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Dobson Foundation donates $2-million to McGill to fuel entrepreneurship

John Dobson, who died in 2013, launched one of Canada’s first mutual funds and was a major supporter of entrepreneurship in Canada. His foundation has donated $2-million to McGill University in Montreal to support a startup accelerator program and entrepreneurship.

Formula Growth Ltd./Globe and Mail Update

John Dobson, the revered money manager and philanthropist who died in 2013, preferred to invest in people rather than buildings, according to those who run the foundation that bears his name.

"He was a humble man who had no interest in having his name on a building," says Randy Kelly, chairman of the John Dobson Foundation and chief executive officer of Formula Growth Ltd., one of Canada's oldest investment management firms, founded by Mr. Dobson in 1960.

"If you put it [a name] on a building, it is more akin to an honorary degree," says Mr. Kelly. "He [Mr. Dobson] understood why people liked it but it was something that didn't turn his crank."

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In keeping with Mr. Dobson's philosophy, the foundation on Tuesday pledged $2-million over 10 years to McGill University in Montreal to enable entrepreneurs on campus to focus on taking their late-stage startups to the next level of investor and market interest.

The donation, the foundation's largest gift to his alma mater to date, would provide $5,000 stipends for young entrepreneurs selected for the McGill X-1 Accelerator, a 10-week summer program established in 2015 through the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship. Currently, eight teams (of three to five members) participate in the accelerator program (named for the aircraft that broke the sound barrier in 1947), with budding entrepreneurs working on diverse ideas, such as processes to detect concussions or heal bones faster than at present.

The donation also includes financial support for student interns who work with the accelerator participants, according to Mr. Kelly, along with annual funds for selected accelerator teams to travel to Toronto, Boston, New York and San Francisco, for example, to pitch their product to potential investors.

"Like in his investment career, John Dobson liked to jump-start things and shepherd them for a while to make them come to fruition," says Mr. Kelly. "His attitude was if it was successful it could stand on its own two feet, and he could [then] withdraw his funding because others would come in to fund it."

For Gregory Vit, director of the McGill Dobson Centre, the donation is a welcome development to ensure the long-term sustainability of the accelerator program that encourages entrepreneurs from across campus to work across disciplines, not just business, to foster "creative collisions" that can turn an innovative idea into reality.

"We are moving from a tent or straw house to a brick house," says Dr. Vit, of the donation's significance. The accelerator program, adapted from a successful curriculum model at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, seeks to nurture "a deep, continuous, scalable social process" for startups. Beyond the summer program, and through other opportunities offered through the McGill Dobson Centre, students, professors and others with a link to the university connect with McGill alumni and others who serve as mentors.

"We are taking the emphasis away from the startup – we are a university and not a hedge fund or a venture capital fund – to focus on training the entrepreneur," says Dr. Vit, also an associate professor of strategy and organization at McGill's Desautels Faculty of Management. "They [the participants] are all hoping to start something but the overall emphasis in all our programs is really training up the entrepreneur and giving them the necessary processes to give them a better edge in whatever they do in life."

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A similar aspiration is shared by the current managers of the John Dobson Foundation, which previously has given about $4-million to McGill, from which Mr. Dobson had a bachelor of commerce degree, in particular to its entrepreneurship centre.

"What we hope, if we are sitting here in 20 years, is that there will be a whole bunch of little businesses and a lot of smart kids, no matter if they started a business or are working in a bigger business," says Mr. Kelly. "They will have learned an awful lot by trying to create something from scratch – that is the key thing."

Follow Jennifer Lewington via her RSS feed here or Twitter @JenLewington. She can be contacted by e-mail at jlewington@bell.net.

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