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Students, faculty encouraged to consider scientific entrepreurship
Kelly Foss

Science graduates have opportunities available to them beyond lab work, teaching or working for another company. That's the message offered by an introduction to scientific entrepreneurship workshop held at Memorial University in June.

It began when Physics associate professor, Kris Poduska, and Faculty of Science grants facilitation officer, Jan Hopkins, identified the need for faculty and students to be able to pitch their science research knowledge and ideas to funding agencies and industry seeking an economic benefit from the work. The pair also recognized the importance of the option of students becoming scientific entrepreneurs – choosing to set up their own businesses, commercializing their research results, staying in the province and growing the economy doing meaningful work for which they were trained. That’s when the seed for an introductory science entrepreneur workshop was planted.

Dr. Poduska immediately contacted her colleague at the University of Toronto, Chemistry professor Cynthia Goh, the Director of the Institute of Optical Sciences, to see whether she would be willing to facilitate an introductory workshop at Memorial for science researchers. Prof. Goh heads up an intensive four-week summer hands-on training program where facilitators work with student teams to begin building their potential tech-based companies. She and her associate, Dr. Venkat Venkataramanan, responded positively to the request. 

"Building one's own company is not a career option typically considered by most science graduates,” said Professor Goh. There is considerable talk about the knowledge economy and the science student has a large role to play, once they have additional information about how to do so."

The concept for a science entrepreneurial workshop was immediately endorsed by Dr. Mark Abrahams, dean of Science, and Dr. Mary Courage, associate dean (research), as an interesting pilot for the Faculty of Science. NSERC Regional Opportunities Fund via the NSERC Atlantic office and the Office of the Dean of Science funded the workshop, which was organized by Dr. Poduska, and coordinated by Ms. Hopkins. 

Approximately 35 people, mostly science graduate students, post-docs, and faculty, and directors of a newly started science-technology company, attended the workshop, with observers from Genesis and government. In a Skyped question and answer session, Daren Anderson, of Vive Nano, a scientific-technology company, mentored by Prof. Goh, that researches and commercializes nanotechnology-based products and materials for crop protection, catalysts, and other select applications for ‘clean’ industries, advised science participants interested in the entrepreneurial option to "just go for it...now, while you're young and have the time and energy...as the satisfaction and rewards are tremendous...and, if your business collapses, you will always benefit from the experience and can either work for someone else, or start another company."  

Professor Goh,and Dr. Venkataramanan, emphasized that there are many funding and mentoring sources available to companies.  She emphasized that students who have good science research ideas for solving basic life problems, barterable skills, and good luck, require very little funding to be successful scientific entrepreneurs.   

Evaluations indicated the workshop met expectations. Recent MUN science graduate, Sam Bromley, chief technology officer with Whitecap Scientific Corporation, “thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and found it quite valuable.”

“I am convinced that a regular program of a similar nature is required here in Newfoundland and that such a program would make a measurable positive impact on the lives of students and the ultimate success of the university,” he said.

Two positive outcomes came from the introductory workshop. Biology graduate student, Michael Vilimek, was invited to attend Professor Goh's intensive scientific summer workshop with residual NSERC workshop funding. Support was also given to start a monthly grassroots science-techno club, run by students and post-docs, with mentoring support from the workshop facilitators and faculty members. The Office of the Dean of Science, the School of Graduate Studies and Memorial’s Genesis Centre have endorsed the idea for the club. The club is expected to have its first meeting shortly, but already a number of students and post-doctoral fellows have formed an ad hoc planning committee, and they’ve begun meeting to plan next steps.

Oct 17th, 2011

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