Mac students tap into Hamilton’s potential

By their fourth year of university, most McMaster students would hope to be on track to earn their degree, have some work experience and be prepared to graduate without too much debt.

Mohamed El Mahallawy has something better.

The fourth-year Psychology and Economics student is CEO and founder of his own business, called Nervu, that won third place on Oct. 4 in Hamilton’s Lion’s Lair competition.

The Lion’s Lair contest, which has a premise similar to that of CBC’s Dragon’s Den, offers entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch their business idea to a panel of local business owners in the hopes of earning start-up funds.

The prize? Fifteen thousand dollars.

He and two fellow McMaster students Bilal Husain and Shawn McTigue developed the business and chose to pitch it in the competition, organized by the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce and Innovation Factory.

And in fact, it was Innovation Factory, a Hamilton not-for-profit organization funded by the Ontario Network of Excellence, that helped get his business started through Innovation Night, a networking event for local startups.

“I shot a few ideas here and there with my dad and my friends, but I never really had the guts to do it,” El Mahallawy explained. “Once I found out about Innovation Night, and I actually went … I realized maybe my idea actually had some potential. Why not maybe go out and pursue it?”

El Mahallawy said that at first, Lion’s Lair didn’t seem accessible for him as a student, since no students had ever entered before.

“When we first became a client [at Innovation Factory] we thought, no way, it’s never going to happen, [but] Lion’s Lair was an open window that we … just tried.”

Their company, Nervu, is a text-message based service that allows its users to choose brands in order to receive notifications about sales or deals they have.

El Mahallawy and his colleagues, who all hail from the GTA, had good things to say about Hamilton as an incubator for new businesses.

“Hamilton is no longer the ‘armpit of Ontario,’” he said. “The only thing is, we don’t have a very thriving economy. And that’s why I think [that] entrepreneurship in Hamilton, that’s really key … [it] creates jobs … and that grows and puts Hamilton on the map.”

He feels that McMaster, on the other hand, could afford to offer more encouragement and support to entrepreneurs.

Recognizing that significant funds and resources are dedicated to medical and scientific research, El Mahallawy said, “there’s not really any resources or any help for startups.” He also claims the school lacks “incubation space.”

McMaster’s Faculty of Engineering is one area, outside of the undergraduate commerce program, that offers entrepreneurship support in an academic setting. As of last fall, the faculty offers an entrepreneurship stream through the faculty’s five-year Engineering and Management program.

The optional specialization is meant to give undergrads “the opportunity to test the feasibility of new business start-up ideas while they are introduced to the concepts and tools used for new business creation.”

The Engineering and Management program was unavailable for comment.

“I believe it is more of a science school, as well as an engineering [school] so it’d be nice to see entrepreneurship and resources and whatnot here,” El Mahallawy said of Mac.

Whether or not McMaster is providing similar support to students, El Mahallawy, Husain and McTigue will walk away from this experience happy.

“It really taught us a lot, from things like what to wear in front of a camera, how to speak to a journalist, to … organizing our pitch and whatnot.”

And what of their $15,000?

“We’ll be using it to accelerate the development [of Nervu],” said El Mahallawy.


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