U of T alumni discuss entrepreneurship at Female Founders panel

Leila Keshavjee, Saara Punjani, Pooja Viswanathan on challenges, failures, and future successes

U of T alumni discuss entrepreneurship at Female Founders panel

Founders, innovative thought leaders, pioneers, role models: these were just some of the terms lavished upon U of T alumni-cum-entrepreneurs Leila Keshavjee, Saara Punjani, and Pooja Viswanathan at a panel event at ONRamp on the eve of International Women’s Day. Dubbed “Female Founders,” this event was the first in an annual speaker series that leverages both the celebration of International Women’s Day and U of T’s thriving entrepreneurship culture to discuss the triumphs and challenges of being a female founder.

Christine Allen, the Interim Dean of the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, moderated the panel. She is also the co-founder of tech startup Nanovista.

Overcoming structural challenges

Punjani cited credibility as one of the main hurdles on the path to success. Punjani is the Chief Operations Officer of Structura Biotechnology, a startup founded by her brother Ali and also Marcus Brubaker. The business develops machine learning technology for structural biologists.

“We have a product that’s based on a completely new technology. The market is something that we are actively trying to create as we go along,” she said. Part of building this market is finding ways to establish credibility within existing markets, which is why Structura Biotechnology has offered its software to academic institutions for free — results published using the software are their “foot in the door,” according to Punjani.

Keshavjee, the founder of healthy, all-natural fruit ice popsicle startup Happy Pops, said that earning credibility as a young female entrepreneur has been a recurring challenge. “People often don’t trust young female entrepreneurs… but I think hopefully we’re changing that,” she said. Keshavjee said that preconceived notions of what an entrepreneur looks like can be a strong inhibitor for women. Her appearance and subsequent $150,000 offer on Dragons’ Den, she said, has allowed her to partially overcome this issue when dealing with clients, despite nothing about her product having changed.

For Viswanathan — co-founder of Braze Mobility, a startup that develops sensors that improve accessibility for wheelchair users — perception can be turned to her advantage. “I think a lot of the [problems are] just how you perceive [them],” she said. “So when you walk in thinking you’ve got a competitive edge because you’re a woman, then it actually turns out that way.”

Failure can be healthy

Failure has been a recurring motif for the three entrepreneurs, and each has their own approach on how to fail and how to come back stronger. “You’ve gotta fail fast,” Keshavjee said. “You’re gonna fail so many times as an entrepreneur… there’s a lesson to be learned in all of this.”

Viswanathan said that failure prevents complacency and pushes her to pursue alternative solutions to problems. “One thing that I actually love about failure is there’s nothing [like it to] get you moving,” she said. The lack of wheelchair standardization made it difficult for her startup to create universal sensors, especially without enough expertise in mechanical engineering and design. Her solution was to assemble a team capable of complementing each other’s expertise.

As for Punjani, overcoming failure depends on “changing the definition of what it actually means to fail.” She added that “having had more life experience and more of an entrepreneurial experience, you start to see that it’s not really about what you accomplish at the end of the day or what you expected, but… that you keep going.”

Sensing a bright future

Keshavjee, Viswanathan, and Punjani’s brother all relied on U of T’s Impact Centre to help launch their startups. The Impact Centre is one of the university’s nine accelerators; it provides resources and commercialization aid for aspiring entrepreneurs. Punjani had also relied on support from the Department of Computer Science Innovation Lab and UTEST, two other U of T accelerators.

Changes are on the horizon for all three startups, owing to the continued success they’ve been able to achieve thus far. Keshavjee’s Happy Pops is projecting 500,000 sales in 2019, in what is only its fourth year of operation. Keshavjee hopes to distribute her product across Canada and the US within the next five years.

Punjani and Structura Biotechnology are likely to shift from developing software to becoming involved in the field of drug discovery as they continue to expand their reach into their market.

Finally, Viswanathan’s startup is aiming to be “the intelligence behind the entire wheelchair manufacturing industry.” She said that the “industry is very mechanical heavy,” meaning that it has not significantly invested into software and intelligence data, which in turn limits wheelchairs’ mobility and ability to overcome certain accessibility concerns.

