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Techno 2013: where student entrepreneurs meet seasoned mentors

Alumni Neil Reid (at left) co-founder of Sciex and Graeme Ferguson, co-founder of IMAX, are just two of the distinguished speakers Professor Cynthia Goh (centre) has invited to previous Techno events at the University of Toronto (photo by Diana Tyszko)

It’s called Technopreneurship (or Techno) – an annual month-long event aimed at helping students harness their creativity and turn innovative ideas into marketable business opportunities.

Created in 2010,  by the University of Toronto's Institute for Optical Sciences (IOS) and now run through the Impact Centre, Techno is an elite program for scientists and engineers –  “technopreneurs” –  who want to create technology-based companies. Starting only with scientific expertise, the technopreneurs are guided by experts to learn by doing, building their companies in the process. (Read more about Techno at the Impact Centre.)

Business planning, corporate governance, evaluating potential markets, presentation skills, strategic partnerships and product development are just a few of the topics Techno addresses, while providing vital lab space and networking opportunities.

The workshop, which teaches young entrepreneurs (students, alumni and faculty) to translate their scientific discoveries into commercially viable products and services has already led to 41 start-up companies in the physical sciences sector.

Techno2013 runs from June 17 to July 12. U of T News asked Professor Cynthia Goh, director of the IOS, about the growth of Techno and what the future holds for student entrepreneurs.

How is Techno2013 different this year from past Techno programs?
We have been very fortunate to work with some dynamic student entrepreneurs and seasoned mentors to help develop and grow the Techno program. Although we like to keep the number of participants to a size that allows for individual and personalized attention for each team, the number of applicants this year exceeded anything we have received in the past and the incredibly diverse range of technologies is very exciting.

One significant new development this year is that we have officially partnered with the Ontario Brain Institute Entrepreneurs Program to have their fellows attend the Techno workshop to help further develop the business case for their individual technologies.

Also, over the past year we expanded into newly renovated space at the Banting and Best Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship where our companies receive laboratory and office space. Having many of the previous Techno participants in this space during Techno2013 will allow for increased interactions between the different companies and provide additional support for the current workshop participants through easy access to people who have tackled many of the same problems they will be facing.

In the past few years, IOS and the Techno workshops have acted as catalysts for entrepreneurship at the University of Toronto.  Does this still hold true, or has the role of Techno in U of T’s innovation and entrepreneurship mission changed?
Since its inception, the Techno workshop has been our flagship entrepreneurship training program, and this has not changed. Its goal remains to provide graduate students with the fundamental skills to quickly translate their academic discoveries and expertise into products and services that can create positive impact for society.

However, there has been a significant development that has been simmering for the past year. Techno and many other associated entrepreneurship support programs have been founded and run by the Institute for Optical Sciences (IOS) out of the interest from many faculty members and students towards commercialization. As the Techno program and other industry-academic support programs have matured, we have outgrown the original academic mission of the IOS.

As a result, we will be spinning out these programs into a new unit within the University of Toronto called the Impact Centre. This new centre will provide a single point of contact for a wide range of programs, with Techno at its core.

What does this year’s group of participants look like? Is there a particular focus to their work?
Although there is an incredible range to the people and technologies coming into Techno this year, the vast majority of them share a number of key elements. First, the technology lies in the domain of the physical sciences. These are the objects and tools that help define our physical world; from new light-emitting materials, to vibrational support structures for high-rise buildings. Each has a particular technological and commercialization pathway and will require varying levels of support to get to market, but until now they have all been largely overlooked by many of the current start-up support systems.

Also, many of these technologies are the result of groundbreaking research and the ability of the students to understand the underlying science behind their products allows them to adjust the technology, if needed, to meet the needs of their particular market.

What are some of the notable success stories from previous techno workshops?
This has been a very busy year for many of our companies. A few examples of some of their accomplishments include graduating out of our facilities into their own offices, achieving sales, travelling to India and China to learn about international markets and form partnerships, attending international conferences and trade-shows, and being awarded grants in the range of 30,000 from RIC Centre's VentureStart program, $100,000 from Grand Challenges Stars in Global Health, and various amounts from Ontario Centres of Excellence's Market Readiness.

What does the future hold for Techno?
The most exciting path is always into the unknown, and there will be many challenges and opportunities for Techno. Support from key members of the university and wider community for entrepreneurship training has allowed us to develop Techno to where it is today, and it looks like the groups interested in supporting this type of work will only grow.

For example, the Government of Ontario recently announced funds towards youth job training, and even listed Techno as one of the key examples of such programs. This would allow us to continue to provide and evolve this essential training program, support more of our students through fellowship programs both during the four-week program and afterwards, and continue to help broaden the definition of a start-up to include companies founded in a chemistry lab or physics workbench.

We hope that as our early companies mature over the next few years, we will reach a state where our future Techno participants are able to follow in the place of companies who have outgrown our facilities and we can create a healthy ecosystem of mature, mid-stage, and early companies. Most importantly, we hope that the products that are defined during Techno2013 will make it out into society and have a positive impact.