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IC-IMPACTS Summer Institute: not your usual summer camp

Indian and Canadian grad students explore entrepreneurship, technology at U of T

Bhuvaneshwari Karunakaran (Indian Institute of Technology Bombay), Sutapa Chandra (Indian Institute of Technology Bombay) Abdul Kalam Shaik (Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur)

When people think of summer camp, they tend to think of children paddling canoes, playing soccer or learning arts and crafts. But the 47 graduate students from India and Canada who attended the IC-IMPACTS Summer Institute earlier this summer had a very different experience.

The summer institute, which took place at U of T’s Bahen Centre, brought together students and faculty members from 18 science and engineering disciplines and 29 different Canadian and Indian academic institutions for a week-long event devoted to sensing technologies to monitor infrastructure, clean water and infectious diseases. During the week, students presented posters, participated in panel discussions and worked in teams to present proposals for sensing technologies. 

They also learned the skills they will need to sell their ideas to other scientists, business people and the general public, thanks to U of T’s Impact Centre, which presented a crash course in entrepreneurship.

“I really improved my speaking skills,” said student Bhuvaneshwari Karunakaran from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. A bonus was some help with a research problem from some of the professors at the institute:  “I use cell phones for imaging tiny particles such as blood cells. But there are thousands of different types of phones. I was wondering whether there is a common platform that I could use.  The faculty members who spoke at the summer institute helped me out.”

The summer institute is an annual event hosted by the India-Canada Centre for Innovative Multidisciplinary Partnerships to Accelerate Community Transformation and Sustainability (IC-IMPACTS). This year it was organized by U of T electrical engineering professor Stewart Aitchison, who described it as a chance for students to develop knowledge and understanding of the latest developments and challenges in the field of optical sensing technologies. 

Aitchison said the feedback overall from both students and professors was positive. “Overall we are very happy with how the summer institute turned out.”

The students were especially impressed with entrepreneurial training, according to Richard McAloney, the Impact Centre’s director, technology & entrepreneurship. For the IC-IMPACTS students, the centre presented a mini-version of its month-long Techno program, where the students worked in teams to invent a new product to address a particular health challenge, and to acquire the entrepreneurship skills of building a business plan, assessing the target audience, and planning how to take their solution to market.

Interested in entrepreneurship and startups? Visit U of T's Banting & Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship

“It was more going through the exercise of thinking about a product, rather than just thinking about their research,” McAloney said. A physicist with the Institute for Optical Science, he said that scientists are not always good at explaining their research to business people and the general public.

“We made them do an elevator pitch about themselves. The way they talked about their research changed, even within that week, and that’s fantastic because as they go out to the world they can talk to anybody about their research. I hope we made a small impact and helped them think outside the science and helped them to communicate their science well.”

McAloney said students from both India and Canada expressed their appreciation for the entrepreneurial training in a follow-up survey, emphasizing how it will help them in future presentations, conferences and even thesis defences.

Besides entrepreneurial pitching skills, the students also learned research techniques from leading scholars such as U of T environmental engineer Bob Andrews, viewed demonstrations to show how these research techniques are applied in community contexts, and presented their own scientific research. 

Azima Khan from the University of Mumbai said the summer institute sharpened her critical thinking skills and gave her confidence to network with other scientists.  “It was an amazing, enriching and learning experience.”

IC-IMPACTS is a partnership among U of T, the University of British Columbia and the University of Alberta, and several institutions in India dedicated to the development of research collaborations between Canada and India in the areas of water quality, infrastructure, and public health.