Cancer battle sparks student’s entrepreneurial spirit

Yiannis Spetsakis standing on a football field smiling at the camera

Fourth-year kinesiology student and cancer survivor Yiannis Spetsakis says he his battle with the disease has given him a purpose and mission in life — to help others who are suffering from poor health.

What sparks a student’s entrepreneurial spirit?

For Yiannis Spetsakis, it was his daily workouts, blue sky thinking with a friend, learning from the Faculty of Science’s first industry professor and surviving cancer.

Spetsakis was diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when he was 19 years old. A defensive end with the Marauders football team, he was struggling with his off-season conditioning and losing a ton of weight. He knew something was off and tests confirmed it. Spetsakis got admitted to hospital that day and had to call his mom with the news. “My parents were definitely more worried than they let on but they were such a strong and a great support system.”

For the next three years, Spetsakis endured aggressive rounds of chemo, immunotherapy and two stem cell transplants. “It was brutal.” He’s in complete metabolic remission and wrapping up his fourth year as a kinesiology student.

“I found my purpose and mission in life when I was told I had cancer,” says Spetsakis.

“I want to alleviate as much pain as I can in the world by helping people who are suffering from poor health.”

That purpose and mission got locked in while Spetsakis was kicking around ideas with Dimitri Tsampiras in their student rental on Winston Avenue. A mutual friend didn’t know what to do in the gym and was losing interest.

What would keep their friend motivated?  “We immediately started brainstorming and writing down every idea we came up with,” says Spetsakis.

They landed on the idea of an app and called it Olympian. It’s a social fitness platform that would let gym goers track and share workouts online and stay connected with friends and followers. “It’s something we both wanted and knew we’d use to track our workouts, share our progress and check out what other people were doing in gym.”

They did some homework and realized their idea was the missing link in health and fitness apps. “There’s definitely a need in the marketplace. So we decided to fill it.”

Spetsakis brought that idea with him into Darren Burke’s entrepreneurship course for fourth-year kinesiology students. Burke, who’s launched multiple companies, was recruited last fall by the kinesiology department.

Yiannis Spetsakis lifting a weighted barbell
Olympian is a social fitness platform that would let gym goers track and share workouts online and stay connected with friends and followers

“Above and beyond all that he taught us, Dr. Burke instilled in us a belief to pursue our dream of launching a business – to go all in if that’s the path we want to take. When you’re young, you have the energy, fewer responsibilities and less to lose. For me, that belief that something can be achieved is the most valuable lesson any educator can teach their students.”

Burke capped off his course with a pitch competition. The class was divided into eight teams and given two months to develop a business idea and deliver a five-minute pitch to a panel of external judges. Spetsakis offered to take Olympian for a test drive.

“The students were amazing,” says Burke. “They far exceeded my expectations. The calibre of their pitches was seriously way better than anything I was anticipating. I’ve sat on judging panels for many pitch events. Our students were total pros.”

Spetsakis and two other students – DeEmetrius Masuka and Zoe Parks –worked on the pitch for Olympian. They had a slide deck but it didn’t quite stick the landing. So Spetsakis parked himself at a table in the Peter George Centre for Living and Learning and spent four straight hours refining the deck.

Pitching in front of the judges and classmates was nerve-wracking, says Spetsakis. “But our group was really well prepared. Each of us had our part of the pitch down cold.”

While doing a final rehearsal before heading to the competition, the team decided they’d go first if they got the chance. When Burke asked which team wanted to lead off the pitches, Spetsakis’ hand shot up.

It was a gamble that paid off. Spetsakis, Masuka and Parks took first place at the competition. Second place went to ResearchMe founder Cara Pekos with Boreas founders Allan Lee and Beverley Yap finishing third.

So what’s next for Spetsakis? He’s entering more pitch competitions for student entrepreneurs. Once he writes his final exam as an undergrad, Spetsakis says he’ll focus full time on his own health business and Olympian.

He’ll be drawing from the confidence gained in Burke’s class. “Taking Dr. Burke’s course cleared away any lingering sense of imposter syndrome and the confusion that surrounds how to get started as an entrepreneur.

I learned that pursuing a start-up is possible for anyone with a good idea and the will to see it through.”

Burke predicts a bright future for Spetsakis. “He has a great presence and a quiet, calm and focused demeanour. The pitch competition challenged Yiannis to refine the vision for his business, hone his skills at bringing that vision to life, motivate a team and deliver a compelling presentation. He delivered on all fronts.”

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