New gift fosters student innovation and entrepreneurship at McMaster

From left: McMaster President David Farrar, alumnus John Whelen and DeGroote School of Business Dean Khaled Hassanein at the gift signing and presidential thank you breakfast in Calgary

McMaster has established itself as a key player in Hamilton’s innovation ecosystem — from fostering experiential learning opportunities in the classroom to hosting a start-up incubator and accelerator, the Forge, and developing countless corporate partnerships for everything from guest lectures to job placement.

Now, a new gift of $390,000 from John Whelen, MBA ’88, and his wife, Stormie Stewart, will leverage and enhance this ecosystem by supporting McMaster students whose ideas and research have potential for real world impact, application and commercialization.  

“I’ve had a long and interesting career in finance and corporate development, but it was almost entirely in support of larger, more established companies,” said Whelen, who is best known for his work in the energy sector, specifically at Enbridge, where he held senior positions since 1992 and most recently served as executive vice-president and chief development officer.

“I’ve always been fascinated by how smaller companies get started—how innovation actually takes place,” said Whelen, now retired. “Canada has a long track record of producing great research, but it doesn’t have a great track record of commercializing this research for the benefit of Canadians.”

Photo portrait of John Whelen
John Whelen has established the John Whelen Family Innovation Advancement Fellowship Fund.

The John Whelen Family Innovation Advancement Fellowship Fund, established in August 2023, aims to close that gap.

It will be awarded to a master’s or PhD student from any Faculty or discipline who shows leadership outside of the classroom, aspires to use a McMaster-generated discovery to advance innovation and has an interest in creating and sustaining a business.

These students are then matched for four-to-12-month fellowships with a startup company that is either receiving funding from the McMaster Seed Fund or has received other sources of early seed funding and is using ideas and research from McMaster.

A key benefit to this fellowship is that it’s a two-way street: The participating business has access to a student with knowledge and skills that they can put to immediate use, while the student has an opportunity to sit at the table and learn how to take ideas and turn them into viable business propositions.

“Very few startup businesses make it past the first five years, but I think if you have the right kind of training, experience and knowledge you can increase your probability of success quite dramatically,” Whelen said.

“This tremendous contribution supports our thriving entrepreneurial culture at McMaster and will create a clear path where students interested in developing a business or commercializing their ideas will be much better equipped to launch their own startup,” said Andy Knights, Acting Vice-President, Research.

“We are excited about this investment and the advancements it will enable.”

Why McMaster Donors Give: At McMaster University, every single donation, no matter the size, has the potential to make a difference in the lives of our students, the quality of our research and our ability to give back to our community and influence the future. Learn more about what motivates Mac donors to give. 

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