To find out more, click here.
Taken from cisco.innovationchallenge.com
Digitize. Do More Good.
Five hundred billion devices and objects will be connected to the Internet by 2030!
Things like wells, cars, watches, refrigerators, and more will be connected to the Internet for the first time so that they can transmit and receive information.
Digitization is about connecting people and things to the Internet so that the information those connections provide can be used to improve processes and decision making.
With digitization and the Internet of Things (IoT), good ideas can make a difference more quickly than ever before by driving economic development and helping people solve some of our most pressing social and environmental challenges.Our 1B People Pledge
As part of our work to positively impact 1 billion people by 2025, Cisco seeks to inspire and empower a generation of global problem solvers who will not only survive – but drive and thrive – in our increasingly digital economy. This challenge aims to recognize student entrepreneurs that promote and accelerate the adoption of breakthrough technologies, products and services that drive economic development and/or solve social or environmental problems.Who Should Enter?
This challenge is open to students or recent alumni from any college or university. For detailed eligibility requirements, please click here .
Areas of impact could include, but are not limited to:
- local industry/economic development
- critical human needs (food, water, shelter, and disaster relief)
- economic empowerment/financial inclusion
Digital Technologies that enable these innovations may include, but are not limited to:
- connected/smart solutions (smart home, smart city, smart energy)
- connected transportation
- big data
- cloud computing
Editor’s Note: Deron Triff is a 1998 MBA graduate of the McGill Desautels School of Management. He has gone on to build a media career as Vice President of Digital Ventures for PBS in the United States, and most recently he served on the executive team at TED heading up media partnerships worldwide. Now, he’s working on the #2 business podcast in the world: Masters of Scale.
To skip straight to the podcast, click here.
The TED Radio Hour on NPR, TED on Netflix, TED Talks in Cinema, and the 100+ distribution partnerships across the globe are some of the accomplishments Deron is most proud of — cumulatively spreading TED Talks more than 100 million times a month.
Last year he left TED to build a content incubator called WaitWhat with June Cohen (who founded TED.com and co-hosted the annual conference with Chris Anderson over the past 11 years).
This week they launched a 10-episode podcast on iTunes called Masters of Scale. It is hosted by legendary entrepreneur and investor, Reid Hoffman. As you may know, Reid founded LinkedIn and was one of the first investors in Facebook, PayPal, Zynga and other Silicon Valley success stories.Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn is hosting the show, which will feature guests like Brian Chesky (Airbnb) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook)
In the show Reid tests theories (patterns he’s observed) about how companies grow from zero to a gazillion by unpacking the stories from famous founders. It’s full of wisdom, honesty and often hilarity. The season premiere is called “Handcrafted” featuring Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky and unpacks Reid’s theory that to scale you have to do things that don’t scale.
Future guests include: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Airbnb’s Brian Chesky, Endeavor’s Linda Rottenberg, Netflix’s Reed Hastings, Crisis Text Line’s Nancy Lublin, Google’s Eric Schmidt, Minted’s Mariam Naficy, and Bill Gates, among others.
To listen to Masters of Scale – the #2 business podcast in the world, click here.
Hey Sydney! Tell us a little bit about yourself.Sydney Wong is a McGill alum and founder of VenturX
I grew up in Victoria BC. I’m the first generation of my entire family born in Canada, or any first-world country for that matter. Growing up, I sold a lot of chocolates and cookies to raise funds for UNICEF and things like that at school. Fun fact: After my first year in University, I was qualified for zero jobs so I ended up selling knives and learned a lot about what a pyramid scheme was. I once cut myself during a demonstration, which did not work out well, haha!
After graduating from McGill, I did a Master’s in Paris at a school called ESEC in International Marketing. I came back to Montreal, worked in online marketing and web marketing since then. Those were booming industries back in 2009 when I started. I actually did my stage at Ogilvy and Mathers, which is one of the biggest advertising firms in the world. Technology was moving fast at the time and it was the only place where innovation was taking off like crazy.
That’s where my career started in fields like marketing automation and CRM. I began managing websites for Procter & Gamble in Montreal. I also worked at WebMD, where I did online marketing for 112 pharmaceutical clients – mainly newsletter and email marketing. After that, I worked as a consultant for marketing automation. That allowed me to travel a lot, and I lived in Silicon Valley for a while. I met with friends there, and went to a tech conference. I was told that if I wanted to learn more about tech, this was the place to be. Luckily I was offered an opportunity from my friend and just hopped on a plane.
Last year, I started working on VenturX, which is my main pursuit now.
Tell us about your company and how it came to be.
A lot of people that start businesses are scratching their own itch. My story’s a little different – I didn’t feel the pain point. When I was doing market automation, I had a flexible schedule so I got a lot of time to go to startup events for 6 years. Something kept drawing me back to these incredible events and startups asked me to help out with business plans and grants. Eventually, I built an app that wrote business plans for them, but the hardest part is validation. I made an 8-level application and most only made it to level 3. That took a lot of time, but it helped me pivot to what I’m working on now.
Through interviewing my potential customers, I came up with what VenturX is now. VenturX is the world’s very first startup success tool. After you write your elevator pitch, you get quantitatively scored in 4 different things: product-market fit, conversion, engagement, and runway. When your score is high enough and you feel ready, you can submit it for funding to Venture Capitalist firms nationwide.
It’s important to look at your early-stage success indicators. Eventually, the big picture: this is a tool that can be used for incubators when they have startups come in. They can use the tool on both sides. Incubators can follow how well the startups are doing, and the startups are tracking their improvements real-time. For example, if you get a grant, you now have more runway and longer to “live.” Incubators can then jump in and help you improve in specific areas. For example, if you are a startup applying for an incubator or accelerator, you can see where you are at today and see how you have improved over time towards sales.
Eventually, I see VenturX making use of big data and AI to provide predictive modeling for economic modeling. Later on, we’ll be able to tell who is going to hockey stick up and what kind of impact it will have on the Canadian economy.
What is the importance of entrepreneurship for the national economy?
They’re a very important part, and the success of one startup helps motivate other startups. They account for about 10% of the population – 2.7 million people are small businesses or startups. But they don’t track all the ones that have a side-business, which means the market is actually bigger. Entrepreneurs have a major impact in terms of contributing to the economy. In fact, as time goes on, Statistics Canada could benefit from being a client of mine because I can help them quantitatively analyze the contribution of startups in extreme detail.VenturX “grades” startups on 4 dimensions: product-market fit, runway, conversion, and engagement.
Which metrics of progress do you think early-stage startups should focus on?
There are 4 metrics that I believe are CRUCIAL for startups to measure and focus their efforts on. VenturX essentially gives your startup a report card (just as you would get in school) that takes these 4 metrics into account.
- Product-Market Fit: Number of people who felt the pain and the benefit, within the people that you have talked to in your target market. If you change your target market, you restart at 0 – which is exactly how you should approach it mentally. We use a net promoter score – this means that we only take into account “early adopter” customers who show extreme interest (on a scale of 1-10, these people are between 7 and 10) because these are the people you should focus on, and so you get more points within the metric if you have people that are scoring you higher as opposed to something like a 5 or a 6.
- Runway: How long can you survive financially? Quickbook (accounting software for small businesses) has found that over 50% of startups are financially illiterate – and over 90% in Quebec. Many of them don’t even know the difference between sales and net profit. – How long can you survive? VenturX securely accesses your bank API so startups know exactly where they stand financially. You’ll know how much available cash you have, as well as your expenses and your revenue.
- Conversion: How many leads were converted? In other words, first of all, what is the total number of people that you have talked to? Out of those, how many people have signed up for the product or service by making a pre-order, or have provided you with their contact info to follow up, or have written you letters of intent?
- Engagement: How many are using the service or product? What is the number of repeat visitors that you have, as opposed to one-time visitors? We will be implementing Google Analytics API so users with an online business would not have to fill anything in.
What class do you wish was taught in colleges? In other words, what is an important skill you had to learn in the real world?
I loved going to McGill but I found a lot of my learning was very theoretical. In my marketing program, I think you should have an in-field sales project. The people in my marketing/sales classes could not have sold anything if their lives depended on it, because we were not required to. Even just selling cookies door-to-door would be more hands-on than writing an exam.
When I went to McGill, we had these “apprentice games” – one year I organized it and we had McGill, Concordia, and HEC students go to the McGill Ghetto and it was a contest to see who could sell the most ice cream…in January.
This should be taught in school. It shouldn’t be something that you need to add onto your workload outside of school. You should have that experience while you’re there because that’s where you should be getting the chance to safely make mistakes. One of my favorite business professors Richard Donovan always told us that you can do anything you want, as long as you’re not afraid of hearing NO.
Similarly, I found that some incubators in Montreal were teaching theoretical types of classes in their incubation programs that weren’t realistic or practical. In BC, where I am doing my trial, incubator founders and directors were former entrepreneurs so they styled their programs differently and they are keen on having real time metrics for their startups. Most incubators didn’t have a Renjie like McGill does, to provide them leadership through example. Taking business from theory to real life is one of the hardest things I’ve had to face in my life.
If you could give advice to the college freshman version of Sydney, how would you tell her to approach college to get the most out of her experience? Would you do less of some things, and more of others?
In my first year, I was looking for opportunities to get involved and I was scattered all over the place. I definitely would have did less of some things.
Specifically, I would have participated more in business-type competitions against other schools which is a more real-life environment than typical exam-based classes. I probably would have competed in the McGill Dobson Cup, too! Startup events and things of that nature are a lot more popular now than they were 6 years ago, and I really wish those opportunities were available to me when I was in school.VenturX’s prototype for entrepreneurs is available now. Visit www.venturx.ca!
Anything else you want to say to our readers?
YES! VenturX’s prototype for entrepreneurs is available now. Visit www.venturx.ca to register for a new account. If you are an entrepreneur or have a great business idea, come sign up! If you’re wondering how it works, check out the demo video.
You can join our McGill Virtual Discussion Group on Skype on Tuesdays at 8:30-9:00pm, where we discuss how you did on your VenturX startup success and share how we can boost your metrics! Just send me an email to join!
Contact info: Sydney Wong
Demo Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqPufIVoaHc
As a not-for-profit organization, YES enriches the community by providing English-language support services to help Quebecers find employment and start and grow businesses.
Editor’s Note: Jan Roos is a former McGill Dobson Cup finalist and serial entrepreneur. After successfully developing the prize-winning consumer products company Vitality Sciences LLC and successfully penetrating into the fitness and survival markets, he turned his attention to starting service businesses.
He currently runs the Manhattan-based legal marketing company, Expert Engines, as well as projects in the Amazon marketing and synthetic biology spaces. Jan also authored The Legal Marketing Fastlane, which is a roadmap to generating real leads in 72 hours or less, even if your business is small.Jan was one of the judges during this year’s Semi-Finals of the McGill Dobson Cup, in the Small & Medium Enterprise Track.
On judging, and pitching, at the McGill Dobson Cup
It’s my 3rd year judging, and it’s always a good time. I also pitched back when I was a student, and we were finalists.
My original pitch was for a hangover cure, and we had adapted it from there. People were responding to the fact that we were using medically sourced amino acids in our formulation. We were going to be one of the first supplements that would go through rigorous testing, because the market is fairly unregulated and most supplement companies have just been pulling the wool over our eyes – we wanted to change that. My dad had an educational background in the sciences so I had asked him what he thought about my idea. Once we had gotten some prize money from the cup, he committed to helping our mission.
Let’s get into the nitty-gritty for a second because I know the entrepreneurs out there will love this.
All our competitors in the supplement industry were cutting costs and basically had a mediocre product. There have been many reports of tests showing that as little as 10% of the mass of some whey protein brands was actual whey protein; the rest was filler.
We decided to go against the grain by using high quality ingredients without cutting corners, and that means that we need to create a premium product and charge premium prices. We had first targeted athletes that participate in triathlons because they spend an ungodly amount of money on supplements to boost their performance. We eventually changed our focus to also include Crossfitters, and backpackers because our formulation was a complete source of protein.
Breaking Bad, and how Amazon can change the way you do business
In terms of my role at the company, it was kind of like Walt and Jesse in Breaking Bad. My dad was in charge of the sourcing side because he was able to get high-quality hookups, and it was on me to move it – everything related to marketing and sales.
I noticed that techniques that worked in the health and fitness market, wouldn’t work at all in the survival industry: it’s really important to know your customer and realize that each market has different needs and that you have to test and adjust your approach to serve them best.
