Pitch School Recap

It feels a little bit like summer camp is over around Spark Centre.

The Pitch School stage.  Photo by Q-Vision Studios.

Over five cold, dark January nights, 110 local entrepreneurs lit up the multipurpose room at Whitby’s Abilities Centre.

The Ignite Durham Pitch School took dozens of budding business-owners through a crash-course in proposal writing and pitching, made room for networking and connections, and gave lots of one-on-one mentorship and advice.

The sessions were organized by Spark Centre with support from Region of Durham, Metroland, BACD, Spark Angels, and Abilities Centre.

This was the first year of Ignite and to be honest, the whole thing knocked our socks off!

What a creative crowd! Photo by Jason Chow.

When we first put out the call for applicants in mid-November, 2012, we’d have been thrilled if 30 companies wanted to take part. So we could hardly believe it when the January 11, 2013 deadline rolled around and we had applications from 102 local companies.

We had a choice to make. We could have evaluated the applications right then and there, limiting Pitch School to a select few. In that case we could give more tailored advice to a smaller group. But instead, we thought we could have a bigger impact if we opened it up to everyone who applied. We wanted to create a real buzz in the room, and increase the chance of creative collisions. And it worked!

The energy in the room was electric from the very first night. Durham’s entrepreneurs are dedicated, full of spirit, and totally community-minded. We saw real friendships and business connections form over the five nights. 

Participants are staying in touch via our Twitter and Facebook pages – and we hear there is to be a revival of Durham Startup Drinks as well, so stay tuned for that.

After all, Ignite isn’t just about the top two startups that will enter into the boot camp; it’s about fostering a community of entrepreneurs, connecting people with the resources they need to run their business, and letting the magic happen from there.

Read on for some of the highlights from Pitch School.

Night 1: Pitch School is in session!

Photo by Q-Vision Studios.


On the first night we dove right in to an intro to pitching with Bryan Kanarens (pictured above left) and intro to business planning with Vince Bulbrook (above right). Bryan raised a tough question: “Raising capital is hard. Ask yourself: why would someone invest in your business and you?” And Vince emphasized the importance of brevity and passion. He encouraged everyone to make a clear business case while getting your reader excited about the main idea.

Each night we rehearsed our pitches, of course!

Night 2: Local startup stories



Local (and very successful) tech entrepreneurs  Jeff Quipp and Jason Atkins both sit on the Ignite Power Panel. They came to pitch school to inspire the crowd with their own unique startup stories. They are both proud to be rooted in Durham Region, and are great examples of hard work and good ideas paying off.

And then something funny happened.

Jason gave the pitch that recently landed him a $7.6 million investment deal. It was a great pitch that let his passion shine through. But he went a few minutes longer than the 60-second pitch allowed in Ignite.

And one of our participants, Anna from My City Artisans, called him out on it.

Photo by Jason Chow.

And guess what happened next?


Night 3: Stage presence

Jason made a surprise visit! He looked Anna square in the eye and delivered his powerful pitch yet again – but in a crisp 54 seconds!

The crowd went wild! Thanks to Jason for being such a good sport.

After that, we were brought back to Earth by the inimitable Bob Weese from B2B Sales Connections who coached us on good stage presence and how to stay relaxed before a presentation.

Bob shared great tips that we can all use, even when we’re not pitching. Did you know that moving around can reduce anxiety? Even snapping an elastic band on your wrist can help relieve pre-show jitters.

Photo by Jason Chow.

Next up, Malcom MacTaggart delivered an insider’s view of angel investing. It’s great to know there is a new angel group in Durham looking for deals.

Photo by Jason Chow.

Each night there was room for conversation and connection.

Night 4: Strategic vision and values

This night we were inspired by a personal startup story from Jenn Atkinson, whose Oshawa-based medical-equipment company 5 Minds Mobility has just started taking off.

Not only does she have a solid idea with a growing market, but she leveraged the resources in the community: she first went to BACD and was led to Durham College to do a real clinical trial, before coming to Spark for help with crafting a distribution deal.

She reassured participants that it is okay to be afraid – and that she still has 3am doubts about what she is doing. But that’s all part of the entrepreneurial journey.


 Our final presenter was Andrea Kennedy, a marketing consultant. She outlined the importance of a strategic vision for a company–especially for new entrepreneurs who get so caught up in the day-to-day details of making a company run.  One particularly powerful idea she shared involved having a set of values for your business. She challenged the crowd to commit to a set of values even they put the business at a short-term disadvantage.

After all, demonstrating good, measurable corporate social responsibility–which means a company considers people, environment, and communities alongside profit–is a growing demand on corporations these days.

If the Ignite entrepreneurs can build values into their businesses from day one, they will be way ahead of the curve.

Thanks to everyone who took part in making Pitch School the wild success that it was.

There is so much help for entrepreneurs in Durham Region. Contact Spark Centre or BACD to learn more.

(And a huge thanks to Abilities Centre for being such a great host!)