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By: Steven Chen
In ancient myth, even the brave felt the empty silence of the beast’s cavern. Clearly the times have changed, as more than 500 attendees packed Carmen’s Banquet Centre on Wednesday, Sept. 30, while they awaited the winners of the annual LiON’s LAIR entrepreneurship competition.
Presented by the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce and Innovation Factory, this year marked the fifth annual LiON’s LAIR awards gala. Similar to the widely-popularized television series Dragon’s Den, the event features ten finalists who offer business pitches with ambitions of competing for over $100,000 worth of cash and professional services.
The pitches are assessed by a panel of five “Lions” – comprised of some of Hamilton’s most distinguished business experts. It is the Lions who ultimately make the grand decision of which companies stand out on top.
Mario Paron, a Lion, McMaster alumni and Canadian Managing Partner of the KPMG Enterprise, is thrilled to have been involved with the competition in many ways. “[KPMG] has been a sponsor since the very beginning and in the last two years, I have actually been directly involved as one of the judges,” said Paron.
When considering the growth of the LiON’s LAIR over the past five years, there is a noticeable increase in the number of contestants, media attention, gala attendees and prize value. Likewise, Paron notices that the level competition is also rising.
“People are more prepared and the ideas have more business merit,” mentions Paron. “If you look at it as a basket of entrepreneurs, every year the bar seems to go up in terms of the quality of the presentation and the underlying concepts that they are bringing forward.”
This year’s group of finalists brought out an array of innovative and canny start-up businesses. Companies ranged from Chipsetter, an economical pick-and-place machine for printing circuit boards, to xocial, a social platform inspiring “do-gooders” to motivate each other through healthy competition.
The first-place winner of $77,000 prize package was Sniper Skin, a start-up company that designed a revolutionary alternative to hockey tape. Lee Wright, a committed parent and mechanical engineer, used his own frustration with fabric tape and applied it towards creating a new marketable product.
Looking back on his journey in developing this company, Wright appreciated the support he received from the Innovation Factory in preparation for the presentation pitches. “They warned us upfront that there was going to be a lot of effort on our part,” noted Wright, “but every week we learned something new, for example how to speak to the media and how to talk on camera. And just meeting the other companies that we were competing against was a fantastic experience.”
McMaster was well represented at the awards gala, with several of the finalists being alumni from the university. In fact, Brandon Aubie, founder of QReserve (LiON’s LAIR finalist), expresses inspiration for the start-up stemmed from the challenges that arose while studying at the university.
“While working at McMaster University’s Biointerfaces Institute, we faced the problem of having a lot of research tools and resources, but not enough people using them. Tracking these [research tools] down, even within your own university, can be tedious and result in endless email chains,” said Aubie.
“[QReserve’s solution] is to build a national database of research equipment, services and facilities for anybody to access and utilize,” he added.
The role of formal education in boosting these entrepreneurial efforts is often overlooked. “If I look at Hamilton right now and the momentum that it is building, some of it has to do with the fact that our educational institutions are really contributing. I really think that we need higher education, which can be a bit of a breeding ground,” noted Paron.
The annual LiON’s LAIR is once again helping to spur the entrepreneurial spirit in the Hamilton area. With the event increasing in scope year after year, it serves a tremendous role in profiling local success stories and start-ups.
Photo Credit: Banko Media