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When Evan Burry was teaching high school students in the Northwest Territories, he creatively used video games as a learning tool with his social studies class. He found it worked well to engage them.
"I was able to teach students about war and diplomacy, and so on and so forth, in an engaging environment and I built lesson plans around that," explained Burry, who is originally from Gander.
Years later, Burry is bringing that concept to his own software development company, looking to explore stories of cultural significance within a virtual world. To do that, he's getting help from a brand-new incubator program at Memorial University.
The Centre for Social Enterprise (CSE) is the brains behind the Social Ventures Incubator. Companies agreeing to join the incubator will spend a minimum of six months in it, and they can receive funding ranging from $2,500 to $7,500. It's open to all students at Memorial, and they can remain a part of the incubator for up to six months following graduation.
Innovation through enterprise
The CSE is a relatively young initiative at the university. It started in 2016, and manager Nicole Helwig has been there from the beginning. She considers social enterprise a form of business innovation.
"They're taking business approaches that do challenge our understanding of what wealth is," she said. "We're not looking at wealth at the expense of people and planet. How do we create that value that is prosperity for our communities? I think of them as innovations and creative solutions that can help diversify our economy, make our communities more healthy and sustainable, and a way to lead to more inclusive economic development."
In St. John's, there are a number of well-established social enterprise projects. The Hungry Heart Café on Military Road is a longstanding offshoot of Stella's Circle, a non-profit social services agency. Choices For Youth has a variety of social enterprise projects that have helped train and employ young people. Bonavista's Garrick Theatre also operates as a social enterprise.
According to Helwig, creating an incubator program was part of CSE's vision from the start. The CSE represents a partnership between the Faculty of Business and the schools of Music and Social Work at Memorial.
"We have students that have very powerful ideas for social impact, and we see the Social Ventures Incubator as a home for those ideas and a place to help bring them to life," Helwig said.
In addition to the funding, companies in the incubator will be able to avail of other resources and networking opportunities. With Memorial's St. John's campus largely closed to the public, a lot of those activities will happen virtually for the time being.
Burry's company, Stormy Shore Studios, is a collaboration with co-founder Jordan Galbraith. It's one of three initial participants in the program, joined by the Cloudberry Forest School (a project based at the O'Brien Farm in St. John's) and Co-housing NL.
"The ideas can come from any student at Memorial University, but we are ideally looking for students with a track record of social entrepreneurship or a significant level of expertise in the particular social challenge," Helwig said. "That can include lived experience. But we're not looking for people who are coming with ideas that are not really yet well-formed or will be pivoting frequently. We're looking for ideas that already have a few legs to stand on."
Stormy Shore Studios currently has two games in development deeply rooted in Newfoundland and Labrador's cultural identity. "Regiment" is set in the First World War and described by the company as an "episodic, narrative-driven third-person shooter," while "Relocation" is built around the resettlement of over 300 communities in Newfoundland and Labrador between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s, functioning as an "open-world, first-person atmospheric horror game."
Burry is excited about being a part of the incubator program.
"During my MBA (masters of business administration), I never really bought into the whole idea of money is king," he said. "I think businesses can do so much more. I started looking into Social Ventures and then I stumbled across their first round of funding ... I'm the first to admit when I have a gap in my knowledge. Even though I did an MBA, I didn't do the special MBA for social enterprise and entrepreneurship that MUN started, so I felt there were gaps in my social enterprise knowledge.
“If I wanted to run a social enterprise, which I'm doing now, I want to improve that knowledge as much as I can and make sure that I'm giving back to society ... I'm extremely excited to begin."
The incubator program is currently accepting applications for the next round of companies. The deadline for applications is Nov. 9. Information on how to apply can be found on the CSE website — mun.ca/socialenterprise.
Andrew Robinson is a business reporter in St. John's.