Student stands in front of presentation screen talking to a table of people.
U of T Scarborough student Lynne Corvaglia makes her pitch for S.O.S. Leather.
Friday, November 22 - 2019
Berton Woodward

It’s a good thing fourth-year student Lynne Corvaglia flew to Toronto from Costa Rica early last week. By the end of the week, she had returned to the Central American nation $5,000 richer, thanks to The Hub’s annual competition for start-up talent—where she won grand prize for a highly unusual enterprise called S.O.S. Leather.

Some 25 student or recent alumni teams competed on Saturday, Nov. 16, for $30,000 in prize money offered by The Hub, UTSC’s start-up incubator. Each team leader gave a six-minute pitch to eight judges, led by Hub Director Gray Graffam, and at the end of the day the judges chose eight winners. The successful pitches involved everything from an app for buying cannabis to making organic drinking straws.

Unlike Dragons’ Den or Shark Tank, however, the cash is not an equity investment and is designed to be used as seed money.

Corvaglia knew immediately how she would use her prize: “legal fees.” While doing an extended co-op placement at the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Costa Rica under UTSC’s International Development Studies programCorvaglia will establish a business to use 64 tons of leather donated to CATIE in the name of sustainability by Dallas, Tex.-based Southwest Airlines.

The discount airline decided to rip out all the leather from its seats to reduce weight, and Corvaglia intends to enlist local female artisans to turn the leather into products such as handbags, notebook covers and possibly fashion items.

 

“I’m extremely happy,” she said of the prize. “This all came to fruition in a relatively short time.” Indeed, it was only shortly after CATIE had turned over the leather task to her sustainability group at the centre that she happened to see an email about The Hub competition. The Cambridge, Ont., native feels it’s the culmination of years of international work, starting with a volunteer trip to India in Grade 8, fundraising for an all-girls school in Kenya during high school, and a full-time post with the global ME to WE charity enterprise while attending university.

She sees potential for finding many more sources of material to recycle and reuse once the leather runs out. “I want it to be my career,” she says. “I really love the space—that is, a little bit of education, a little bit of business and a little bit of social enterprise. I feel like I'm really strategically trying to fill these gaps.”

And filling a gap was the challenge for all the entrants, whose proposals ranged from renting out South Asian formal wear to helping chronic procrastinators.  “These are people who have put some effort into what they’re doing,” said Graffam. “They've spent time looking at the competitive landscape and the market opportunity, and they've done a business plan.”

All will get support from The Hub, which in the past seven years has helped create more than 130 start-ups valued at over $27 million. Several of the judges are both entrepreneurs and regular Hub coaches.

One was Melanie Ratnam, an alumna and previous Hub winner who has created a smart platform for procuring scientific lab supplies. “I was so impressed by the character of the people who were pitching,” she said, “and the ideas and the passion. It was very inspiring.”

Fellow judge Donovan Dill, a former Hub strategic adviser now teaching at Seneca College, said Corvaglia was the unanimous choice for grand prize but the scores were all close. “This year was probably the highest-quality year for pitches,” he said.

The seven other winners were:

  • NORM (Natural Organic Matters), organic skin care products, led by Chevron Riley, $5,000.
  • Oply, a fitness tool partnered with gyms, led by Tony Nguyen, $5,000.
  • Theblisscompany, an app supporting cannabis purchases, led by Larry Welikala, $5,000.
  • SnapIn Pro, a hiring and stock platform for photographers and videographers, led by Robert Strenga, $4,000.
  • AR&3D, an app visualizing chemical reactions in 3D, led by Maryam Abdinejad, $3,000.
  • Oceanside, alternative straws made from agave, led by Evan Davidson, $2,000.
  • Ibuchi, activewear featuring African prints, led by Dian Amaechi, $1,000.

 


Funding for The Hub’s entrepreneurship prizes is gratefully acknowledged from University of Toronto Scarborough, University of Toronto Entrepreneurship, University of Toronto’s Provost Office, and a generous donation by PixieMood.