Impact Centre founder and U of T Entrepreneurship academic director Cynthia Goh described each of the entrepreneurs best at the start of the evening as “changing not only the conversation, but the very landscape of their fields.”

Steve Mann on Inventrepreneurship and the ‘tree-shaped person’

U of T professor’s course has inspired tech startups worth millions

Steve Mann on Inventrepreneurship and the ‘tree-shaped person’

Professor Steve Mann is using Inventrepreneurship to change the way U of T students think about startups. “We bring a kind of ‘jazz’ flavour to something that is normally a very ‘classical’ kind of education,” he said.

Regarded by some as the “father of wearable computing,” Mann teaches the graduate course APS1041: Inventrepreneurship. In the course, he teaches students fundamental scientific principles that have led to innovative breakthroughs and startups. Mann is also the Chief Scientist of the Creative Destruction Lab, which provides a network of entrepreneurial talent and capital to support early-stage startups.

Among the most notable startups to come out of his course are InteraXon, Transpod, and Metavision. Combined, the three startups have raised approximately $168.8 million in funding.

InteraXon has created a wearable brain-sensing headband called Muse that measures brain activity and provides audio feedback to users that accompanies the readings. The result is an immersive, intuitive, and personalized device that aids meditation and concentration.

Transpod, founded by Mann’s student Ryan Janzen, is focused on designing and manufacturing ultra-high-speed transportation technology and vehicles in a similar vein to Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, while Metavision manufactures augmented reality glasses.

Mann structures his classes with an emphasis on authentic individualized mentorship, which he describes as having a “focus on invention,” while adding fundamental elements of mathematics, physics, and other scientific grounding.

He also aims to combine elements he has seen employed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford. “I combine the mathematical scientific depth and rigour of MIT with the social and business relevance of Stanford, to give the students the grounding that they need to make a new scientific breakthrough that can attract investment capital and be commercialized,” he wrote in an email to The Varsity.

Mann prioritizes the development of what he calls “tree-shaped” individuals in his lessons.

“Whereas other engineering disciplines typically favour the ‘T-shaped’ person who has one deep area of expertise (the vertical part of the ‘T’) combined with broad social and communication skills (the horizontal part of the ‘T’), I emphasize what I call the ‘Tree-Shaped person.’”

These tree-shaped individuals have a wider variety of skills that reach into more areas, providing them with a more diverse toolset. Mann’s objective is to create well-rounded entrepreneurs who are better prepared for real-world challenges and innovation.

When asked about the future, Mann was optimistic about the potential of InteraXon and wearable technology at large.

“I think the next big thing in the coming years will be health and wellbeing, especially mental health,” Mann said. “Our company, InteraXon, created the world’s leading brain health platform.”

U of T startup wants to take pain out of parking

Grid Parking co-founder on finding the right spot

U of T startup wants to take pain out of parking

“The dynamic nature of parking does not allow you to be sure that you’re going to find the right spot at the right time.” Substitute ‘parking’ for ‘entrepreneurship’ and Grid Parking co-founder Ahsan Malik’s statement would still ring true; both require a significant degree of patience, sufficient time, and a bit of luck.

Fortunately, Malik and his startup’s team have the extra ingredients needed to start taking the pain out of parking: market research, pilot testing, and $20,000 in seed funding.

Co-founded by current U of T student Birinder Lobana and recent alumni Muhammad Sheikh and Malik, Grid aims to provide users with real-time data of available parking spaces through an app. The ultimate goal is to make parking — especially in major downtown hubs like Toronto — faster and more convenient.

On September 5, Grid won the $20,000 Hatchery Prize at the sixth annual Demo Day. Demo Day 2018 was the culmination of the four-month Hatchery Nest accelerator program. Out of a cohort of over 30 groups, 13 finalists were given the chance to pitch their startups to a panel of judges. For Malik and his team, the prize represented both the end of a journey that they had started from the 2017 Hatchery Nest cohort, and the transition of the project from a concept to reality.