After trying different models, we eventually we moved everything to Amazon, which over the course of 6 months skyrocketed our business. The best part was, it was LESS work – it was on autopilot.
— McGill Dobson Centre (@DobsonCentre) February 17, 2017
Where novice entrepreneurs waste the most time: “Real G’s move in silence”
Getting in front of customers. There’s a lot of ivory tower thinking in the entrepreneurial world. Doing a survey and concluding that people want your product because they SAY they’ll pay is not enough. What would it take to get them to pay now?
It’s scary at first, but once you develop that muscle, everything gets easier – it’s just a no-brainer. In the 1st quarter of 2015, I took multiple business ideas off the ground. I found the ones that would work, and the ones that wouldn’t, extremely quickly. I could’ve just sat around and talked to my friends about my ideas…for years, and gotten nowhere – and many people do. But because I started making moves right away, I was able to iterate fast.
Real G’s move in silence.Jan authored The Legal Marketing Fastlane, which is a roadmap to generating real leads in 72 hours or less, even if your business is small.
Be careful: people get energy from discussing their ideas in the same way that they get energy from actually executing them. I have friends who have been talking about getting a business off the ground for a while. In that time frame, I’ve literally launched 3 businesses, yet they’re still just talking! Same thing with my book. I literally just locked myself in my room for 2 weeks and wrote the damn thing. People were asking me “When did this happen? When did you write this? I didn’t even know you were doing this.” Real G’s move in silence.
What he’s up to now, and the advantage of service businesses
The thing about service businesses is that you can ramp them up extremely quickly. Will this become a 9-figure business? Probably not. But this will help me invest in my next venture, which might be something related to synthetic biology.
Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning – Bill Gates, 1999
Three Quebec entrepreneurs tell us how the Microsoft founder’s quote resonates with their experience in the start-up world. (View the full article on the National Bank’s Financial Tips website.)
Taking criticism is never easy…but for an entrepreneur, negative comments are more than a necessary evil: they are a treasure chest because they divulge what you have to work on, as Bill Gates explained in his book Business @ the Speed of Thought.
Mélanie Heyberger, cofounder and marketing director of Rachel’s Box, Marie-Philip Simard, president and founder of Chic Marie, and Christian Eve-Lévesque, cofounder and CEO of SpherePlay, agree with the former IT tycoon. They tell us why that is.
The 2017 McGill Dobson Cup was powered by National Bank – check out who won this year.
Editor’s Note: McGill Dobson Centre Ambassador Nely Gaulea sat down with eNuvio inc., this year’s McGill Dobson Cup honourable mention in the Health Sciences Track for innovation and potential to advance the way Life Sciences Research is conducted. Learn more about eNuvio‘s Lab-on-a-Chip technology, their entrepreneurial path thus far, and their McGill Dobson Cup 2017 experience.
READ ALSO: Winners of the McGill Dobson Cup 2017
A team of forward-thinking scientists and former doctoral collaborators with a passion for building new technologies to change the status quo in Life Sciences Research, eNuvio was co-founded by CEO Hugo McGuire, PhD in Biophysics; CSO Élise Faure, PhD in Molecular Physiology; and CTO Mark Aurousseau, PhD in Pharmacology and current post-doctoral fellow. Working together from Centech, bridging complementary expertise, creativity and scientific aspirations, entrepreneurship was the natural path for these co-founders motivated to develop innovative solutions for scientists by scientists.
About eNuvio inc.
eNuvio is developing lab-on-a-chip technologies aimed at the life sciences and drug discovery markets.
How did it all start? What brought the three of you together?
HM: I did my PhD in Physics at Université de Montréal, specializing in biophysics. Élise and I did our PhD together in the Rikard Blunck Lab. In 2010, Mark collaborated with me on a project – that’s how I got to know Mark. I joined Derek Bowie’s lab where Mark was doing his PhD for my post-doc at McGill. At that point, my projects involved working in a cleanroom environment and I developed an expertise and a huge interest in microfabrication techniques. That new skillset led us towards lab-on-a-chip technologies and to what we are doing now at eNuvio.
EF: Like Hugo said, we worked in the same lab, although I did my PhD in Physiology. My background is in biochemistry. Afterwards, I worked as a teacher – I give fundamental science classes to students studying osteopathy, and then we started this eNuvio adventure!
MA: I’ve been at McGill for a long time. I completed my bachelor’s in Physiology and a Master’s in Biotechnology. During that time, I was working on a project at AstraZeneca and had previously worked at Charles River. Needless to say, I was bitten by the pharmacology bug and decided to start a PhD in Pharmacology. As Hugo mentioned, the three of us met as part of a collaboration between our labs at that time. It was clear that we worked well as a team, and each of us brought distinct, but complementary skillsets to the project. It’s all about that really, bringing cross-disciplinary skillsets that fit nicely together.
From there, what is the problem that you are trying to solve?
HM: There’s a type of scientific equipment used in health research labs to measure the electrical response of cells to various stimuli, which includes small molecules, such as drugs. Broadly speaking, the technique is known as electrophysiology and all three of us have been exposed to it since we started our PhDs. The equipment that is the most used right now is from the 80s and it’s still the gold standard. However, it requires a lot of expertise to operate, and operating it is also quite time consuming. Some competitor companies provide systems that allow for faster automated recordings, but only in one possible configuration which has the lowest resolution. And it’s for that reason that the machine from the 80s was never replaced.
The equipment that is the most used right now is from the 80s and it’s still the gold standard.
EF: When the systems offered by competitors were developed, they were very good to answer basic, big picture-type questions, such as the electro activity within the cell. But now, in 2017, there is a need to answer more complex questions, requiring a finer, more detailed approach and therefore higher resolution recordings. For example, in a cell, there are many proteins that act like little doors that let ions in or out of the cell which creates an electrical current that you can record. You can see the live electrical activity of the cell on your computer. It’s fairly easy to see the activity of several of these proteins at the same time, but now, more people want to measure the electrical current of a single protein.
— District 3 (@D3Centre) June 9, 2016
MA: Just stepping back from that, why would you even want to record the electrical activity in the cell? Because your brain and your heart work using ion channels that open and close at precise times so that you can think, learn and have a heartbeat. You can measure these openings and closures using electrophysiology. So, why study these things? Well, the idea is that if you want to help someone with a cardiac problem, you might be able to modulate one of these channels with a drug so that they don’t develop a fatal arrhythmia. Or, if someone has epilepsy, you might want to tone down these ion channels so that they don’t get seizures anymore. You can see right there why we want to study these and develop drugs to alter their function. On the flip side, because these ion channels are fundamental to your brain and heart, you probably want to know if a new drug will affect them in a negative way. In fact, drug regulatory agencies like the U.S. FDA [Food and Drug Administration] play a huge role here. They require pharmaceutical companies, biotechs… anyone making a drug, to test any new drug candidates on a panel of ion channels to make sure that there are no serious side effects. Most of these tests use electrophysiology, and every drug has to pass these important safety tests before they can be used in humans.
How did you come up with your Lab-on-a-Chip technology?
HM: We were aware of the problems with the old systems during our PhD, but we didn’t have the solution at that time. At eNuvio, we’ve basically come up with a solution by reversing the problem. With the old system, you have to manipulate all the machinery around the cells, whereas we have a device prepared for the cells to sit directly where everything is recorded. This way, no accessories are necessary. Everything happens directly on the chip. In the end, it’s about thinking about the problem from a different perspective.
Where did the entrepreneurial spirit come from?
HM: We have been talking about starting something for a while. At the end of the PhD, I knew I liked science, research in general, and developing tools. So, that’s what I wanted and liked to do. I figured, all of us have ideas, we all want to build solutions… so, why not just create a company to do just that?
EF: Exactly. I didn’t know I wanted to become an entrepreneur when I started my PhD. We started discussing the idea of having our own company more and more seriously along the way, mostly because of the lack of efficient tools we experienced and the opportunity we saw. I didn’t see myself going on with the academic path, but I knew I still wanted to do research.
MA: I have always been interested in developing tools because with new tools, you can find answers to hard questions and ultimately, that’s what you want to do in science. So, what’s nice about what we are doing is that we focus on how we could improve something that we find super cool as scientists, but also get to release it to help other people solve problems at the same time. The aim is to democratize the technique using new technology, and to improve it, as opposed to just leaving it the way it is and continuing with the status quo. Besides, nobody else seemed to be working on this either. We talked to other researchers about what we are developing and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. This reinforced our ideas and in the end, we said “maybe we should do this”… and we are!
— InnoCité MTL (@InnoCiteMTL) June 9, 2016
How do you see your technology impacting the way life sciences research is conducted?
MA: Just the idea of replacing an old system with a chip, you gain so much productivity. It’s not just in how many recordings you can do with the chip in a day. It’s also about the time of the person having to do the work. If you think about the life cycle of academic lab personnel, there is a new cohort of trainees that has to be re-trained all the time. Because the chip is essentially plug and play, the productivity gained in terms of training is significant. So, by not having to spend so much time dealing with the technique itself, as is currently the case, using the chip gives the scientists more time to think about the big picture questions they are working towards. The second aspect here is that the chip will open up the eyes, so to speak, of people who are used to low resolution systems. It’s like watching hockey on TV in the 80s. Once you watch it in HD, you can’t go back!
… the chip will open up the eyes, so to speak, of people who are used to low resolution systems. It’s like watching hockey on TV in the 80s. Once you watch it in HD, you can’t go back!
How was your McGill Dobson Cup experience?
MA: It was quite fun! The feedback that we received, especially during the Semi-Finals, was very useful. The questions the judges had were interesting as well. They touched upon aspects of our pitch and business that we didn’t expect, aspects that we didn’t place enough emphasis on, such as how you present yourself, not just what you present. We also met with Dr. Margaret Magdesian afterwards to get her input. It was very valuable and very nice of her to offer us her advice. I found that the Finals were a little bit easier, likely because we were better prepared.eNuvio inc. at McGill Dobson Cup 2017 – March 30, 2017
As scientists, how was the business part for you?
HM: We’re lucky to be in the Centech incubator. We have access to many business experts and we get a lot of training about the law, accounting, marketing, etc. It’s a two-year program to prepare co-founders to be company leaders.
MA: We’re selling a scientific device. So, being scientists ourselves is actually a real bonus when it comes to selling and marketing to other scientists. We tend to speak the same language.
What have you learned about entrepreneurship that you didn’t know before?
EF: In the end, graduate studies are a good preparation for entrepreneurship. Besides your specialization, you gain organizational and problem solving skills that are really important as an entrepreneur. I would say that the networking and marketing part in particular were fairly new to us.
HM: I knew networking was important, but I didn’t realized it was that important before founding our company.
HM: It was really about having some short name that would incorporate all the small elements that are important to us, such as the “e” for “electrophysiology” or “e” because it’s electronic.
MA: There’s also “new” in there and “life” (from French, “vie”).
EF: “Innovation” as well… It took us some time.
What is your bigger vision for eNuvio?
HM: We are people who like creativity in general. We are scientists. We are trained to develop stuff. We would like to build a good environment for scientists and people who like developing new technologies – this doesn’t only include scientists. We’d like to build our company from the creativity of its people.
We are scientists. We are trained to develop stuff. […] We’d like to build our company from the creativity of its people.
What advice would you give other scientists who are considering the entrepreneurial route?
MA: My advice would be to just do it! There are roadblocks… There are so many roadblocks. Access to specialized equipment, which cost a fortune, as well as getting access to specialized facilities is tough. We managed though, maybe we set the precedence with our company, and can offer some help to others. But my simple advice would be to just do it!
To contact eNuvio, check out their website at enuvio.com!
Thank you for sharing your interesting journey and congratulations on your honourable mention at McGill Dobson Cup 2017!
