Rotman’s Creative Destruction Lab Blossoms Into $1.2B Engine

Joshua Gans spends a lot of time thinking about artificial intelligence — he even co-wrote a book on the subject. But as chief economist for the Creative Destruction Lab, an entrepreneurship engine at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management that serves as a seed-stage program for massively scalable technology-based ventures, Gans pushed for more: a specialized stream of AI ventures.

“So that’s what we did,” says Gans, who holds the Skoll Chair in Technical Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Rotman and teaches the Creative Destruction Lab Strategy course in that school’s MBA program. “We thought it was going to be really hard, but we got a ton of applications. We sort of caught that wave.”

The AI stream joined the Quantum Machine Learning stream and the regular technology stream in the Creative Destruction Lab program, which as of September 2017 had grown to 275 student-backed ventures (among 217 B-school students, mostly MBAs) at five locations across Canada: Toronto Rotman, the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, HEC Montréal, and the Rowe School of Business at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Since its founding in 2012, the CDL has created more than CDN$1.5 billion in equity value, or US$1.2 billion — and the program is about to launch its most ambitious expansion yet with the scheduled fall 2018 opening of a new location at the Stern School of Business in New York City.


Joshua Gans

So how does the program work, exactly? Entrepreneurs bring their ventures to the CDL, applying online; an interview day is held each fall for shortlisted candidates, then a decision committee meets and extends invitations to successful candidates. Most companies admitted into the program have at least a working prototype or proof of concept and are ready to raise their seed round, though the program accepts exceptional companies that are earlier or later stage. Students in the CDL program — mostly second-year MBAs — learn about entrepreneurship by engaging with the ventures, helping to solve their problems. Last fall Rotman added a nice wrinkle by offering CDN$27,000 fellowships and a secured internship at a thriving CDL startup to 20 lucky applicants.

And the AI wave Gans speaks of? It’s coming — if it isn’t already here. “AI is a new economic lens through which we will view the economy,” Gans says. “We’re seeing a lot of AI in action now, and we’ve studied the economics of it and we’ve come up with ways in which companies can think about it and start the process of incorporating it.

“And we asked ourselves, ‘What’s the economics of that — and how can we advise entrepreneurs on how established parts of the economy will be adopting artificial intelligence?'” Gans adds. He and CDL founder Ajay Agrawal, along with Avi Goldfarb, have even co-authored a book on the economics of artificial intelligence called Prediction Machines, which will be released in April. “We’re into the deeply practical part of this discussion.”


Practicality is the hallmark of the Creative Destruction Lab. Dozens of companies have emerged from it, among them Kepler Communications, a telecommunications company that provides Internet services for space assets and that launched its first satellite in January; Grobo Inc., which is developing the next generation of smart gardening systems; and UDIO, which makes cloud software that provides farmers with data insights to help optimize their operations. Thalmic Labs, which has developed a wearable gesture-control armband that reads muscle activity and allows control of different devices, is “probably one of our biggest successes,” Niki da Silva, director of the Rotman full-time MBA program, told P&Q last year.

Now, with the expansion to NYU Stern, even greater heights are being imagined for the program. By bringing together successful serial entrepreneurs and angel investors, founders of pre-seed stage startups in science and technology, and Stern faculty and MBA students, CDL-New York City’s nine-month program aims to “maximize the probability of startup success by providing ventures intensive mentorship, access to investors, and execution support,” according to the program’s website.

“By establishing the first Creative Destruction Lab in the country here in downtown New York City at NYU Stern, we are signaling our commitment to deepening our existing infrastructure in entrepreneurship education,” says Raghu Sundaram, NYU Stern vice dean for MBA programs and online learning, in a news story on the CDL expansion. “Building on NYU’s history of innovation, we look to be a hub that matches inspired ideas with the expertise to scale and commercialize them — and develop MBA students in the process who may want to follow a similar entrepreneurial path in the future.”