Start-up founder inspiring students in new entrepreneurship course

A professor engaged in conversation with a group of students inside a classroom

There’s learning by doing. And then there’s teaching by doing. 

Darren Burke and 46 students are doing both in a new entrepreneurship course offered by the department of Kinesiology. 

Burke, who’s the department’s first industry professor, is teaching the course while launching his third company. Students are following Burke’s lead and turning their interests and ideas into mock companies. 

Burke holds nothing back and shares everything with the students, including his work-in-progress pitch to investors.  

“It takes a lot of guts to be a start-up founder,” says Burke. “Most people don’t realize the amount of time and effort that’s involved. It’s not like a job with defined roles and responsibilities. It’s everything that comes before there are jobs with defined roles and then all of the things that follow once you scale your business.” 

Burke doesn’t come from a family of entrepreneurs, although his father was a mechanic who worked all day in a garage and then spent his evenings fixing neighbours’ cars to bring in extra money so his son could play sports. “My dad’s work ethic definitely got passed along,” says Burke. “I couldn’t have founded companies without it.” 

Entrepreneurship wasn’t something Burke considered as a student or early in this tenure as a professor at St. Francis Xavier University where he taught sports nutrition, exercise physiology and metabolism. “I loved being a professor. The academic freedom was amazing. I had the time to be creative, explore ideas and hone important skills.” 

But then Burke started thinking about how to commercialize his research. He turned his life’s work into a line of sports nutrition products for professional and Olympic athletes. “It didn’t take long before I was all consumed with growing my first company. I made the decision to leave the university six months after starting my business. I felt it wasn’t fair to my colleagues or students to have my time and focus divided.” 

A professor and large group of students
Burke with students in this fall’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Kinesiology course.

Burke grew his company into an industry leader with revenues of more than $20 million. Burke sold the company in 2013 and became a full-time dad and husband for five years before co-founding a sustainable agricultural technology company. Burke’s now developing a business that uses microbial fermentation to turn cosmetically rejected farm produce into probiotic rich and high protein food.  

Along with launching his third company and teaching the course, Burke is the entrepreneur in residence at Saint Mary’s University. He’s part of the university’s entrepreneurship centre that offers training, consulting, events, student projects and skill development programs. 

Gianni Parise is looking to create something similar within the Kinesiology department. “We’re seeing growing interest in innovation and entrepreneurship among our students,” says Parise, who was chair of the department before his appointment as the University’s Acting Associate Vice-President, Research.

How interested are students? Enrolment in Burke’s entrepreneurship course doubled after the first class and pushed past the cap of 40 students.  

Along with adding an industry professor, the Kinesiology department has plans to open a collaborative makerspace where students can use technology and equipment to make, learn and explore. “These kinds of spaces are typically found in Engineering departments to promote innovation and the commercialization of ideas. We believe that Kinesiology can do the same and give our undergraduate and graduate students amazing opportunities to foster their entrepreneurial spirit.” Burke will play a key role in getting that space up and running next year, says Parise. 

Parise first met Burke while completing their PhDs. “We had similar interests and collaborated on a research project. We’ve been friends ever since. It was amazing to watch Darren make the move from academia to business. We’re thrilled to have Darren return to university and show students what’s possible.” 

Burke is already earning high marks from students.  

“I think there’s immense value in learning from someone who’s successfully created and run a business,” says fourth-year kinesiology student Cara Pekos whose parents, like Burke, are successful entrepreneurs. “I don’t have any immediate plans to launch a company but through this course I’ve been generating business ideas around my interests in research and rehab science. We’ve already had opportunities to bounce our ideas off Dr. Burke during class which has been incredibly helpful. It’s a very discussion-based course which I love.” 

There’s one lesson Burke hopes Pekos and the other 45 students take from his course and life journey. “I hope the students realize that they too can be entrepreneurs and have the confidence and courage to start their own business or join an early stage company. It’s far from easy but the opportunities are endless and the rewards are incredible.” 

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