Engineering entrepreneurs

Innovators at the Schulich School of Engineering are getting the chance to turn their ideas into profitable enterprises through a competitive mentorship and financing program at the Haskayne School of Business. The Creative Destruction Lab Rockies (CDL-Rockies) offers participants the opportunity to seek guidance and support from some of the university’s top researchers and the city’s most influential entrepreneurs.

Through the CDL-Rockies, with support from Innovate Calgary, Schulich researchers and alumni have applied for patents, secured investors and turned their ideas into viable, spin-off enterprises. And the program isn’t just for new ventures. Jeff LaFrenz, who graduated from Electrical Engineering in 1985 and then 1988 with a masters, took his established software solutions company, VizworX Inc. through the CDL-Rockies program this year as a way of increasing exposure to potential investors and gaining valuable entrepreneurial guidance from experts in the field.

Sensing the root of epileptic seizures

Dr. Colin Dalton, PhD is no stranger to the entrepreneurial journey. The associate professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering has been working with start-up companies in Canada and the United Kingdom for most of his career. So when he, biomedical engineering PhD student Pierre Wijdenes, and Hotchkiss Brain Institute member Dr. Naweed Syed, PhD developed a newly improved medical biosensor that can capture and even influence brain activity in epileptic patients, he knew they had something with the potential to change people’s lives. They just weren’t sure how to get it to market. Then a colleague told them about the CDL-Rockies.

“The CDL-Rockies pushes you,” says Dalton, whose project was one of 13 ventures to graduate from the program. “Every eight weeks there’s a meeting with all the Fellows and Associates, people with incredible entrepreneurial experience. They set objectives for you and if you don’t meet them, you’re out. We’re the technology people, so that’s what we focus on but you need someone who understands the business side of things and the importance of moving quickly. So we went from a prototype in a petri dish to a flexible membrane device implanted in an animal within eight weeks. That’s an entire masters thesis in eight weeks!”

After his experience with the CDL-Rockies, Dalton plans to give talks around the university to explain the benefits of the program and encourage others to apply. In the meantime, the company, Neuraura, which also recently won the TENET i2c pitch competition held by the Cumming School of Medicine, is working with Health Canada and the FDA to move their sensor towards human tests. The hope is for these sensors to give doctors the ability to communicate with the epileptic centre of a patient’s brain, allowing them to understand where seizures originate and even send signals back into the brain to stop the seizure before it begins.

Giving first responders the full picture

When emergency responders are sent out in the field, they get a first-hand view of the situation as it unfolds. But this direct line of sight doesn’t mean they have all the information they need easily at hand. They may need to look at one monitor to assess air quality and another to understand their oxygen supplies. Dr. Steve Liang, PhD, an associate professor of Geomatics Engineering, developed a cloud-based system that gives these different sensor networks the ability to communicate with each other simultaneously, offering the first responder a greater level of insight to make sound, efficient and safe decisions. Liang says taking part in the CDL-Rockies put the company, SensorUp, in front of the right people to help it succeed.

“I was blown away by the value of the CDL-Rockies process and the resources they provide,” says Liang. “Every meeting was about how we can add more value to this company. Their advice on what each new priority should be was unmatched as was the access they granted to networks of potential customers. Normally when you do this on your own, it’s hard to get meetings with the right people. But when the people at CDL-Rockies set up a meeting, we were able to talk directly to the relevant person. They saved us ten times the effort. It’s an amazing program.”

As well as making it to the final 13 in the CDL-Rockies program, SensorUp also won an award from NATO for their ability to keep the information their sensors collect secure. The company is now developing a large-scale product demonstration for the US Department of Homeland Security where the company’s technology will act as a hub for all the sensing systems the department’s first responders use. Liang likens it to developing the Robocop of first responders, where the company’s artificial intelligence engine will take in all the information and provide it to the first responder in a way that is easily digested in the midst of an emergency.

Finding a market for printable circuitry

One of the biggest challenges engineers face is knowing whether their innovation will find value in the marketplace. For Dr. Simon Park, PhD, professor of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, and PhD students, Chaneel Park and Allen Sandwell, participating in the CDL-Rockies was exactly what the three engineers needed to help answer that question. They developed a way to print fine circuitry directly onto flexible and stretchable materials, like plastics or fabric. While their company, MakeSens, didn’t make it to the final 13, Simon Park says the mentorship and feedback they received along the way was an invaluable part of their entrepreneurial journey.

“As a researcher, you’re always focused on writing papers,” he says. “We wanted to see whether our research can be of use to people. This CDL-Rockies experience helped us understand that what we are doing in the research lab is important and can be useful to industry. The biggest benefit for me was witnessing what the students got out of the experience. They enjoyed seeing the possibilities that exist for their ideas beyond the research lab. It gave them the opportunity to meet with people and understand how to assess what solutions industry is looking for.”

Park says engineers often come up with ideas, then try to find customers who can use them. He says researchers should come at it from the other direction, surveying industry to understand the problems they face then developing solutions to meet their needs. He says MakeSens is currently exploring a few potential applications for their conductive ink, including wearable electronics or a mattress pad that can sense sleeping patterns and adjust the mattress for a better fit. It could also be useful in monitoring of oil and gas structures. He says the main goal is to find a way to make the ink more cost effective so that mass-production is an option down the line.

Giving value and protection to unique ideas

As one of the key partners in the CDL-Rockies process, Innovate Calgary helps Schulich’s prospective entrepreneurs identify what’s unique about their innovations then puts them on a path towards protecting that ingenuity. Senior Innovation Manager Dr. Tony Wigglesworth, PhD says, in cases where the ideas are both unique and potentially valuable, an opportunity exists for researchers to use their product as a jumping off point for a new business.

“There’s been a long history of innovation coming out of the Schulich School of Engineering,” he says, “We’ve seen a big increase in the last 18 months, which is likely being driven by the CDL-Rockies. We’ve seen some brand new companies make it through the CDL-Rockies and get their first seed investment in a much faster time frame than we would have seen four years ago.”

Innovate Calgary’s other role is to help researchers adhere to the university’s revenue sharing policy and separate the ownership of their intellectual property from the school. Wigglesworth says doing so helps make the innovations more marketable to outside investors. He says if investors are going to put money into a new enterprise, they want to know the technology is not only unique but that its value is proven and protected.

Freeing innovation from the lab

The CDL-Rockies is poised to bring a breadth of previously untapped innovation at the University of Calgary out of the lab and into the world. Dr. Michael Robinson, PhD, associate professor of Finance in the Haskayne School of Business and lead of the CDL-Rockies, says researchers with potentially transformative inventions were struggling to understand how to take their ideas further. He says CDL-Rockies gives innovators from Schulich—and all of Alberta—a community of support that’s ready to back smart ideas and the people behind them.

“Early stage entrepreneurs wake up in the morning and have 100 things they could do but they just don’t know how to prioritize what they should be working on to develop their business,” says Robinson. “The idea was to help fill a gap in the marketplace between the early stage companies that need mentorship and our Fellows and Associates that are looking to provide that mentorship and potentially invest in the companies.”

Robinson says the CDL-Rockies team is currently comprised of 27 Fellows and Associates from the entrepreneurial community who agree to meet with and assess the progress of the ventures competing in the program every eight weeks. In each meeting, the Fellows and Associates choose which ventures will proceed to the next round, either based on progress or investibility. He says while the benefits are clear to the research community, there’s an educational component as well. Each venture chosen for competition is assigned an MBA student to help them achieve their objectives. Robinson is hoping graduate students from Schulich will soon be in the room, as well, offering them a chance to witness the business side of making an innovative concept become a lucrative reality.