytics, detects malicious attacks and stops online intruders in real time, preventing security compromises before they happen.

In his final semester, Washer was enrolled in Start-Up Analytics, which teaches MBA students how to evaluate and analyze early-stage companies using the pool of applicants from CDL West. Washer and his classmates were tasked with interviewing each of the prospective CDL West ventures, which he says pushed him to think more critically about how a business works and what criteria can lead to a start-up’s success.

In the end, the skills Washer learned from the class – along with his MBA experience – led to the opportunity at Plurilock.

David Washer

“My favourite part of working with the ventures was the opportunity to take all the theoretical aspects of my MBA education and practically apply it to real life scenarios,” Washer explains. “In addition, the course gave each of the ventures access to a labour pool of students who not only have the ability to think critically, but can also challenge the status quo in order to boost a business’s success.”

Support from industry

According to Cubbon, industry partnerships are crucial to ensuring the long-term success of CDL West while also supporting UBC Sauder students, who benefit from the hands-on educational opportunities CDL West provides. Most recently, Scotiabank signed on as a Founding Partner for the next three years.

“As an important component of our digital strategy, Scotiabank recognizes the value of working with post-secondary institutions and their students in the pursuit of driving innovation and fostering entrepreneurship,” says Michael Zerbs, chief technology officer of Scotiabank. “As we’ve seen through our partnership with the Creative Destruction Lab in Toronto, our support directly affects these tech ventures, which have great potential to bring about disruptive change in society and strengthen the Canadian economy. We’re also proud to help students learn how the business world works, and how they can leverage their talents across different sectors.”