Startup Spotlight: BG Therapeutics – Revolutionizing the Medical Application of Glass to Improve Human Health
Editor’s Note: McGill Dobson Centre Ambassador Nely Gaulea sat down with BG Therapeutics, this year’s McGill Dobson Cup winner of the inaugural L’Oréal-Dobson Startup Award, which recognizes promising innovations in the areas of green chemistry, material and health sciences. Learn more about BG Therapeutics’ revolutionary discovery with glass – not exactly as we know it, and their journey of perseverance, scientific genius and entrepreneurial ambition to improve lives. – Cover Photo Credit: Owen Egan
READ ALSO: Winners of the McGill Dobson Cup 2017
William (Will) Lepry is a PhD’17 candidate in Materials Engineering at McGill University’s Faculty of Engineering. A humble graduate student, born in Vancouver, BC and raised in Centennial, CO, Will is sometimes known as “the Glass Guy” within the Faculty. His ingenious discovery with glass emerged as a pleasant surprise after numerous trials, errors and failures in the lab one summer. Supervised by Prof. Showan Nazhat in the Department of Mining and Materials Engineering – who expresses being genuinely impressed with Will’s research, their work and progress in bone tissue engineering has enormous potential to revolutionize the medical application of glass material, including significantly accelerating bone healing, treating sensitive teeth, as well as many other tissue engineering applications.Prof. Showan Nazhat and Will Lepry (PhD’17) at McGill Dobson Cup 2017.
About BG Therapeutics
BG Therapeutics is a Canadian biomedical startup built on a platform technology based on a patent-pending process for making bioactive glasses with potential to treat numerous tissue engineering challenges.
Let’s start from the beginning. What brought you to McGill University in the first place?
WL: In my past job, I worked at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory [operated by the Department of Energy] making glasses and ceramics to encapsulate nuclear [power plant] waste, and its byproducts, for safe, long term storage. I’ve also been lucky to have various internships with glass and ceramics during my undergrad, however I always kind of knew I wanted to focus more on medical materials, such as bioactive glasses, as they can make a direct impact on human health. This led me to choose the Department of Mining and Materials Engineering because of Prof. Nazhat’s research in that field along with McGill’s reputation. It was also international for me as well, coming from the U.S., and I heard great things about Montreal. This seemed like the perfect fit for grad school so I applied and here I am almost five years later.
SN: Just to add to that, when I received Will’s grad school application, I was very much attracted by his background in ceramics engineering and some research experience at the U.S. Department of Energy on phosphate glasses. We are also interested in the application of phosphate based glasses in the biomedical field. I was very pleased that Will had chosen to come to McGill and carry out his PhD research in my lab. This opened up a whole new avenue, and like Will said, he was very focused about what he wanted to do. It’s something very novel and it’s great to be part of it, supporting this initiative that he established and we’ll see where it’s going to take us.
Could you demystify your “glass” in simple terms for us, please?A schematic of BG Therapeutics’ bioactive glass processing route and the resultant fine glass powder with high surface area.
WL: People are usually terrified when I tell them that I want to put glass inside their body. It’s a shocking statement, but that’s my ambition. Part of the problem of getting people to think of glass as a medical material is that glass is very common in everyday life. A person uses glass hundreds of times a day – windows, bottles, furniture, screens… everything! They think of it as a clear, fragile, sharp and inert material, but by adjusting the chemistry and processing route it’s possible to create a glass that can rapidly dissolve when it’s in contact with water or inside your body – something you wouldn’t think glass normally can do. With bioactive glasses like the ones we use, it would be difficult to tell the difference between what we make and flour, per se. So, it’s a very fine powder, not sharp, and designed to dissolve or convert to a calcium-phosphate. That’s the idea of the chemistry behind it. Translating concepts like this into more general terms is, of course, one of the biggest hurdles for us and science in general.
SN: When originally conceived by Dr. Larry Hench, the scientist who developed the first-generation of bioactive glasses, he found that upon their dissolution in biological fluid, a calcium-phosphate layer was created on top of their surface that mimicked the inorganic component of bone and led to their seamless integration with host tissue. The idea of bioactivity in the context of bioactive glasses was coined. These glasses have been in clinical use for mineralized tissue applications. In addition, there is currently a very active research field in bioactive glasses that has stimulated a lot more ideas in trying to diversify their applications; that is, finding wider biomedical applications of bioactive glasses, which is also what we are trying to accomplish through the work here.
… by adjusting the chemistry […] it’s possible to create a glass that can rapidly dissolve when it’s in contact with water […] – something you wouldn’t think glass normally can do.
What motivated your specific research and particular interest in glass?
WL: In the spectrum of the materials world, glasses and ceramics are very similar, and one of my first passions was ceramic art. This eventually lead to my undergraduate degree in Ceramic Engineering at Alfred University where I took many courses on glasses and ceramics. I’ve also undergone three knee surgeries. The first and most major one was from a skiing accident at 17 when I tore my ACL, MCL, and meniscus. Before my third surgery, about 6 years ago, I was told that I might need a bone graft to fill a hole in my tibia in order to create a new anchor point for my potential third ACL graft. That would’ve required two separate operations – one to fill the defect and another to place the graft. This got me thinking that there had to be a faster way and that this could be completed in one operation. Due to my previous two injuries, I had an inkling that I wanted to study something medically oriented, since I spent quite a bit of time around surgeons and physical therapists, but that consultation was the spark when I knew for sure of what I wanted to do.
As I mentioned previously, I’ve worked with glasses and ceramics in the past for many different applications. One of my projects at the Department of Energy was with a solution-based processing approach to make ceramics for nuclear waste encapsulation. I started thinking about other processing methods for making glasses and ceramics, including the sol-gel method, which is a low temperature, solution based processing approach [as opposed to the high temperature processes most commonly used]. In my spare time, I read papers about this and came to realize it was a fairly niche field for glasses, so I decided that this is what I wanted my dissertation to focus on. The idea for my particular research came from me reading through the glass literature and realizing there is a gap – specifically, no one had studied sol-gel derived borate glasses for biomedical applications… Possibly due to the unique chemistry or non-practical uses of borate glass. I proposed the idea to Showan, who encouraged me pursue to it, and after some promising initial data, we just went for it! While major injuries are never fun, I hurt myself playing sports I love and I realize that not everyone is as lucky as I am in that sense so, finding a quicker way to improve bone healing, and healing in general, is my overall goal.
The idea […] came from me reading through the glass literature and realizing there is a gap… […] finding a quicker way to improve bone healing, and healing in general, is my overall goal.
SN: The potential of sol-gel processing of borate-based glasses in the biomedical field is currently not well-explored. Will saw that there was a niche in the biomaterials field. We quickly realized that this technology is very novel and we were able to follow with the patent filing through McGill. Now, it’s published in the journal Chemistry of Materials and Will has also published several follow-up papers on this work. As far as we know, there is very little research being carried out on sol-gel-derived borate glasses as biomaterials, which makes our work unique.
Out of curiosity, what was your initial discovery process?
WL: The discovery itself involved a lot of trial and errors. I started making glasses that have been published in the literature, just to make sure I made those correctly and to learn the process and eventually I came up with my own processing method and formulations. It was basically a summer of failures at the start, but one morning, after I had left an experiment going overnight, I saw that a gel formed [part of the sol-gel processing technique]. I had my mini “eureka moment” and thought to myself, “this is it” and the research just took off from there.
As far as we know, there is very little research being carried out on sol-gel-derived borate glasses as biomaterials, which makes our work unique.
What is the problem that you are trying to solve?
SN: Currently, the glasses that have clinical approval are the first-generation, silica-based bioactive glasses. Our glasses that Will has developed are borate-based, which are less chemically durable, less stable and dissolve more rapidly. Will has demonstrated that the conversion rate to calcium-phosphate is much faster when using sol-gel borate-based glasses. Our interest is to try to potentially widen the application of these glasses by having glasses of controllable dissolution rates to match the healing requirements of various tissues.
WL: Our overall goal is to improve the rate and quality of bone healing. So, this is what I started to focus on, but with more research and as Showan stated, we realized that this technology could be used for many different applications beyond bone to improve human health such as dental and soft tissue applications. At the moment, there is a renewal in the bioactive glass community… they have always been used for bone replacement, but currently they are being used specifically for soft tissue repair too. It is an exciting time in our field.“It’s a shocking statement, but that’s my ambition.” – Will’s opening slide of his PhD seminar in 2015.
READ ALSO: The Glass Guy
What are some of the medical applications that you are considering?
WL: As a potential starting application [and the one we pitched], we plan on treating dentin hypersensitivity [sensitive teeth] at a much faster rate by having our glass block tubules in the dentin [a layer of the tooth] that links to the nerves and cause pain due to external stimulation [such as ice cream]. Other applications can include using our product as a bone filling material for small bone defects including those for dental surgery. There is also the focus on soft-tissue applications which I mentioned before but there is still a lot of research needed for these potential avenues.
SN: There is great flexibility in these materials in terms of their chemistry as well as physical properties. We’re hypothesizing that we could easily adjust these to meet a particular target application. Most of the research that Will has undertook so far is focused on mineralized tissues. We are targeting a faster and better way of healing of mineralized tissues because of what we have shown experimentally. That’s our immediate focus. In terms of re-mineralizing toothpaste, we think this is the best way to start realizing some of the potential products that we might have. As Will stipulated, in the background, we’d like to carry on exploring the potential application in terms of bone regeneration. Down the line, we also think there is great potential in soft tissue applications, but clearly we need to adjust the glasses both chemically and physically, which is what our current research is focused on.
What prompted you to participate in the McGill Dobson Cup?
WL: The McGill Dobson Cup has been on our minds for a while since we thought we had something unique – an actual product that could potentially improve the lives of people. I’m still a student, so I could make time to invest in this competition and take advantage of the McGill Dobson Centre workshops and mentoring available. The previous semester, I took the Basic Business Skills course offered through McGill SKILLSETS. That was kind of my first real exposure to the business world, and after that, I thought, “yeah, we could try this!”.
You won the L’Oréal-Dobson Startup Award at McGill Dobson Cup 2017. What does this award mean to you and how is it going to help you moving forward?
WL: Just to have the opportunity to present directly to a company like L’Oréal was amazing in itself and the fact that we got direct feedback from them was so helpful… and winning the L’Oréal-Dobson Startup Award is such great validation for us in establishing our startup. It will be very helpful going forward, to attract more funding as well to keep pursuing tissue engineering challenges. We’re very grateful that they wanted to sponsor this new award in this year’s McGill Dobson Cup.
SN: It’s a great boost, in that we were able to pitch our idea to L’Oréal and for them to think there is potential in this. A great privilege and endorsement for us.BG Therapeutics, L’Oréal-Dobson Startup Award winner at McGill Dobson Cup 2017 – March 30, 2017
READ ALSO: Announcing the L’Oréal-Dobson Startup Award
From this experience, what have you learned about entrepreneurship and business in general that you didn’t know before?
WL: Everything! I’m realizing that it’s a totally different mindset than academia. It doesn’t really matter if you have the best product – that’s just part of the equation. It’s also about what market you’re going for, who you’re partnering with, and how you are going sell it. Having an idea is just the starting point. It’s what do you do with that idea after that matters the most… I’d say the best way to learn about entrepreneurship is to just do it. You have to go through the experience. We’re still at the very first tiny steps of going down that path, and I’m sure we will learn a lot more in the coming months and years. I feel very fortunate that I got this opportunity and try something new this far into my PhD. Prior to this, I was really focused on finishing my PhD, but the McGill Dobson Cup has been an amazing learning experience that will definitely be useful as we continue with this startup.
What are some of the differences that you have noticed between business and academia?
WL: I think that the difference between science, engineering and business is that science comes up with the most ideal solution, engineering makes it practical, and business helps get it to the people. We want results in academia, of course, but business is about who, what, and how do we market this to a certain population? This is an ideal progression from my academia background and a great learning experience. Having gone through this first entrepreneurial experience and getting further encouragement and validation from this competition and L’Oréal is great motivation to keep pushing on and hopefully realizing the main goal which is to improve the lives of many people.
… the difference between science, engineering and business is that science comes up with the most ideal solution, engineering makes it practical, and business helps get it to the people.
How was your experience pitching at the McGill Dobson Cup?
WL: Pitching at the semi-finals was a little nerve-wracking: Basically, they opened the door to this tiny room, you walk in, the slides are already up on the screen, everyone is staring at you, and then it’s time to start talking. It reminded me of Dragon’s Den!
I also wish I had recorded my first practice pitch with the McGill Dobson Centre student volunteers – it was so bad! Coming from a science background… I was like, “look at this graph, look at how cool this material is…” and the students basically said “yeah… no, you should not do any of that,” but in a nice way. Having all five students essentially say “no” reset my thinking and really made me approach it from a business perspective. I honestly think that if I didn’t go to that pitch practice workshop, it would have been really difficult for us to make it past the semi-finals.
