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The Sandbox

The Project

The Guelph Lab launched the Sandbox in 2017. We pair teams of students with community organizations in Guelph-Wellington who want to develop a social enterprise. 

The Sandbox runs during the Fall semester, and in 2021 we hosted 6 students and 3 community partners.


Read about the 2021 Sandbox projects.   


By combining the principles of community engaged scholarship and social enterprise the Guelph Lab is experimenting with a novel way to align the University’s resources and capacity with community identified priorities. 


In partnership with the John F Wood Centre for Business and Student Enterprise, the Sandbox enables students to work with community organizations over four months to get a social enterprise up and running, with support from seed funding, mentorship and training. 


Catalyzed by Civic Innovation Award funds, the two initial Sandbox projects generated promising outcomes, and further internal funds have been committed to support future projects. 

The Sandbox is made possible through the hard work and bright ideas of:

The Problem

The Sandbox is a response to two distinct problems. 

Firstly, a growing number of community organizations are exploring the potential of social enterprise to advance their mission. Many face challenges in getting their ideas off the ground however, and need opportunities to build enterprise and business skills, access to seed funding, and test out new business models. The Canadian Social Enterprise Guide is a good resource that details the key steps community organizations need to work through as they embark on a new venture.


Secondly, students need opportunities to explore social enterprise as a useful strategy for making a positive impact in the community. They also need opportunities to put what they're learning into practice. 


Process highlights

The integration of "community engagement" and "social entrepreneurship" is a key part of the program's design. On University campuses, programs that aim for students to expand on their knowledge, competencies and skills to positively contribute to their community generally take one of two approaches:

  • social entrepreneurship programs tend to focus on students bringing their skills and knowledge to solve a problem, are often project-based, and the community is seen as a client. 

  • community engagement programs tend to place emphasis on building relationships with community, working through those relationships to identify challenges and mutually beneficial goals. 


We – the Guelph Lab and John F. Wood Centre for Business and Student Enterprise - wanted to explore the intersection of the two approaches, offering opportunities for students to lead social change efforts, but in ways that consciously and strategically link student engagement to “community” defined priorities. 




Project #1 September to December, 2017


The City of Guelph was upgrading to ‘smart’ street lights, which rely on networks of wireless routers. The resulting ‘mesh network’ has the potential to not only improve city services but can also address a wide range of environmental and social goals. Three students worked on a range of potential ideas that could leverage this network. They proposed a co-operatively owned platform that would use the network to share highly localized histories and stories with the goal of addressing social isolation.


This project showed promise, but only partially achieved expectations. The students introduced a novel concept to the community partner, but there was no vehicle to continue the project. These insights led to changes in the design of the program. 


Project #2 September to December, 2018


The SEED Community Food Project runs community programs and advocacy to address the causes and effects of food insecurity in Guelph. In 2018, the SEED was exploring ways to utilize food that would otherwise have been wasted with an idea for a café, catering and food product business –the concept was called the Upcycle Kitchen. Two students (a nutritionist and a social psychologist) were selected to work with the SEED. Together, they conducted market research, prototyped a first product (tomato sauce), forged partnerships with a local wholesaler and the University of Guelph Food Science Centre, created a promotional video and developed the first jar and labelling. 


The partnership has helped move the project forward in a very tangible way. Tom Armitage, the project lead with the SEED, praised the students’ support in the process of selecting a potential product, initiating discussions with a wholesaler, branding the first product, and making connections on campus to the Food Innovation Centre who will further develop the recipe for the tomato sauce.


Tom concluded that “we’re light years ahead of where we would have been without [the students]”. Upcycle Kitchen is also attracting a lot of attention already: Kiran and Laura won two of three awards offered at a student pitch competition

including the Impact Award for social and environmental impact, and launched a video to help promote the project.


There's also a blog post that describes the whole Upcycle story.

Next Steps

We are still learning, and moving forward we hope to explore: 


  • Ways University land, space, insurance, capital, networks and purchasing power can support emerging ventures (in addition to research and teaching capacity)

  • Strategies to increase equity in the selection of Sandbox projects and reduce barriers to participation 

  • How latent public procurement opportunities can be linked with new ventures owned by community and catalyzed by the Sandbox  

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