Graduates in the physical sciences may believe that only a binary set of opportunities exists upon the completion of their degree: research followed by an academic career, or a job in the industry for a biotech or pharmaceutical company. However, another option that is growing in popularity is entrepreneurship.
A number of universities have initiated programs to help cultivate entrepreneurial skills in their science-studying populations. The Institute of Optical Sciences (IOS) at U of T is an independent research institute that provides resources for the commercialization of science research. Its mandate is to “[help] accelerate the transfer of academic knowledge to tangible products and societal benefits,” through three pillars: education, discovery, and entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurial training at IOS can be traced back to 2004, when Dr. Cynthia Goh of the chemistry department began a seminar series for U of T graduate students in chemistry, physics, electrical and computer engineering. Eventually, the series grew beyond capacity and was transferred to MaRS, a science, technology, and social commercialization center. In 2010, IOS hosted its first annual techno-entrepreneurial training program, a one-month intensive program designed to provide students with the foundation to pursue their enterprising goals.
“Our mission is … primarily about research excellence. But we have a passion to do the right thing — help our students have the job they want and translate our research,” says Goh, the current director of IOS.
“The idea of entrepreneurship within chemistry and physics is not as prevalent as it is in computer science,” says Scott McAuley about the training program at IOS, which is relatively new in comparison to other well-established science and business programs at Simon Frasier University, Acadia University, and The University of Waterloo. McAuley graduated from U of T in 2010 with an MSc in Chemistry, and decided to join IOS the following summer. Along with a friend, he started a company called Lunanos, with prototypes for infectious control products in the works.
More than 30 startup companies have come out of the IOS with applications in fields such as health care, agriculture, optics, and nanomaterials, indicating the growing interest in creating jobs that merge research with business.
In keeping with its core principles, IOS offers a collaborative master’s program and interdisciplinary courses and wet and dry-lab space for students. It also provides assistance with the more detailed aspects of startup companies such as finding appropriate academic grants and connecting entrepreneurs with legal advisors.
This past August, the institute expanded its academic and professional collaborations internationally by sending a team of IOS faculty and companies on a month-long trip to India. With the help of Going Global Innovation, a federal contribution program from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, IOS was able to visit five major cities and meet with industry, university, and research institutes in India.
The team engaged in one-on-one meetings with faculty members, industry leaders, and health-care professionals to share ideas and receive feedback. “Whatever innovations come out of these talks will not only boost Canada’s research and economic competitiveness, but also generate relevant applications for a growing economy,” says Goh.
The opportunity to connect with a different academic and professional culture provided learning and networking opportunities for IOS faculty and companies alike. “We did learn a lot about how the system [in India] works … recognizing that we need to tailor what we do to the country you’re in, especially in an area like health care,” reflects McAuley.
With the availability of resources to begin and develop a product, what is the next step for a start-up company like Lunanos?
Says McAuley, “I’ve learned that if you put a [timeline] on anything it will end up taking two or three times longer than that … [but] we’ve done a lot of talk and a lot of background work, and I’d like to get something that we can actually show people.”