SN: I have been working with Will for five years now and I have always been genuinely very impressed by his work and the standard of his presentations from a scientific perspective. But I have to say, when it came to the McGill Dobson Cup, it was a different page. I was very impressed to see that pitch as well. I thought it was great and I was pleasantly surprised. Clearly, the McGill Dobson Cup steered him in the right direction – the business and entrepreneurial angle. It’s a real interesting combination of skills that he now has.
… encouragement and validation from [McGill Dobson Cup] and L’Oréal is great motivation to keep pushing on and hopefully realizing the main goal which is to improve the lives of many people.
What were some of the resources that were helpful to you as new entrepreneurs?Will Lepry (PhD’17) receiving the L’Oréal-Dobson Startup Award at McGill Dobson Cup 2017 – March 30, 2017
WL: All the McGill Dobson Centre student volunteers were very helpful and the workshops provided were essential. The Public Speaking Workshop was really great as that is an area that can always use improvement for me. The How to Pitch your Startup Workshop was really useful in helping with crafting a good pitch. The Q&A feedback from the semi-finals really got us thinking about new approaches for our pitch as well. I kept in contact with some of the judges and the advice they provided was very useful going to the finals.
For the finals, I revamped the presentation with the feedback we received and I practiced the pitch much more than I did for the semi-finals. We were also lucky enough to get feedback from the McGill Commercialization office. Since they are the ones who have seen an idea go to market, they gave really specific advice on what an investor would want to see. The fact is that we asked for feedback, and if we had not asked, we would not be where we are now. I’d also like to thank Showan for pursuing this with me since this is not a typical graduate school thing to do, especially in the sciences.
SN: The idea was to try and get an insight into angles that we don’t have expertise in. As Will mentioned, Dr. Mark Weber from McGill Commercialization and Ms. Katya Marc from the Faculty of Engineering provided great feedback. It’s been a very interesting learning exercise.
What’s next for BG Therapeutics?
SN: First, I look forward to Will completing his PhD.
WL: Me too [laughs]. Besides the thesis, we have this great award, some momentum, and the technology. What we need right now is mentorship. We’re trying to link with entrepreneurs, alumni, etc. to start making these connections before we really start going towards a defined path.
SN: In particular, we are looking for mentors who have done something similar to what we’re trying to achieve, in terms of technology, product, and certain market segments… That’s what we’re seeking. We believe in the product and it has huge potential. Obviously, just because you have a product, you don’t have all the solutions. So, you have to think how to move forward. This strategy is very important and that strategy can only be helped along with people who have done this before.
There is a lot to learn in terms of the business process and we’re willing to listen to people who know. As Will pointed out, it’s great to have all the resources available to us. We’re also willing to listen to people who know the business aspect, of course. That’s why mentorship is important.
We are also fortunate to be in the Faculty of Engineering because there is a drive for entrepreneurial interest and there are people associated with the Faculty and former graduates who have become entrepreneurs who are willing to commit some time in terms of mentoring.
WL: We want to maximize [the L’Oréal-Dobson Startup Award] and the momentum we have now but we are going to proceed cautiously. This is all new to us for now, but hopefully in five years we’ll at least have a stand-alone company, some investment, and maybe a few licensing agreements to allow us to keep pursuing tissue engineering challenges and improve the quality of life for many people.
Speaking to the science and engineering community, if you have an idea, put a business plan together and go out there and try to pitch it.
Anything else you’d like to add?
WL: It would be great if more scientists and engineers participated in programs like the McGill Dobson Cup. Speaking to the science and engineering community, if you have an idea, put a business plan together and go out there and try to pitch it. You’ll learn more about your idea by receiving constructive criticism from different fields than if you just keep it within your academic field.
Thank you for sharing your inspiring story and congratulations on winning the very first L’Oréal-Dobson Startup Award!
By Quinn Mason
Applications to McGill X-1 Accelerator‘s 2017 cohort are open until April 30th at 11:59 pm EDT.
Hosted by the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship, the McGill X-1 Accelerator is an intensive 10-week summer program designed to accelerate later stage McGill startups towards investment readiness and launch.
“In terms of programming we are going to focus on offering a tailor-made approach to the cohort by working closely with each founder and connecting them to our McGill ecosystem of mentors and investors,” Maher Ayari, X-1’s Program Manager told MTLinTECH. “As this is the third iteration of the program and the McGill Dobson Cup is celebrating it’s 10th anniversary next year, we are at a point where we want to leverage the graduates of our various programs (McGill Lean Startup, McGill Dobson Cup and McGill X-1 Accelerator) more and more and have them involved as mentors and speakers this summer.”The McGill X-1 Accelerator 2017 program will take place from June 5 to August 11, 2017. Demo Days will take place in Montreal, Boston, and San Francisco in Fall 2017.
“After the success of our Boston and San Francisco Demo Days in September 2016, this year we want to connect our startups more with our international network of McGill alumni. As the program is growing, we want to offer an experience where the startups and the founders can grow their network beyond the Montreal entrepreneurship ecosystem.”
Potential applicants should fill out an online application, submit two videos (a team presentation video and a product demo video) that are each two minutes long, read the business plan guidelines available here, and attach their five-page startup business plan to the application.
Ayari had this advice for interested applicants:
“First of all, each startup needs to have a McGill affiliation (student, faculty, staff or recent alumni – within the past five years). They need to demonstrate early traction with customers and/or revenue, and have a minimum viable product. We focus a lot on the founding team — showing commitment, grit and willingness to learn are things that we look for. Finally, you need to show us that your vision is BIG and that you are ready to work in order to get there.”
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All Fellows are required to have started a company and many are either working on a company when they join the Fellowship or start a company while an active Fellow. Recognizing the time constraints of student entrepreneurs, the Fellowship is designed to:
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Editor’s Note: McGill Dobson Centre Ambassador Sharanya Venkatesh sat down with Anya Pogharian & Vivian Eberle of Dialysave, which won 3rd prize at this year’s McGill Dobson Cup in the Health Sciences track. Dialysave is an affordable, user-friendly and portable hemodialysis machine designed for CKD patients who require renal replacement therapy in developing nations. Learn more about their journey as entrepreneurs since Anya first started working on the device at the age of 16, below.
Could you two begin by introducing yourselves and what you do in the business?
Vivian: I am a first year undergraduate student in the Faculty of Management at McGill University. With regards to what I do in with our start-up, Dialysave, I focus more on creating the business framework for the device and in the future putting it on the market.
Anya: I am a first year undergraduate student in the Faculty of Nursing at University of Montreal. I work more on the technical side to the business. I have created the device and have been working on this project since I was 16 years old.
Vivian Eberle and Anya Pogharian at the Semi-Finals of the McGill Dobson Cup.
How did you come up with the idea?
Anya: This all started when I was 16 and I was volunteering at the Montreal General Hospital as a companion to patients on dialysis. During my time there, I became more interested in how the treatment works and the machine itself. After speaking to a lot of people and doing my own initial research about the machine and the treatment, I realised that there was a tremendous need for this machine. This need was especially prominent in developing nations such as India and Pakistan where 90% of the kidney disease patients don’t have access to it. There are 112 countries in the world that do not have anything at all for dialysis. As I dug deeper into this issue, I realised that there was nothing on the market to help these patients that need the treatment to survive. Also, it’s shocking to me that nothing was being done to make the machine more accessible.
So I decided to try and create one from scratch. I made it and presented it at the Montreal Regional Expo-Science fair, which allowed me to present the project at the Provincial and the Canada wide science fair.
How do you manage to balance cost and functionality, especially when you are aiming to reduce the cost from $30,000 to $500?
Anya: I began by reverse engineering it so that I got a better understanding on where I could cut costs yet still maintain the quality of the system. I took an existing machin, identified what was essential, what could be removed, and what could be replaced by cheaper components. Of course that is not to say that there are components that are not required at all, but there are a lot of good parts that could be replaced for a cheaper component. Some of the essential bits were the pumps, which is what drives the blood in and out and the air bubble detectors for when the machine detects air bubbles in the blood.
The main aim for the device was to keep it simple and easy to repair because it is close to impossible to have a dialysis technician on the spot every single time. Also, I had to keep it under $500 because I had a budget when I first started out.
So, how does the machine actually work?
Anya: First, the blood comes in and passes through a filter and exits completely filtered. There is another type of circuit that mixes with it which is the dialysis circuit. The doctor prescribes the liquid that has the right concentration of electrolytes to enter the secondary filter and through osmosis, exchanges are made and the blood is then completely purified. The next aspect is the code: the code is read by a micro-controller called an arduino. It is commonly used in robotics projects and never really in medical devices. The code helps the micro-controller pass the message onto the circuit that controls the pumps and the filter that I was talking about earlier.
In a testing internship that I did with Hemo-Quebec and sponsored by Baxter Gambro, I got the opportunity to quantitatively analyze the values for the various components of the actual human blood. I was able to go into the testing internship knowing that it was going to be able to filter and all I had to make sure was that the mechanism works – the coding and the mechanical engineering part of it, which it did.
I went to bed, woke up and there were already 80 articles about me. The following weeks I just did interviews after interviews.
When did the media attention begin and what do you think about the fact that your product and you have received so much of attention?
Anya: It all started off with a Journal Metro article that then the CBC decided to do an interview about and overnight it had 40,000 views. I went to bed, woke up and there were already 80 articles about me. The following weeks I just did interviews after interviews.
As a result of the media attention, I got a lot of cool opportunities such as the TEDxYouth Montreal talk and the panel discussion at CGI U where I got to meet a bunch of really cool contacts that have helped out with the project. It has also given our team credibility. When we’ve asked for help, people don’t really hesitate to help us out. We get a lot of encouragement for being bold and young, especially in medicine, as it is a tough field.
What were some of the challenges you faced thus far in your entrepreneurial journey?
Anya: One, there were many points at which I was ready to stop not only because I felt that I did not have time but there were external factors such as some of my teachers, who were mentoring me in high school, told me to stop with this as it would have affected my grades. In high school it was relatively fine, but when I got to CEGEP, it got a little more unbalanced and out of control as a result of the media attention. But once the media buzz reduced, I was able to get a better handle of things. Last year, I came to a point where I was starting university and I again wanted to stop working on it because of time and also I had so many other things going on. Then again, Vivian encouraged me to continue on with the project and she joined me on this journey as well.
Second, as I mentioned before, an important part of the machine is the arduino – the coding bit. Writing the code in order to make that part of the device work was a huge challenge. When I wrote the code the first time, it had over 400 errors. The testing internship was just around the corner and I did not want to start working with human blood with a bunch of errors in the code. So before going into the testing internship with Héma-Québec, I got a computer programmer to read over and correct my code. Now, she is part of the team.
At some point, I was doing it to prove people wrong.
Given that you possibly face a lot of skepticism from experts and everyday individuals and other equally as important priorities such as university, what has kept you going?
Anya: At some point, I was doing it to prove people wrong. I have spoken to many nephrologists and experts in the medicine field that have been skeptical, which is understandable. If you tell an expert in the field that you’re going to reduce the cost of a hemodialysis machine by almost 98% of the original cost, they will definitely not going to jump on board without skepticism. Yet, I still decided that it was worth going ahead with because of the fact that I believe that this could actually work.
Of course, it is really difficult, especially when you are doing it by yourself. I had not realised it at first but having a team is so important. Last year I was about to drop the project. Then, Vivian came in and saved the day. I told her about it and she was an instrumental factor in us actually applying to the McGill Dobson Cup. I have a team now, that is there to support me and who are equally as motivated as me towards this cause.
How has your experience been in the McGill Dobson Cup?
Vivian: It was a little overwhelming at first because many of the participants competing already had Masters degrees, PhDs and the quality of the participants were extraordinary. We didn’t think we would make it to even top 10 in the semi-finals. However, because of going through the Start-up Bootcamp and having Renjie coach us through that program, we knew what we were getting ourselves into. It was a lot of work at some points but a great experience overall. We got a chance to understand more of the business side to marketing the device as well as pitching in a business setting.
What is next for your startup?
Vivian: The mission is to make our $500 machine as widespread and accessible as possible. Through our research we found out that, even in North America there is a need for it. Indigenous populations have to travel long distances to dialysis centres to get the treatment. Having a more simple machine is probably ideal so that the accessibility and cost issues are reduced.
