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12 ideas turning scientists into startup founders

‘Techno’ program helps entrepreneurs from a research background build a business

Illuster Tech developed their business around engineering education tools in the Techno program (image courtesy Illuster Tech)

All entrepreneurs face the same challenge of bringing their ideas to market, and the founders coming out of Techno’s entrepreneur development program are no different.

However, this particular group of entrepreneurs – immersed in ground-breaking, academic science and engineering-based research – must also learn to shift their thinking from researcher to businessperson as they enter the world of startup ventures.

Over their years of studies, Techno’s entrepreneurs have honed medical breakthroughs, industry upstarts and social innovations based on research from the cutting edges of the physical sciences.

And, while they have explosive ideas, these academics face unique challenges in learning to pitch, market and develop a business model as they step from the lab and into investor meetings.

“Each participant comes with their own academic and technical expertise,” says Cynthia Goh, director of the Impact Centre, the entrepreneurship hub that produces Techno. (Read more about the Impact Centre)

Building a program that focuses on a research-based starting point is the reason scientists and engineers with a focus on the physical sciences – chemistry, physics and other areas grounded in the physical world have turned to Techno’s intensive four-week program since 2010. During this time it has helped more than 50 companies translate innovative university science into benefits to society.

“Over the course of Techno we work with everyone to ensure that the market they have chosen is one where they can have an impact,” said Goh.

The end goal of Techno is to give these science-minded entrepreneurs the tools to continue building, developing and launching a dynamic startup grounded in research or skills gained during their thesis work.

On November 5, 2014 from 3:00 to 8:00 p.m. the Impact Centre will host a public TechnoShowcase at the MaRS Discovery District to highlight the exciting new products from companies that have participated in the last five years of Techno. (Read more about the TechnoShowcase)

The latest Techno cohort recently presented their startup concepts at the close of the fifth annual workshop. Here are some highlights of the ideas pitched by the student entrepreneurs:

Kids building robots, with Soapbox Robotics
“I’ve never seen anybody so passionate about robots,” said Cynthia Goh of entrepreneur Don Pasilino’s concept that combines the principles of Lego, programming and imagination to result in an introductory robotics kit for children.
Looking forward, Pasilino says he aims to partner with after-school programs and with existing computer science programs, and to widen the target demographic to kids as young as four, who would benefit from simple kid-friendly tools that could be understood as a “colouring book for robotics.”
Making every surface safe, with AllergenFree
With peanut allergies on the rise, this company wants to eliminate the anxiety felt by those affected and ensure that peanut and other allergen residues are properly removed from surfaces. AllergenFree is developing a gentle product that removes trace peanut allergens from tables and other surfaces, making restaurant tables, desks and other public places safe.
Creating seeds of sustainability, with BinhiVida
Entrepreneur Conception Ponce is developing a new way for farmers to plant, which she says will improve farming conditions in the developing world and, specifically, the Philippines. Her innovation is a combination of fertilizer and seed in one, reducing the time and capital it takes for subsistence farmers to tend their crops. By zeroing in on this under-served population of subsistence farmers, as well as locally sourcing materials to make them more affordable, BinhiVida will serve a market not addressed by industry leaders Monsanto and Syngenta while turning subsistence farming to sustainable farming.
Hacking dusty, dirty solar panel problems, with CleanMePV
Solar panels are a great energy option for homes and businesses in and around Saudi Arabia. But when a dust storm sweeps in and covers the panels with sand, there’s up to a 50 per cent reduction in efficiency. CleanMePV is developing a mechanical device to effectively clean these solar panels. Their product requires no water (a precious resource in the desert), does not scratch the panel surface, and can be cleaned panel-by-panel rather than in only set shapes of panel-arrays. Ahmed Balawi, the entrepreneur behind it, is also thinking ahead as to whether this device could also work for snow.
Listening for cancer cells, with Echofos Medical
Mike Moore, a biomedical physics grad student, is developing a diagnostic tool that utilizes sound waves to detect tumour cells in a patient's blood sample. The technology provides an early warning system for tumour formation in the body, prior to any symptoms. Using information collected with the device, doctors will be able to formulate a better cancer therapy plan for their patients, ultimately leading to a better survival rate.
New tools for teaching young engineers, Illuster Tech
The University of Toronto lined up as the first customer for this educational platform that, according to the alumni founders behind it, transforms the way students learn electronics. Their package of printed circuit boards, combined with software and a PDF instruction manual, is now being used by more than 400 students as their introduction to electronics, updating their hands-on learning from decades-old and obsolete ‘bread boards’ to industry-standard circuit boards. (Read more about Illuster Tech)
Simulating human tissue in a petri dish, with RHEO Biotech
During Oleg Chebotarev’s master’s research in U of T's mechanical and industrial engineering department, he developed a research tool that simulates human tissue and blood. He now wants to take his technology beyond the lab and help pharmaceutical companies reduce the development costs for new drugs by reducing the need for costly animal and human testing. In recognition of the commercial potential of his work, Chebotarev was recently awarded a $32,000 U of T Heffernan Commercialization Fellowship, which supports researchers turning technologies developed in university labs into businesses.
Taking the stress out of decision-making, with DIRAC Analytics
Ed Harris’ innovative decision-making software connects consumers and producers by asking users to detail the qualities of a product they’re searching for, and pairs that search with both the most accurate result as well as a few sponsored options.
Combining the addictive powers of Farmville and science education, with Fidchell Games
Mathematics student Maria Berejan saw potential in all the time users waste planting strawberries in the app called Farmville, so she set out to combine gaming’s fun and inviting qualities with nuggets of knowledge from the world of the sciences. The company’s first game uses a creative sandbox space to teach users the basics of optics a branch of physics that teaches the behaviour and properties of light. She is positioning her game's appeal to both the online learning market and the behemoth market of mobile games.
Sticking it to hiccups through a convenience story candy, with Sticcups
Enterprising high-schooler Alexandra Goh-McMillan presented her tasty solution to a common nuisance hiccups. She explains her business model as “by teens, for teens” and is seeking placement for her hiccup-calming candies in local corner stores.
A new way to look at welding, with Enceladus Imaging
You know that bright halo of light and sparks that explode when a piece of metal is being welded? This company has developed a camera that allows users to see both this welding arc as well as the seam of the weld they are working on. Enceladus’ camera combines high dynamic range imaging with high speed photography to help users make clean, precise welds and reduces the need to expose inspectors to the dangerous working space in automated welding facilities. (Read more about Enceladus Imaging)
Building smart, wearable guidance systems for the visually impaired, with Immerciv System Tech
Arjun Mali has spent the past few years volunteering with the visually impaired for years and developing new tech-based solutions to help them be more independent. His wearable products make users aware of obstacles, changes in elevation and more with a hands-free, vibration feedback system that could change the very nature of their mobility.