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By Peter Moreira

Michael Sanderson wanted to announce the Saint Mary University Entrepreneurship Centre’s new Exploration Fund with a bang. So instead of a press conference, the SMUEC Director chose an investment in a ground-breaking company co-founded by a student at the Halifax university.

The Entrepreneurship Centre has been supporting entrepreneurial pursuits at the Halifax university for two decades, often in collaboration with the university’s award-winning Enactus program. And this spring it added a new feature to its list of supports by adding a funding vehicle, the Exploration Fund.

The Exploration Fund now has $75,000 in funding over three years from a private foundation. Sanderson hopes to secure funding from other sources to double the size of the fund, with the goal of making four to five investments a year. He began with a big move for the size of the fund: a $25,000 investment in a one-year-old blockchain company called Fractional Finance.

“We wanted the first investment for the Saint Mary’s University Entrepreneurship Centre Exploration Fund to be a disruptor,” said Sanderson in a statement. “We have found that in the Frabric by Fractional Finance. Fractional Finance is a disruptive company, co-led by a Saint Mary’s graduate student, looking to make investing affordable to an entirely new class of investors.”

Led by Maria Gonzalez, who is taking an MBA at the Sobey School of Business and CEO James Sutton, Fractional has launched its first product, which it calls the Frabric. It lets users invest in real estate using blockchain-supported tokens that they can purchase on the platform for as little as $1.

The founders understand that many people, especially young people, are shut out of property ownership these days because of the high cost of real estate. And since they therefore have to rent, they have little or no say in how their homes are managed.

It aims to allow investors of limited means to be able to invest in property, and to have some say in how the property is managed. With the Frabric, anyone can afford to make a real estate investment, and the property manager uses blockchain to ensure that every investor gets one vote for every token purchased.

“What we are providing is designed to bring power back to people in the real estate market,” said Gonzalez in an interview.

The SMUEC likes backing companies like Fractional not just because it helps a startup launched by a student or alum, but also because it ensures the centre’s engagement with these companies is perpetuated long after the student graduates.

“We’re about the long play here,” he said. “We’re constantly trying to maintain the connection with the entrepreneurs. It’s not just here’s a pitch pom and see you later.

The Exploration Fund collaborates with the university’s Venture Grade fund, which is managed by Sobey School students. Sanderson said the Venture Grade team conducted the research into Fractional and came up with recommendations, but it was the Exploration Fund that made the investment.

Over the years, the Entrepreneurship Centre has been a place where students can meet and work on their business ideas. It has been known for its work on social ventures – that is, startups that benefit society and/or the planet, not just shareholders – largely because of its association with the SMU Enactus program.

Enactus is an international organization that organizes competitions for student-led social ventures, and the SMU team is one of the best in Canada. In June, it was selected for the ninth time in 11 years as a national finalist in the Canadian competition.

Sanderson doesn’t often mention social ventures these days when he discusses the work of the Entrepreneurship Centre. He notes meeting an MIT professor recently who discussed her work with companies, not mentioning the triple-bottom-line ventures. When Sanderson asked why, she responded that there’s an automatic assumption now that anyone who’s launching a startup is setting out to change the world.

He's much happier showcasing some of the new initiatives the centre has launched, and notes that it’s always experimenting with program offerings. A special favourite is the March Madness pitching competition, which has been held for the past two years. Modelled on the NCAA March Madness basketball competition, it allows 64 student entrepreneurs from across Canada to go head-to-head in pairs until two finalists square off against each other.

“We now have the energy of March Madness basketball,” he said. “I love pitching – I think it’s an amazing process. But for the most part, the traditional model is quite boring. No one wants to sit in a room and listen to 10 pitches. So, we asked ourselves, ‘Can we make pitching a spectator sport?’ And with March Madness, we ‘re in our second year. We were able to do it.”