We are still in the process of figuring out how realistic it is and trying to figure out exact steps we are going to take to turn this into a legitimate product. We need more technical expertise to make the technology better and understand the business aspect of it better. We currently have a mentor who is helping us out with the more technical side to our business but there are a lot of steps that we still need to figure out and overcome to get to that point. Down the line, within the next few months, we’re aiming for more funding and a patent.
Applications are now open for our 10-week summer intensive X-1 Accelerator program. Deadline is April 30, 2017. For more details, click here.
Editor’s Note: McGill Dobson Centre Ambassador Nely Gaulea sat down with CardioLink, this year’s McGill Dobson Cup Grit Prize winners for outstanding dedication towards establishing their business venture. Learn more about the entrepreneurial journey of this multidisciplinary team of healthcare innovators from the Surgical Innovation Program to the McGill Dobson Cup 2017.
READ ALSO: Winners of the McGill Dobson Cup 2017
CardioLink was brought together by the Surgical Innovation Program offered jointly by three universities across Montreal – McGill University, École de technologie supérieure (ETS) and Concordia University – to spark innovation and fulfill unmet medical needs in surgical devices, particularly in cardiac surgery. Working together in this mission, CardioLink proves that when doctors, engineers and business people collaborate great things may happen.
The team (pictured in the cover photo above) consists of six graduate students with complementary expertise: Susan Ge, M.Sc. candidate in Experimental Surgery at McGill University; Daniel Kurylowicz, MBA candidate at the John Molson School of Business; Kashif Khan, M.Sc. candidate in Experimental Surgery at McGill University; Jeffrey Kent, master’s candidate in Biomedical Engineering at McGill University; Masoud Razban, chief design engineer and PhD candidate in Mechanical Engineering at Concordia University; and Shen Li, master’s candidate in Software Engineering at Concordia University.About CardioLink: CardioLink aims to revolutionize valve replacements in open heart surgery by creating a surgical device to improve speed and efficiency while reducing overall health costs.
How did it all start?
DK: It actually started as a school project. We were partnered together for the Surgical Innovation Program which focuses around innovation within surgeries. We actually had the opportunity to go the Glen hospital and watch different open heart surgeries with the goal of finding a problem that needed fixing – an unmet need. So, we went and observed a bunch of surgeries… We found hundreds of needs just by speaking with the surgeons and nurses there. We found this one need we thought we could tackle and that is what we’re working on solving now.
What is the Surgical Innovation Program? Tell me more.
DK: The program is a partnership between three universities: Concordia, McGill and ETS. The idea is to bring together doctors, engineers, business students from all three schools, put them in teams and give them access to hospitals.
KK: That’s why we have people with different backgrounds in our team. We were paired together on purpose based on our academic backgrounds, interests, personality, etc.
JK: The program is over two semesters. The first semester is focused on finding an unmet medical need and figuring out what could be improved upon, and the second semester is actually doing it.
SG: The program is in fact designed after the Stanford Biodesign course.
DK: The idea behind this program is that because I’m in business, when I go and watch a surgery, I start asking questions… Why do you do this? Why do you do that? Because they’ve been doing it for so long, you see it differently because you don’t have that ingrained knowledge. That’s the whole idea behind the class. You bring inexperienced people. They ask questions. Find a need. Start solving it.
What motivated you to participate in this program?
KK: For Experimental Surgery, it’s a professional specialization within the program.
SG: For me, it’s an elective. Because I will be doing surgery in the future, I wanted to see the process of identifying needs within surgery and how it goes from a problem to a surgical device used in the operating room. I thought that was interesting.
JK: My first choice [for my master’s degree] was to go to UBC because their entire program is basically this course. For two years, that’s the whole focus. I didn’t know this class existed at McGill, so I’m really happy to be here.
What is the unmet need that you are focusing on?
DK: We are focusing on how valve replacements are performed. Right now, the valves are manually sutured by hand. It’s very time-consuming and there is a higher risk for patients the longer they are on cardio-pulmonary bypass. What we want to do is to make that entire process faster because it saves money, it’s safer for patients and it simplifies the process for surgeons as well. In terms of the broader landscape in cardiac surgery that we need to consider, there is a growing trend towards minimally invasive options such as transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI).
Right now, the [heart] valves are manually sutured by hand. It’s very time-consuming and there is a higher risk for patients the longer they are on cardio-pulmonary bypass. What we want to do is to make that entire process faster […].
JK: TAVI has been the up and coming thing for decades now. At first, it was supposed to replace open heart surgery, but 20 years later, it still hasn’t… Open heart surgery is still performed more often than TAVI. Even if TAVI becomes more widely available, there will still be scenarios where open heart surgery is necessary.
DK: Right now, TAVI is only approved for certain patient populations… In addition, open valve replacements are useful for patients that require multiple procedures at the same time. In those situations, our product will be even more beneficial because the patient would have to be on bypass even longer.
SG: There are numerous studies showing that the amount of time the patient is on bypass is a predictor for increased post-operative morbidity and mortality, as well as dysfunction in various organs of the body.
How did you identify this unmet need?
SG: We were paired with a cardiac surgeon Dr. Kevin Lachapelle. In the first semester, we went frequently to shadow him in the operating room. We watched many surgeries and identified what we though were problems within the whole process. We then narrowed those down to a couple that we wanted to focus on. We did more research, and finally, we voted on which problem we wanted to focus on based on our interests and our expertise.
How did your academic backgrounds help in that process?
KK: Having a background in science and engineering helped us understand the language of the surgeon. In terms of the surgery and the structures of the heart, it was good to have explanations from him about what he was doing during the surgery.
SG: As someone with a medical background, I’ve seen a lot of surgeries – it was not new to me, but it was interesting going in with a different mindset… I am not watching the surgery to learn the surgery now, I am watching the surgery to see the process of the surgery. Very interesting.
As someone with a medical background, I’ve seen a lot of surgeries – it was not new to me, but it was interesting going in with a different mindset… […] trying to see what could be done differently.
Usually, when you are assisting in surgery, you are not thinking about any of that. You just accept “this is how you do it, it’s always done this way, we’re just gonna keep doing it like this…” Now, you go in and think “oh, wait, we’re trying to see what could be done differently.” Nowadays many surgeons are involved with startups and it’s something that I would also like to do in the future as a surgeon.
JK: That’s exactly why I’m in Biomedical Engineering. Originally, I was planning to go to med school, but in medicine, they want people who keep doing things the way they have been done because they know it will work rather than trying something new, which is why I decided to stick with engineering where I can change things.
Overall, what are you trying to accomplish with your venture?
JK: Assuming that we get to the point where our product does get produced and sold, we think it will make a big impact on cardiac surgery itself. If we can help cut down surgery time by a half hour.
DK: Higher patient safety, less time on bypass. It’s better for the surgeons too, less frustrating. It would reduce costs and make it better for patients.
DK: Why not? The McGill Dobson Cup was an opportunity to pitch our product, practice, learn more…
JK: We thought it would give us a leg up. We figured we would get some extra experience and mentors. Our McGill Dobson Cup mentors gave us really good advice.
SG: It also validates our idea. Now, it’s not just something for class. It could be something bigger and real that people other than our professors are interested in. It was nice just because a lot of the stuff that we do in class was applicable to the McGill Dobson Cup and a lot of the work we did for the McGill Dobson Cup also was applicable to some of the assignments we have to do in class so, it worked out well together.CardioLink in the McGill Dobson Cup 2017 finals – March 22, 2017
How was your experience pitching at the McGill Dobson Cup?
SG: We were actually really surprised how helpful the judges were at the McGill Dobson Cup. We thought they would grill us, but they were very helpful and wanted us to succeed.
JK: We anticipated the judges to be more like “why don’t you know this?”, “why don’t you know that?”, but no, [at the McGill Dobson Cup] it was a lot of “you should consider doing this” and “we could help you with that.” It was super positive. I was really impressed.
KK: It was nice that they wanted to mentor us afterwards. We had Pierre Laurent and Kent Hovey-Smith who really helped us with various aspects of our project: how to present properly, what topics to focus on, technical aspects of our project… They really helped us polish our pitch for the finals.
DK: One of the things that Kent told us was to focus on the exit strategy for our startup. We worked that into our pitch and the judges in the finals really liked that.
You won the McGill Dobson Cup Grit Prize 2017. Does that say something about you?
DK: It does say something about us given how long we’ve been working on this. We didn’t anticipate making it this far. We’ve been working on it for less than half a year and we’ve already accomplished so much. Now we want to keep this momentum going.
JK: I really feel that we put in a lot more than the bare minimum. We invested a lot of time and effort.
SG: I think most of us are spending more time on this than on our actual school work!
How was this entire experience for those of you who don’t have as much business background?
KK: I think it was tougher for us who only have science and engineering backgrounds because we don’t really take that many business classes. A lot of the terminology was new and we had to do a lot of background research.
SG: I’m taking the Basic Business Skills course through SkillSets that McGill offers to get more knowledge on that aspect just because it’s applicable to what we’re doing.
JK: My dad is a Chartered Accountant (CA). He has been teaching me business stuff my whole life. So, I did have a little bit of background… He actually taught me about stock options when I was 13!
DK: That’s the idea behind the team too. We really have expertise for everything: a bunch of different engineering expertise, business expertise, medical expertise, and cardio expertise. We have a well-rounded team that covers all the bases.
SG: And we learn a lot from each other too.CardioLink in the McGill Dobson Cup 2017 semi-finals – February 14, 2017
What have you learned about entrepreneurship that you didn’t know before?
SG: Everything! I didn’t know anything about entrepreneurship before. For people with no business background, once you enter this entrepreneurial world, you find out that there is so much out there. Before doing this project, I had no idea that Montreal had such a great startup ecosystem and there are so many events and innovation going on. Now, I see it everywhere. It opened my eyes to a whole new world!
KK: The entire process from start to where we are now at least… One of the major aspects our mentors stressed was the validation of the unmet need. Find a problem first and then build a solution around the problem.
JK: One of the things that I never thought about before is that when you’re pitching, you should talk about the problem and the market for 90% and the solution for 10%. As an engineer, obviously, I thought exactly the opposite. It’s the mistake that many people make.
Another thing I’ve learned was something Pierre said. You should be able to describe your company in 3 words, 30 seconds, 3 minutes and 30 minutes. When you describe it in 3 words, the entire team should agree on those 3 words. We ended up doing that and we had very similar answers. The fact that we were on the same page and in sync was very valuable.
DK: Also, going into the medical device field, there’s a lot of complexity in terms of regulatory process. There is just so much to learn going forward. Canada has its own regulations. The U.S. has its own regulations. Europe has its own regulations. Some are easier to get approval in than others. Each have positives and negatives.
What resources were particularly useful to you in this entrepreneurial journey?
KK: One major resource for us was the engineering lab at the Montreal General Hospital run by Lorne Beckman. He has been helping Masoud, our chief design engineer. Masoud received feedback from him on the design of our product – how it could actually work, what materials to use, etc. He has been a really great resource.
DK: We were also able to go to the McGill Anatomy Laboratory early on in our project just to look at some hearts.
JK: At some point, each of us had our own heart. We could literally see the progression of the design for the prosthetic valves.
SG: We arranged to go [to the McGill Anatomy Laboratory] for about an hour and examined hearts. Everyone thinks it’s a very interesting project and offered to help.
What advice would you give to people who are considering participating in the McGill Dobson Cup?
SG: Just do it!
JK: Honestly, you get out what you put in. If you actually put in the work and you go the extra mile and are emotionally invested, you will get a lot out of it.
DK: Don’t hide your weaknesses. Don’t just say your product is great and amazing – you have to talk about the bad too. In our case, we knew we would get questions about our product not being minimally invasive, so we addressed it head-on.
SG: Definitely talk about the competition, the risks… If you bring that up it shows that you’ve thought about it and you’re ready to tackle it if it does come up, whereas if you hide it, something’s wrong.
KK: Don’t be afraid. If you have an idea and you think it’s mediocre, go validate it. Go get some feedback. For researchers, there comes a point where you need to look at the bigger picture and the applications of your research. You don’t have to wait for the rest of the world to start clinical trials, you can start the clinical trials yourself by building your own entrepreneurial venture!
If you have an idea and you think it’s mediocre, go validate it. Go get some feedback. For researchers, there comes a point where you need to look at the bigger picture and the applications of your research.
