An infographic article published in the March 2014 issue of IMMpress Magazine unveiled, for the first time, the career trajectories of graduate alumni from the Department of Immunology, showing the incredibly diverse and successful career paths our MSc and PhD graduates have taken over the past three decades – mainly in academia, research and development, and medicine. It demonstrated that a successful graduate degree in the life sciences can foster employment opportunities in a vast array of professions. But as the alumni data also points out, the career trends are rapidly changing. What opportunities, then, does the future hold for our current students, prospective graduates, and young professionals?
Traditionally, entrepreneurship seldom crosses the minds of budding scientists. We often trick ourselves into believing that it’s a career best suited for engineers in Silicon Valley who have the necessary skills and resources. But as a graduate student, you have had more training in entrepreneurship than you think! An entrepreneur builds a business upon an idea in much the same way a researcher builds a thesis upon a hypothesis: through perseverance, the ability to cope with failure; creativity, the ability to be resourceful; and skillful persuasion, the ability to deliver and negotiate a message with a larger audience. In fact, reports of graduate students engaging in startup developments throughout their MSc and PhD degrees are surfacing more and more in the general media, paving the way for science entrepreneurs to make a difference around the world.
So you’re interested – where do you start? Toronto offers a host of workshops, conferences, competitions, and networking opportunities every season that cater to both aspiring and established entrepreneurs. If you’re new to the scene and looking for a well-rounded resource to help kickstart your venture, you can sign up for Entrepreneurship 101. This 30-week course, offered at the MaRS discovery centre, provides contextual, experience-based learning opportunities for aspiring tech entrepreneurs and social innovators. The best part? It’s absolutely free for anyone interested. Originally founded by Dr. Cynthia Goh, a professor at the University of Toronto in the Department of Chemistry, the weekly lecture series covers all fundamental topics of starting and building a successful venture, from financing and marketing your business idea, to recruiting teams and protecting your intellectual property (IP). Guest speakers from multiple disciplines in the entrepreneurial world provide excellent inspiration for the upcoming entrepreneur throughout the course. Participants also have the opportunity to compete in the Up-Start! Competition, where they can pitch a business plan to a panel of real investors for a chance to win a $15,000 prize. Finally, the MaRS facility provides access to a range of venture services such as expert advice and mentorship, market intelligence, and connections to customer and partner networks to help actualize your ideas – whatever they may be.
An entrepreneur builds a business upon an idea in much the same way a researcher builds a thesis upon a hypothesis.”
For tech-savvy students with a more defined entrepreneurial interest in computer science and biomedical engineering, the Impact Centre at the University of Toronto offers Techno: an intensive 4-week incubator program geared specifically towards the creation of technology-based companies. In addition to providing expert guidance on IP strategies, product funding and development, and corporate governance, Techno also connects participants with prototyping facilities and lab space to allow the translation of their scientific discoveries into commercializable products and services, delivering a true incubator experience. Its goal is to facilitate a growing partnership between students, researchers, and industry to accelerate the production of inventions and technology by university members. Post Techno, the Impact Centre continues to provide mentorship, media exposure, accounting support, and industry connections through its Business à la Carte services, lowering barriers for early-stage companies and improving their chance of success.
A similar alternative for the life science enthusiasts lacking engineering or technological proficiency is BTC1850HY: a 3-hour, biweekly elective course offered by the University of Toronto Mississauga’s Mater of Biotechnology program. Classes are held at the St. George Campus in the OISE building, and the course takes an entrepreneur approach to developing a commercially relevant improvement to a life science product already on the market or an entirely novel product that has the potential to generate revenue. Graduate students from multiple departments across the university, ranging from biological sciences and engineering, to business, psychology, and law, are grouped together in cross-functional teams, with each member contributing expertise from their individual backgrounds. Patent filing, business registrations, regulatory knowledge of medical devices and software, and clinical validations for products in the commercial spectrum are just some of the modules that the course covers, as well as effective proposal creation for new life science products in the industry.
So if you feel that an entrepreneurship venture could be your next big move, take it from Dr. Coull: there’s no better training for entrepreneurship than to be an entrepreneur, and now is always the best time to get started. But hold off on that flight ticket to Silicon Valley; with all of these resources at your fingertips in Toronto, you can get started right now, right here.
Dr. Jeffrey Coull is a serial entrepreneur and neuroscientist who is bridging the gap between modern science and industry. He obtained a PhD in Pharmacology at McGill University, and began his career at SHI Consulting, where he provided strategic and operational advisory services to life science companies across the government, academic, industrial, and not-for-profit sectors. He then founded, and became the President and CEO of, Chlorion Pharma – a successful startup company in therapeutics development for neurological disorders. He also co-founded KineRx Neurosciences Inc., a Canadian specialty pharmaceutical company, and played an instrumental role in the company’s acquisition of the Canadian rights to TASMAR®, a drug marketed for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Afterwards, he served as the Director of Operations at the Ontario Brain Institute for two years. Currently, Dr. Coull is the President and CEO of Encycle Therapeutics Inc. in Toronto and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto. We contacted Dr. Coull for an insider story on his road to entrepreneurship.
IMMpress Magazine: What drove you to pursue entrepreneurship?
Dr. Jeffrey Coull: A desire to build something of value, as well as a desire to perform meaningful work while maintaining a work-life balance.
IM: How and when did you first get started? What resources did you utilize?
JC: I started my first company Chlorion in 2003 while I was completing my PhD at McGill. The CIHR Proof of Principle (POP) program was invaluable in allowing us to perform the seminal experiments needed to get the company off the ground.
IM: What has been the biggest challenge for you?
JC: The biggest challenge for biotechnology companies and for the entrepreneurs running them is always securing sufficient capital. The process of early drug development, in particular, is very expensive – arguably more costly than any other development program (especially when you factor in risk). Money seemingly “evaporates”.
IM: What do you think is the largest factor that’s holding back students who have an entrepreneurial desire but have not yet pursued it?
JC: A lack of understanding of the approach, a dearth of available capital, and a misunderstanding of the risks. In regards to the last point, it is my experience that, these days, employees at startups are not necessarily assuming greater “career risk” than those at multi-national corporations.
IM: Do you have any tips/advice for grad students interested in entrepreneurship?
JC: 1. Don’t fear the “business” end of things; this is relatively straightforward and can be learned by anyone. The science is the tough part.
2. The best training for an entrepreneur is being an entrepreneur.
3. No time is like the present to start a company.
Minsoo Yoon and James Han
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