This is the 29th article in a continuing series that examines the state of the ecosystem necessary to successfully bring technology to market. Based on dozens of interviews with entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, angel investors, business leaders, academics, tech-transfer experts and policy makers, this series looks at what is working and what can be improved in the go-to-market ecosystem in the United States, Canada and Britain. We invite your feedback.
Over the past two weeks, we’ve talked about how Canada falls short when it comes to commercializing university IP and the leadership from the business community that is needed to address the gap. We’ve talked to entrepreneurs and technology transfer officers who straddle the line between the university lab and the marketplace.
But what about the students? How do we inspire and lever our next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs to drive commercialization from the university setting?
“They know the science and technology, they will need a job and so are more likely to be heavily involved in a spin-out company than a tenured faculty member, and are happy and willing to learn the ropes on how something they helped developed in a laboratory can help solve a market or social need,” Scott McAuley wrote in response to our previous posts.
“Placing highly qualified graduate or undergraduate students into a network of industry professionals creates a powerful combination of market experience, technological expertise, and innovative drive, that can create new opportunities for universities two greatest products: IP and graduates,” he added.
The Institute for Optical Sciences (IOS), under the leadership of director Cynthia Goh, has taken this to heart. Originally a program funded by the Ontario government and part of what is known today as the province’s Centre for Excellence in Photonics, IOS has been operating as part U of T since 2004.
Over the years, IOS has expanded its mandate. In addition to its pure research activities, it also serves as a bridge for technology transfer and commercialization, connecting faculty members and researchers with industry partners and entrepreneurs.
The emphasis is not on trying to turn researchers into entrepreneurs, but instead on seeing their knowledge disseminated to the grad and PhD students with whom they work and providing these students with the opportunity to consider entrepreneurship as a career option in addition to academia or working as an employee in industry.
To help make the leap between student and entrepreneur, U of T’s engineering students can now take a minor in entrepreneurship from the Rotman School of Management. IOS has also partnered with Mitacs on a new Commercialization Post-Doctoral Fellowship, a one-year fellowship that provides funding for recent grads to work with a U of T professor to commercialize a new technology.
But perhaps the most significant initiative IOS has undertaken is Techno, which completed its second program in July.
Techno has the general look and feel of a startup incubator/accelerator program, though it doesn’t take any equity in participating companies. It’s a month-long intensive workshop for aspiring “technopreneurs.” Up to 15 teams, made up of science and engineering graduates and post-docs, current students and faculty supervisors, get a crash course in product development, financial and human resource management, corporate governance, marketing and business development, with plenty of insight along the way from seasoned entrepreneurs who volunteer their time.
The thrust of this post isn’t to plug the IOS and Techno, but instead emphasize the crucial role which any initiative such as this plays in providing students with the perspective, access and encouragement to take the plunge and become an entrepreneur.
Fuelling the spark
For Mallika Das, an IOS-Mitacs commercialization fellow, it was all about getting the encouragement she needed to act. Her venture, Ecoatra Inc., is developing a range of economical and environmental treatments and coatings for the wood protection and agricultural industries.
“I graduated with my PhD three years ago and I guess I was always entrepreneurial but I didn’t really know when I might start my own thing,” she said.
That changed after taking Techno2010. The access it provided to partners, mentors and even government seed financing inspired her to take the leap.
“If you have that spark, programs like Techno fuel it further,” she said.
Calvin Cheng, a graduate of Techno2011, agreed. His venture, Biostring, is developing an integrated and automated device that allows E. Coli testing of public beaches and other water sources to be performed on site within two hours instead of days.
Throughout his undergrad, Cheng assumed he would either be an academic researcher or be employed in private industry. His perspective changed after seeing the experiences of his peers who were part of Techno’s first intake.
“I saw what it means to be an entrepreneur,” he said. “That it’s about solving real world problems. I got interested and realized I could be good at it.”
Being able to take their respective technologies out of the lab and develop a strategy for commercialization provided both Cheng and Das with a deep appreciation for how market need must drive product development for there to be a viable business opportunity.
“It helped me understand the dynamics of making that initial sale,” Cheng said. “To know the difference between the end user who needs the product versus the manager who makes the buying decision.”
“One thing that came through is not to be afraid of failing,” Das said. “I think that risk averse mindset has to change.” For young grads who do not yet have family obligations, she added, “what is the risk really, in not taking a leap to create anything of value? What is the most you can lose?”
How to bridge the gap?
So what are the key ingredients for helping enterprising students become bona fide entrepreneurs?
“It takes a team, it takes a nurturing environment,” said Das. “That is critical … it takes people, like the (team at IOS) who put this on … they have a passion which impacts everyone else.”
“All the conclusions seem to be support networks of people,” he said. “Infrastructure is fantastic, but you need to have that variety of people with different expertise and new ideas.”
Once again, it comes back to the idea of champions – individuals who just get on and get things done. In this context, this obviously requires a meeting of minds between faculty, students and those in industry who know how to build a business, mentors who are willing to share their insight and experience. But as we have discussed before, the typical university culture still has an aversion to anything that smacks of capitalism and profit as a motive.
While Das asserts that universities must continue to serve as hubs of pure research and avoid “becoming servile to industry” there must also be continued collaboration between universities and industry, and “more large scale acceptance of entrepreneurial activities.”
For McAuley, addressing that resistance among both faculty and students comes down to emphasizing the societal benefit rather potential financial gain. There is, after all, an obvious parallel between researchers and entrepreneurs – both are trying to solve problems.
“If you tell people in the sciences their work could impact someone within their lifetime, that what they are creating has the potential to help someone … that is very powerful,” he said.