JK: The worst thing that can happen is that you get a lot of good advice. Listen to the criticism. You have to have thick skin, don’t take it personally. If someone’s investing their time to tell you what you did wrong it’s because they are actually interested and they see potential in you. Use the criticism to make your idea better.
DK: Also, don’t be afraid to share your idea with people and to look for help. Many people think they have the next big idea but when you ask them, they say “well, I can’t tell you.” Nobody is going to be able to help you if you don’t share. Obviously, be smart about it – don’t give away your trade secrets, but build those relationships, build your network, and talk about your idea so that you could get that help. You can’t do it all by yourself! So, put yourself out there and go get help. Especially at universities, people want to help. That’s what universities are there for and the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship as well.
SG: Having a great team helps too. It makes everything easier!
Thank you for sharing your interesting entrepreneurial journey and congratulations on winning the McGill Dobson Cup Grit Prize 2017!
Editor’s Note: The McGill Dobson Cup always attracts a large variety of entrepreneurs, executives, and movers & shakers, providing a huge networking opportunity for participants and community members. This year, we hosted judges from a wide variety of backgrounds, all boasting impressive resumes in their respective fields. Kristina was one of our judges for the Small & Medium Enterprise track.
In the midst of all this talent and in between pitches, Kristina Tomaz-Young, an OG of the Montreal start-up scene, sat down with us to share her journey and some wisdom on succeeding both locally and internationally.
Kristina holds an MBA in Strategy and Finance and a Bachelor degree in Marketing and International Business from McGill University. She’s currently a Partnership Director at Pitstop2Go and Seamless Planet, and has been a part of a number of other projects over the years. She also has reporting and on-air training at the Promedia School of Journalism and Broadcasting.
Andrea Di Stefano: You’ve done a bunch of interesting stuff; what’re you working on right now?
Kristina Tomaz-Young: My current project is P2Go (Pitstop to go), which is an initiative of a company called Authentis, Inc., a retail logistics firm with national brand name clients launching a new “click and mortar” concept. It’s still in stealth mode, so I can’t speak too much about it. I’ve been involved in the start-up community since 2007, so I got to know a lot about startups, and through that a lot of incubators, which was very inspiring. That environment helped us launch a couple of our own startups and I launched Venture Cap TV (VC-TV), which features webcasts with founders and funders, and we had satellite operations and partnerships with incubators in Montreal, Toronto, Boston, and India. We had a great start.
ADS: What’s your impression of Montreal’s startup scene?
KTY: It’s very vibrant. It’s a growing one, and a lot of very inspiring startups have launched here. This is also thanks to universities like McGill; I know that Concordia and some universities out of Toronto also offer resources to young entrepreneurs, which does a lot to stimulate a community’s business scene. McGill itself has helped launch some very interesting start-ups.
Montreal has some very strong venture capital firms, including Inovia Capital and Real Ventures, among others. The C100 is based out of Silicon Valley and was created to connect Canadian and American start-ups, and they work very closely with Montreal talent. Montreal’s just such a vibrant community; we’ve even seen start-ups that launched here, gone and succeeded elsewhere, and then come back, which is phenomenal as well. We’ve had, over the years, a growing number of incubators and accelerators; it’s a great infrastructure and ecosystem for new talent.
Even if you don’t win, it’s OK because you’re gonna have access to mentors and their networks
ADS: How do you feel about the McGill Dobson Cup, and why did you decide to become a judge?
KTY: I’m a McGill alumni; so I’ve always been familiar with the McGill Dobson Cup and some of the start-ups that have gone through it. This opportunity was actually through a friend of mine who recommended me. On some level, it feels like home to me. I can appreciate what a prestigious experience it can be for students. The McGill Dobson Cup is great networking for these startups, so even if you don’t win, it’s OK because you’re gonna have access to mentors and their networks. You may find advisors, you may just find good ideas or connections; it’s all part of the experience.
ADS: One of the firms you’re involved with, Smart Initiatives, describes itself as a “market-centric business strategy consulting boutique”. What is market-centric business strategy exactly?
KTY: Smart Initiatives is an advisory firm, so I work closely with both corporates and start-ups. We basically make sure that you’ve got something the community wants—customer validation, which some people do already. Often, the challenge for start-ups is that they have an interesting, cool idea, but there has been no real customer validation or reiteration of the product; they just fall in love with their idea and want to deliver. We help entrepreneurs through the entire process from concept to operational. This is my role in a lot of our projects, though often we’ll bring in another advisor through our combined networks, and they help as well.
— McGill Dobson Centre (@DobsonCentre) February 17, 2017
ADS: How important to your success was learning about entrepreneurship in your journey, as opposed to just doing it?
KTY: It’s hard to say. There are some entrepreneurs I’ve met who didn’t go through the whole academic journey, but they’re phenomenal. They know what they want—it’s in their spirit, it’s who they are, and they somehow know what to do. It’s actually beneficial to have a bit of both. I was fortunate enough to have gone through the McGill experience, which provided me with a framework and a solid foundation to build something on, rather than just running around and trying stuff out.
At the same time, it’s important not to stay too theoretical; you need to be on the ground, testing out ideas, changing them, willing to fail, and seeing what works and what doesn’t. This practical aspect is valuable too, because you’ll get a feel for when’s the right time to act, pivot, or pull the plug. What’s really interesting working with incubators or VCs is that you meet startups where, although the concept is good, you look at the founder and say “this person is phenomenal”. There are some people who you could put into almost any startup that matches up with their values, and it would be successful.
ADS: At what point did you decide you wanted to start your own company?
KTY: It was more of an evolution over time. I originally got hired as a consultant and worked with the company on different projects, and at some point decided I wanted to do my own thing. This is when I was approached by a good friend, Estelle Métayer, who I helped launch Competia, and we built that into a real team. I’ve moved on post launch to advise startups.
The biggest key to success is the willingness to learn along the journey.
ADS: What do you feel is the biggest trend to look out for in new startups?
KTY: The biggest key to success is the willingness to learn along the journey. Something important that I’ve learned working with and in start-ups is the ability to create the right culture. I’ve been in one that had the perfect profile on paper, but it was a mess, simply because they didn’t know how to work together. There was stubbornness, inexperience… and the lesson there is you need to keep an open mind and be able to learn. This doesn’t mean research, but rather learning about yourselves—the team—and how to work together and complement each other, how to accept a fail and pick yourselves up afterwards. Good teams are able to redefine themselves and what works for them. Quite a few startups reach this point and decide to pivot; they realize they were stuck on a concept and realize “you know what, this is what we should really be doing.”
ADS: What other advice would you give this year’s McGill Dobson Cup winners and other budding entrepreneurs?
KTY: Willingness to learn, and perseverance. Connecting yourself with the right advisers, networks, people… whether they be potential partners or just people with the right experience. Don’t be shy; pick up the phone and say “Hey, I hear you’re the expert at this, I’d love to meet with you to chat”. You need to get out there; the start-up community has changed recently because we have all these shared workspaces and incubator programs which allow start-ups to really connect. Some startups tend to work in isolation, so they miss out on the advantages of mingling; this is one way Montreal is incredible, because there are so many opportunities to connect. Even simply renting a workspace at an incubator exposes you to so many different groups of people. You’re now able to reach out and create your own community and look for the right people to surround yourself with. I love leaders who are able to say “I’ve got a great idea, so I need to surround myself with people who are better than I am. I need a great CTO, someone who’s great in sales, etc.” This allows you to create your own ecosystem of people to help you succeed.
Editor’s Note: During the Semi-Finals of the McGill Dobson Cup 2017 powered by National Bank, we had the chance to sit down with some of our amazing judges and mentors and have them tell us about their experiences and perspective on startups and innovation. This week, the judge in the spotlight is Eytan Bensoussan, who was there as a judge for the Innovation Driven Enterprise Track of the competition and is the Co-Founder and CEO at Ferst Digital which aims to provide better banking for modern businesses.
So you’re a McGill Alumni, what did you study?
I started in Bio-Chemistry, then I added a Math degree, as well as minors in Political Science and Management. I even tried to create the first ever Bio-Chemistry and Math double major but I was told it wouldn’t be possible for them to make it a new program. I just love the idea of doing many different things.
— Eytan Bensoussan (@eytanbensoussan) February 17, 2017
Where did you go from there?
After finishing undergrad here in Science, I then went on to do the Law-MBA program at McGill as well. After doing the New York Bar, I worked at McKinsey and Company for 5 years which is a management consultancy. I spent a lot of time in digital customer experience and financial services. I left that about two years ago and have since then founded a company called Ferst Digital. What we are doing is partnering up with a real licensed banking partner to build a platform specifically for start-ups and small businesses in Canada.
Through our platform, they can deposit money, make payments and other things they would be able to do with a bank because we are allied with a banking partner. For us, the reason we do this is not just to create another option but to re-built the offering of a banking platform, we change what banking is supposed to do. The bank takes off a lot of the activities and busy financial work from the life of the business and absorbs it into its own software.
For example, all the bookkeeping can be done at the platform level so that the mechanic, cook, or artist no longer has to go home and look at these numbers at the end of the day. We take that pain away and say ‘your bank has already figured out 80% of this for you, you don’t have to do this work anymore’. For us, the most obvious way to take this pain away is through your banking partner because it’s the one institution that knows all your financial data. With us, there are no branches, we are re-building the functionality of a typical bank through the constraints of a phone.
— Ferst Digital (@ferstdigital) March 22, 2017
By partnering with licensed banks, they provide us with the regularity power to manage money. They almost act as a piggy bank in many ways and we act as the financial manager that the business never had. We have interviewed about a hundred businesses across North America about what they find the most painful about managing money of their business, and what they need to make things easier for them. A lot of them told us that having to log into their bank account for everything even just to check their balance or payment was a pain. Through us, they only need to log in for the most sensitive activities.
We’re simply trying to remove friction. The idea of having portals removes the need to spend time on the phone with an accountant to verify things which take time out of your day when you could be focusing on your business. By creating a portal where your accountant can have a read-only access to the bank transactions, they can answer all the questions on their own without having to bug you. It saves time by getting some of the painful work out of the way. Another thing is managing your budget and for some businesses, this can be too much extra work. If they need to be something, sometimes they are not even sure if their budget allows that so they just guess. So being able to provide them with a better way to tell what their balance would be after this payment is a great help. Sometimes all they need to know is if they’re in the safe zone. So the philosophy is taking as much of the anxiety and trouble away from the owner’s head to say “Hey we’ve got this covered”.
A10. Go to where your customers are. If they’re on fb, talk to them there. Same for LinkedIn, Snapchat etc. #startupchats
— Eytan Bensoussan (@eytanbensoussan) March 1, 2017
Why only small businesses?
Ultimately, it’s about serving small business in Canada. For me, small businesses are the most important because our purpose as a company is financial inclusion and making it easier for people to have access to the financial system. Small businesses are the best way to help immigrants rebuild their lives in Canada, reduce income inequality, and the best way to have women and minority business leaders build their own companies. It is so important for Canada to have a healthy small business sector that is easy to access and this is why it is important to me. Also, the start-up world is a bit more flexible and adaptable to new things, they would be more willing to try something different are more open to risks. Then you have the small businesses that are a bit more risk averse but still more flexible to eventually try something new.
In speaking about improving access inequality, what are your thoughts on the gender inequality within the start-up world?
There is a very clear difference in experiences when it comes to women and men and minorities and immigrants in the business world. You can have women with phenomenal ideas that are less likely to get funding than men with the same idea. But here’s the thing, it comes down to something really important. This can never be an excuse. It is going to be harder but someone has to do it and you can’t use that as a reason not to try. I have a friend who is an Iranian entrepreneur and she identifies that she may have difficulties being funded because of her nationality and gender and whatever other reason but the market doesn’t care.
You can still create an amazing company and prove them all wrong. The burden is a little heavier and it sucks but we need people to just say “I get it, it’s tougher” but we have to prove them wrong so that it becomes more normal. There are so many people that get discouraged because of various things like maybe not being able to speak English or anything else but these are especially the people that need to prove they can do it. This is the reality but I don’t think anyone should shy away, they will have to try harder but they need to try anyways. Even a few generations ago, immigrants coming to Canada had such a tough time with integrating and someone had to work a little longer to show that they too can make it. And we’ve seen it happen, especially if you look at how these same communities have grown successfully.
You can still create an amazing company and prove them all wrong.
How did you progress from science and law to business and finance?