Looking for a spot

The inspiration to begin work on the startup stemmed from Lobana and Malik’s personal frustrations with finding parking in downtown Toronto. The two met while playing soccer and frequently had to find parking at different venues to continue playing sports. This frustration led them to pursue a solution. Malik’s experience as a mechanical engineering student and Lobana’s computer science background made the collaboration straightforward. The system they wanted to design, however, required hardware, which is where electrical and computer engineering student Sheikh would come in.

“I’d say that we all came from cities that are not as mesmerizing as we found Toronto,” said Malik. “[The] interest in diversified fields… combined together into one space… Fueled our imagination to what we can do and putting in the efficiency that we see is still needed in the system.”

Together, the three applied to the Hatchery Nest program at U of T in 2017. According to Joseph Orozco, the Entrepreneurship Hatchery’s executive director and co-founder, close to $40 million has been raised collectively by startups that have participated in the program in the last five to six years. The Nest opens applications in September, and holds interviews for admission in February. The program runs from May to August, providing groups with advisory boards consisting of mentors from numerous different fields that provide groups with detailed feedback and resources to develop their businesses.

“[This] expanded collaborative network… [allows] us to keep on creating startups and generating a dealflow that is certainly transforming Canada and allowing our students to think big,” said Orozco.

Grid was not among the four teams to secure funding during Demo Day 2017, and Malik attributes this to his team’s failure to identify all the stakeholders that would be affected by their business.

“It took us time to realize that establishing a proper business has to find a very sweet spot within the existing chain of stakeholders involved in the market which you are going into,” said Malik. “The first time when we were presenting to investors, we were presenting the very, very positive feedback that we had received from the users, the driver’s side. So that market was not the right fit for the business model.”

Circling around

Still, failure to secure funding did not mean that involvement in the Hatchery Nest program was a failure for Grid. With the feedback they received, the team returned to the clients they had interviewed and sought new clients in different markets in order to refine their pitch.

Equipped with a richer diversity of feedback and responses, Grid reapplied to the Hatchery Nest in 2018. The team continued to fine-tune their ideas, and Malik notes that a meeting with Airbus Chief Technology Officer Grazia Vittadini and mentorship from John Phyper were particularly valuable.

Malik also added that Orozco connects groups with industry leaders and U of T students in the business stream in order to provide groups with more business-oriented input.

“[Orozco’s] feedback during your presentations is something that really combines everything that he has seen from the previous successful startups to help you know that what you’re trying to do is even viable or not in the long run,” said Malik.

The involvement of other student-led startup groups also helped Malik and his team develop their idea. “Those people are also going into their ventures, into the world of unknowns, trying to build something right from the beginning, lay the foundations. So they’re going through the same phases as [we] are.”

Finding a fit

In October, Grid began pilot testing using portions of their seed funding. This currently consists of additional market research and networking to adapt the team’s design.

“So the challenge is to incorporate the feedback of our actual customers, the clients, into the design we are building, and [determining the] trade-off between cost, performance, quality, scalability, and those kinds of things,” said Malik.

In the long term, the team hopes to expand their market to other major city hubs, including Calgary, Montréal, and Vancouver. For now, their go-to market is companies that sell tickets and already collect user information that can incorporate Grid’s interface of reservation links into their own. This would include stadiums for concerts or sports events and hotels. From there, the team will look to expand to more public spaces.

“It’s hard to put a timeline to it because so many factors are involved, but by the end of next year, we hope to be at [places like] Pearson airport, Yorkdale Mall, Rogers Centre,” said Malik.

The team is also looking into receiving further support from accelerators such as NEXT Canada and the Creative Destruction Lab.

Grid has received investment offers from friends and investors who attended Demo Day. Malik noted, “The point right now is that we, being engineers, lead with technology and its performance. So our focus right now is pilot testing and we know that we can raise much higher funds once we have proven that our concept is driving the future of mobility.”