Ever since I’ve been a kid, I’ve been very business-minded. However, the traditional option is to go into science and keep your doors open. So I studied science because I knew I could get good marks but as I went further I took different courses like philosophy and political science. I realized how much I loved it; I love the logic of science but the human subject matter of business and social sciences is so much more important to me. This is why I went to law school and did things like that. I know that I’m not the guy who’s wired to do one thing and only one thing forever. I have always been better when I have multiple and various things going on in my life so this was very natural for me.
— McGill Dobson Centre (@DobsonCentre) February 18, 2017
As a judge, what are you looking for? What would impress you from a competitor?
At this level, it is so early for these companies so judging at this stage is much different than looking at a company that has been in business for four years when you can just look at the results. It’s not like that so you’re left with a few important judgment: is it a market that makes sense? Do I believe in this team? They will change their idea constantly but can the team prove that they will get through the desert? The product at this level is a hypothesis at best. It will change thirty times and it has to otherwise you’re never going to get there. However, its the people behind the product that matter. How relentless are they, how much are they going to bulldoze through the hardest parts of building their company when they feel like they’re getting punched in the face constantly. I’m looking out for the team that has a fire in their eyes, that come rain or shine they are trying to figure this out.
So what advice would you give to others interested starting a business at the moment?
I think the key is self-awareness. You need to know who you are first. Knowing your skills and talents is so important because if you think about it, employees 4 and 5 at Facebook are all billionaires. They are still way more successful that the person who started their own business that never went anywhere. So you need to ask yourself, would I be better at supporting as an employee? Do you want to be Michael Jordan on the basketball court or do you want to be Lebron James playing hockey? So you may think, I want to be a founder but if you know you could be the best number 2, or number 3 of a company and support a founding rocket ship then do that. It’s all about self awareness. A person who really wants to be a founder and is meant for that kind of position will pull their hair out working in a big company, whereas a person who would be great as a supporting employee will panic in the founder role. It would be completely nuts if someone says, “I can do it all”, “I can play all the roles”. We all have our talents but if you want to hit a home run, you need to think about what role you would be best in and do that.
The Halcyon Incubator program equips early-stage entrepreneurs with the support they need to transform audacious ideas into scalable and sustainable ventures, and change the world.
Our application for Cohort 7 is now live!
Application deadline: May 4, 2017
Residency Phase: August 28, 2017 – January 21, 2018
Post-Residency Phase begins: January 22, 2018
Fellows accepted into the program will have access to the following resources:
Strategic Venture Resources – The Halcyon Incubator has partnered with some of the leading firms in the community to advise and directly support the fellows’ ventures. During the course of the program, fellows receive more than 1,000 hours (in aggregate) of:
- Strategy and operations consulting provided by Deloitte
- Legal and business advice through Arnold and Porter LLP
- Technical advice and hosting credits through Amazon Web Services
- Communications, public relations, and marketing assistance through Sage Communications
- One-on-one executive coaching provided in partnership with The HR Sage
World-Class Network of Mentors and Advisors – The Halcyon Incubator builds a community of support around the fellows by bringing together a robust network of seasoned entrepreneurs, experienced change-makers, and leaders across sectors.
- Each venture is paired with an experienced, field-specific mentor who provides weekly guidance and support during the Residency Phase.
- Select dinners and events engage fellows with a robust network of supporters, advisors, and potential funders.
Residency, Business and Living Expenses – The Halcyon Incubator was founded to ensure that all social entrepreneurs, regardless of their economic background, can succeed. The program reduces the financial barriers to starting a social venture by providing:
- Five months of free housing at the historic Halcyon House (Residency Phase)
- 13 months of free workspace at Halcyon House (Post-Residency Phase)
- A $10,000 stipend per venture for food and living expenses during the Residency Phase
Critical Audiences – The program helps fellows gain exposure for their ventures to support their long-term sustainability. The Halcyon Incubator provides fellows:
- Access to entrepreneurs, press and supporters during a formal debut at Kick-Off, an event at the beginning of the Residency Phase
- Access to potential funders, investors, and partners during the Halcyon Showcase, an event at the end of the Residency Phase
- Access to key community figures and innovators at conferences and other events
Sounds like the perfect fit? We’d love to hear from you! Click apply to learn of our eligbility and selection criteria, to sign up for a user account, and to complete the application. For further questions, please contact the Halcyon Incubator team at email@example.com.
“We’re using a double opt-in intro. We’re providing a list of candidates to the companies and the companies are expressing interest in certain candidates. And then the candidates who the companies want to talk to can either say yes or no. If they say no there’s not a match, but if they say ‘ok, I’d like to talk to that company’ then we share contact information with both people and go from there,” Isaac Souweine of Real Ventures told MTLinTECH.
MTL Launchpad encourages all startups to pay the interns, and the students also have the option of not getting matched with any unpaid internships. But in the end, it’s up to the particular job and the startup.
“We also have an option so companies posting jobs can specify whether the intern needs to know French or not. Each job will get options of who meets their criteria. So they can scroll through the pipeline of matches and interview multiple people and figure out who would be the best fit for their company,” said Seth.
The program has come together very quickly, pulling together in just a few short weeks.
“We still have a lot of work to do, but I think it shows what you can do in a very short period of time if you have a clear idea of the problem you’re trying to solve,” said Souweine. “There’s a lot of students that want to get placed in interesting settings for the summer and there’s a lot of innovative startups and larger companies that really want to get access to this talent base, either to help them for a short period of time, or the larger companies are really thinking about it from a long term recruiting perspective, really developing relationships with students now that could turn into something more permanent.”
There’s a huge amount of demand on both sides of the marketplace, but there’s also a huge amount of friction right now to make these matches happen.
“The existing ways that students and companies interact, there’s not an easy way to make these kinds of connections and most of the matching infrastructure is really built for full-time job seekers. The point is just to keep it very limited and focus on matching up people who should be talking to each other anyway. Because we’re not running this as a profit-seeking business, more just as a useful project that will benefit people in the community. Our only KPI is how many matches we can make. We’re trying to get at least 25 interns matched for the summer, if not more.”
“Over the next few weeks, around mid-April, hopefully we’ll start seeing companies hiring,” said Seth.
Find out more at mtllaunchpad.com/welcome
Megan Lalonde / Whistler Question
Some snowmobiles around Whistler might look — and sound — a little different than usual next winter.
Canadian Wilderness Adventures (CWA) and Whistler Blackcomb (WB) are set to be among the first companies in the world to incorporate electric-powered snowmobiles into their fleets next winter, after initially testing out the prototype this season.
CWA staff were able to test out the environmentally friendly machine, developed by Quebec startup Taiga Motors, on a trip to the Crystal Hut, as well as on the Callaghan Valley’s trail system this winter. “Everybody thought it was pretty impressive,” said CWA general manager Craig Beattie. “We had the odd glitch that happened, which I think that you have to have an expectation of, but all-in-all I think they were all blown away.”
The sustainable sled, emits zero emissions and no sound. Without an engine or fuel tank, the snowmobile also offers a tighter design.
“From the rider’s perspective the snowmobile works very similarly to a regular one, just with better handling, less noise and no emissions. On a technology side, it is comparable to electric cars, just with an emphasis on keeping everything lightweight. You can plug it into an outlet or connect to a standard electric car charger if you want to charge up faster,” wrote Taiga Motors co-founder Samuel Bruneau in an email to CWA’s communications department.
While the sled’s capabilities and distance limitations ultimately depend on variables like snow condition, the riders’ weight and the type of terrain being travelled, Beattie said the prototype managed to make it to the Crystal Hut and back using approximately 30 per cent of its battery charge.
To that end, the sled manufacturers “were able to get a lot of great feedback. The computer can analyze the distance it went, how the battery reacted — all this statistical stuff that they can use,” explained Beattie. “They feel like it’s a great product for us, and so do we. We could run it, potentially, on Blackcomb Mountain, for our night tours and operate a couple trips out of one charge, which would be spectacular.”
Following the development and testing of the prototype this season, Taiga will be producing 10 electric snowmobiles for testing partners, including CWA and WB, to try out next winter, with CWA planning to offer clients the opportunity to test out the electric sled for themselves.
“I think there would be a considerable amount of people that would want to test it. It’s a great opportunity to go on a tour, test the machine and see what the actual capabilities are,” Beattie said.
It’s an exciting development for CWA, who first lent their support to the development of an electric snowmobile with a $24,000 donation to McGill University’s engineering department to fund research into the technology back in 2009. (Taiga Motors was launched by a team of McGill graduates in the fall of 2015, just a few months after graduating from the university).
“We kind of lost track with McGill over the years,” Beattie explained, adding that after hearing about their technology, CWA first got in touch with Taiga Motors to discuss a possible partnership in the fall of 2016. “They were really excited about having the partnership,” he said.
– See more at: http://www.whistlerquestion.com/news/local-news/electric-snowmobiles-to-be-used-in-whistler-next-winter-1.14860855#sthash.btoBhmKM.dpuf
Editor’s Note: On April 6th, 2017 the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship and the McGill AI society hosted the Business of Artificial Intelligence event. We concluded our event with a panel discussion facilitated by Professor Jiro Kondo, Assistant Professor of Finance at the Desautels Faculty of Management, between Professor Doina Precup, Undergraduate Program Director at the School of Computer Science at McGill University, and Mr. Jean-Sebastien Cournoyer, co-founder and partner at Real Ventures and co-founder and board member at Element AI.
Professor Jiro Kondo (Professor JK): What role does Montreal and more generally Canada played into generating some of the hype around AI?
Professor Doina Precup (Professor DP): On the research side, there has been a lot of excitement around AI in Montreal in the recent years but just to give a little background knowledge, Artificial Intelligence has been around for more than 20 years. We are lucky to be in Canada because the government was and continuously is investing and promoting basic research. For those who don’t know what basic research is, it is a field or a question that you are curious about and the end result of conducting the research does not necessarily lead to a new product. Additionally, researchers, here in Canada, decided to focus their research on learning and reinforcement learning at a time where the rest of the world did not really care about this field. Coupled together, government support and focus in this particular field, helped us build a lot of strength in AI in Montreal and in some Canadian cities. This is the reason why there is a lot of that hype in Canada especially here in Montreal.
Jean Sébastien Cournoyer (JSC): The existence of a strong academic setting, along with government support of this industry, as we have here in Montreal, has truly allowed for the growth of business in AI. If it wasn’t for these few individuals like Professor Yoshua Bengio, Professor Doina Precup and the others, that decided to dedicate their life to research and teaching, we wouldn’t have the density of business in AI that we have here today. Being able to collaborate with the professors by applying their fundamental research, into applied research and then into software has allowed us to build applications that can create new companies. We have truly gone from a place of being world class at research to creating commercial value built on such a strong foundation. As a result, there has been increased hype around this industry.Professor Jiro Kondo, Assistant Professor of Finance at the Desautels Faculty of Management, facilitating the panel discussion at the Business of AI event.
If you missed the event, check out our recorded livestream on Facebook.
Professor JK: Diving more into the details of the drivers of innovation in AI, the innovations seem to be driven by 3 main factors; innovation in data, innovation in algorithms and models, and innovation in computing power. When we think about the type of innovation in Canada and more specifically Montreal, has it been in one specific area or multiple domains? Are there other domains that drive innovation?
Professor DP: Most of our emphasis in research is in algorithms and models used for machine learning and its core learning and reinforcement learning for people. We have definitely benefitted from the collection and existence of more and more data and increased computing power. However, algorithms are the core component to solving these issues. Where things make or break are not necessarily in the data or computational power we have but rather in the algorithms and models themselves.
JSC: From a business perspective, the innovation in AI has been as a result of the existence of the density and diversity of research in AI here in Canada. Over a month, we built a huge network of experts in every aspect of AI here in Montreal. You couldn’t have done that anywhere else in the world. The power of these people is not only that they are innovating based on the data and computation power they have but they knowing about what is happening everywhere else in the world. The real value out of the outputs in research and implementation of AI, comes from who can take the next major shift and bring it to the market as quickly as possible. Which is why the innovation in algorithms and models are the key component for this ecosystem that we are trying to build here in montreal and we are in the process of building.Panelists: Professor Doina Precup (right), undergraduate program director at the School of Computer Science at McGill University, and Mr. Jean-Sebastien Cournoyer (left), co-founder and partner at Real Ventures and co-founder and board member at Element AI.
Professor JK: More specifically focused on the data aspect to AI, one of the areas of concerns when it comes to data is overfitting our models, which is when a random error in a set of training data produces a generalised models instead of demonstrating the true underlying relationship in the data. What do you think about the notion of overfitting and what are some measures taken to resolve it?
Professor DP: One of the major ways to reduce over fitting is cross validation. This means testing the model on other datasets to see if it works. If you have lots of data, you need to test the model on different data to see if it actually works. For example, when you have a complex concept explained to a group of students through preparatory examples, you are not going to test the students on the preparatory questions to see if they understood the concepts, but rather, you will take different questions to test the understanding. This is the same with the data in AI, you’re not going to test the same models with the same training data. This is one of the ways we prevent the models from simply memorising cases.
JSC: The notion of overfitting and these random errors make it hard predict or understand how the model really works. There are anomalies in the results, not understanding why there are these anomalies is a huge limiting factor to fully deploying AI in the enterprises and decision systems. More research is being done to understand these random errors, how these models work , how they come up with the solutions understand the anomalies that are produced as a result of overfitting,.
— Maher (@ayammaher) April 14, 2017
If you missed the event, check out our recap.
Professor Jiro Kondo: In order to understand how these models work, we need to understand the intermediate layers and processes where we find the anomalies and the results that produce the outcome. How important is it to give meaning to those intermediate layers in research in comparison to in business?
Professor DP: There are three perspectives on this question in research depending on the workability of the model. One, sometimes we don’t actually care about those intermediate layers; as long as the system works, it doesn’t really matter how the model works on the inside. A second perspective is let’s try to understand what the model does by doing an MRI sort of thing on our model – brain imaging but for artificial brains. The third perspective is trying to understand what kinds of mistakes happen, how they happen and asking whether there something fundamentally wrong with the model. If there is something fundamentally wrong with the model or the data, then we go in and then see it case by case. Then we take these individual notes and then plot their activity to understand how it activates and how it works.
JSC: For business, understanding those intermediate layers is a little more important. To put AI in mission critical situations is similar to putting a human who suffers from seizures put them in an intense atmosphere such as a trading floor without knowing what what the outcome could be. This is not ideal and you don’t necessarily know what is going to happen. We can’t test how an AI makes decisions in a real-time decision situation without knowing what the outcome could be and thus how those intermediate layers work. In most business situations, the products, the weather, the political sphere, the market changes constantly, you need to be able to understand how AI will behave and react, which involves understanding those intermediate layers that produce a model.Right to left, up and down: Theo Symowiak, Sam, representatives from Maluuba (including Mohamed Musbah), Mr. Jean-Sebastien Cournoyer, Professor Doina Precup.
Professor JK: More to do with the social implications and the vulnerabilities of AI. How do we deal with biases in the data and thus biases in the results we produce? And just as a final note, what are the social implications of AI?
Professor DP: Biases in the datasets have become an issue as algorithms have become better. We have noticed that the algorithm learns to predict exactly what you put in. If you put in garbage, you will get garbage. Therefore, if you put in data with biases, you will produce results with biases. Researchers are actively searching for ways to reduce say, racial and gender, biases, how might we detect these biases and how might we correct for these biases.
With regards to social implications, a lot of us researchers are motivated by social good. We view the AI as a tool improving healthcare, law services, etc. Montreal is special in those ways because a lot of the people here in Montreal are socially minded. Therefore, even though there are those biases, we will be actively finding ways to reduce them and work around them.
JSC: With AI, if we look at what happened with social networks, we allowed it to dramatically change the way interact with one another and we adapted. Businesses were built on profits only and did not necessarily see the potential biased impact these mediums may have. We can’t do that with AI, we need to emphasize thinking about the implications it has on societies, especially with regards to the biases it produces. As we create more wealth with AI, we need to find ways to redistribute some of that wealth without biases.
I personally think in the long run, AI will bring us back full circle in the sense that it will bring us back to a time, like tribal living, where we did not have to necessarily do much tedious work and could focus on enjoying our relationships with the people around us.
If you missed the event, check out our recorded livestream on Facebook!
Applications are now open for our 10-week summer intensive X-1 Accelerator program. Deadline is April 30, 2017. For more details, click here.
Editor’s Note: Last week we had several experts on AI come to speak to McGill about how the world – and especially business, is going to change with the rise of AI. If you missed the event, check out our recorded livestream on Facebook.
“If you can teach a machine to understand language, you have taught the machine to become intelligent” – Mohamed Musbah, Head of Maluuba Product for Maluuba.
With over 300 attendees filling up the SSMU ballroom, we held our final and largest event of the year the Business of Artificial Intelligence presented by the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship and the McGill AI society. We began our event with Maher Ayari, President of the Student Executive team for the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship, introducing our first speaker of the night, Theo Szymkowiak, President of the McGill AI society.Theo Szymkowiak, from McGill AI Society, presenting at the Business of Artificial Intelligence Event
Theo started the discussion around AI by first presenting what AI is, to simplify the topic so that both attendees with a tech background and a non-tech background can understand the content. He went on to demonstrating multiple examples of what AI can do, such as transform a doodle on a digital device into a painting, capturing photos and completing photos.
He then explained the importance of AI to our world today. He used an anecdote from the McKinsey report which compared the advances in AI to the advances we once had in electricity to explain why we should be more involved with this technology. As we gain more and more data and our computing power becomes stronger, we are gaining the power to build larger and larger models to absorb this information and make new advances.
Theo also spoke about building a business with AI. He advised “Do not compete with Google – go vertical instead.” By this he meant that find the gaps in the market that do not currently use AI and that need it. He gave the example of health care, an industry that can truly benefit from advances in AI. He finally finished his part of our event by discussing AI safety and stating that AI is gaining momentum but it is far from being intelligent enough to replace the human.
If you are interested in AI and are interested in either joining the club or sponsoring, feel free to check out the McGill AI Society.Mohamed Musbah, from Maluuba, presenting at the Business of Artificial Intelligence event.
After which, we had Mohamed (Mo) Musbah from Maluuba, recently acquired by Microsoft, which is the largest deep learning institution for language understanding here in Montreal. Their mission is to teach machines to think, reason and communicate in the context of language. They not only actively work with Professors such as Yoshua Bengio, Professor Richard Sutton and here at McGill closely, with Professor Doina Precup but also focusing on creating a business around solving machine learning and language processing problems surrounding AI.
He went on to explaining that the reason they are focused on solving issues with artificial intelligence is because they want to push the space forward but also that there is a fundamental value to solving AI and especially in the context of enterprise. As Mo spoke further with AI, they are not trying to teach the technology to be an expert in different areas but rather give it the fundamental human capabilities of reasoning, thinking and communicating.Maluuba was acquired by Microsoft in January (2017) – Maluuba’s vision is to solve ‘Artificial General Intelligence’ by creating literate machines that can think, reason and communicate like humans.
Mo dived deeper into the concept of why it is important to teach a machine how to understand language. Language, as he explained, is what separates us from any of the other species. It is essentially the verbalisation of thoughts and if you can teach a machine to understand language, you have taught the machine to become intelligent. Their business is simply built on solving two sides: one that leads to perception and this includes speech recognition, object rejection and detection and machine translation and the others that lead to intelligence which are natural understanding, decision-making, reasoning, and memory. They are currently focusing on solving the perception problems but are soon moving on to the problems of intelligence.
In solving these specific language problems, Mo further explained that they are trying to create a society that can be focused on creativity and reasoning rather than the monotonous aspects of work and thus be more productive as a society.
Mo finished off his presentation with an insight into what is next for the world of AI. We might make advances in machine reading comprehension, common sense reasoning, and transferring language before moving onto a multi-modal approach.
If you are interested in learning more about Maluuba, check them out here.Panelists: Professor Doina Precup (right), undergraduate program director at the School of Computer Science at McGill University, and Mr. Jean-Sebastien Cournoyer (left), co-founder and partner at Real Ventures and co-founder and board member at Element AI.
We then moved on to our panel discussion which involved experts in the fields of machine learning and artificial intelligence from the Montreal AI community. We had Professor Jiro Kondo, Assistant Professor of Finance at the Desautels Faculty of Management, facilitate the panel discussion between Professor Doina Precup, Undergraduate Program Director at the School of Computer Science at McGill University, and Mr. Jean-Sebastien Cournoyer, co-founder and partner at Real Ventures and co-founder and board member at Element AI.
Through this panel, they explored the trends and discussed the future opportunities in the industry. We looked at the impact of this technology on businesses in Canada and in Montreal especially, discussed the possibility of an AI-First world and finally, explored the role of entrepreneurs in this new field.
— Maher (@ayammaher) April 14, 2017
If you missed the event, check out our recorded livestream on Facebook!
Applications are now open for our 10-week summer intensive X-1 Accelerator program. Deadline is April 30, 2017. For more details, click here.
Editor’s Note: CGI U is a growing community of young leaders who don’t just discuss global challenges–they take real, concrete steps toward solving them. Throughout the year, and as a prerequisite of attending the CGI U meeting, students develop their own Commitments to Action: new, specific, and measurable initiatives that address pressing challenges on campus, in local communities, or around the world. Commitments range from manufacturing wheelchairs for developing countries to establishing campus bike share programs, from creating free vision clinics to developing e-learning applications for mobile phones. Since 2008, students have made more than 6,250 Commitments to Action, and nearly $3 million in funding has been awarded to these commitment-makers through CGI U.Taken from clintonfoundation.org
Below is an outline of the University Network process and timeline.
1. Members of the university learn more about the University Network, and the university formally joins the network. While this process may be managed by any university administrator or faculty member, membership in the CGI University Network must be approved by the school’s administration.
2. The university assigns a CGI U liaison who serves as the point of contact for CGI U, along with at least one staff or faculty member who can serve as the on-campus mentor(s) for student commitment-makers.
3. The university’s liaison and mentor(s) receive a resource guide with information on how to encourage students to apply for the CGI U meeting, assist students in preparing their CGI U applications, and support students as they develop and carry out their Commitments to Action. CGI U staff members are also available as resources to the university, and one university representative is encouraged to attend an orientation at the Clinton Global Initiative’s office in New York City in the late summer.CGI U is President Clinton’s initiative to engage the next generation of leaders and innovators on college campuses around the world.
4. CGI University Network members encourage their students to apply online to attend the CGI U meeting. Each year, this meeting brings together more than 1,000 college students to make Commitments to Action: new, specific, and measurable initiatives that address some of the world’s most pressing challenges. All currently enrolled students (undergraduate or graduate) 18 years of age or older are eligible to participate in CGI U.
5. At CGI U’s discretion, students are invited to attend the CGI U meeting. These decisions are made by CGI U staff based on the strength of each student’s application and the quality of his or her commitment.
6. CGI U provides network universities with a list of students who have been accepted to attend the CGI U meeting from their respective schools, and provides details on each student’s Commitment to Action.To apply, go straight to the application form!
7. At its discretion, the university provides at least $10,000 in total funding to a select group of these student commitment-makers. At least 50 percent of the funds must be allocated as seed funding for student commitments, while 50 percent may be reserved to fund student travel to the CGI U meeting. Before the meeting, CGI U will solicit a report from the university’s CGI U liaison on the distribution of travel funding and the expected allocation of commitment funding.
8. Students and one representative from the university’s faculty or administration attend the CGI U meeting, which is traditionally held in the spring. CGI U students and universities are considered for a wide range of external publicity opportunities. Coverage of CGI U 2015 included more than 100 digital and print stories and content partnerships. CGI U and student commitment-makers have been featured in outlets including The TODAY Show, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Wall Street Journal, PARADE Magazine, The Colbert Report, CNN, The Huffington Post, Elite Daily, Fusion, Forbes, MSNBC, and TIME.com. In addition to external press features, students may be featured at CGI U through on-stage commitment announcements, progress report videos, student keynote addresses, or participation in the CGI U Commitments Challenge. Members of the University Network are also highlighted online at cgiu.org.Each CGI U student must make a Commitment to Action: a specific plan of action that addresses a pressing challenge on campus, in the community, or in a specific region of the world.
9. The on-campus mentor(s) supports CGI U students from the university and guides them through the implementation of their commitments.
10. At the end of the academic year, the university provides CGI U with a final report on student funding, and has the opportunity to renew its membership in the University Network.
11. In the fall, CGI U solicits progress reports from all CGI U commitment-makers.For more information, go to clintonfoundation.org