Sparking the entrepreneurial spirit: TEC Edmonton program mixes research and business
Written By: Richard Cairney
2007-01-05A unique pilot project by TEC Edmonton is bringing MBA students together with other students who have research ideas and a desire to bring them to the marketplace.
The program is designed to bring new knowledge and technology to the marketplace.
Joe Patton, who is working on his PhD in plant genetics, has teamed up with MBA student Han (Tony) Li. Patton is developing new plant genetics technology that could solve a major problem in the genetic modification of plants.
At present, genetic modifications are made for a number of reasons. Some crops, for example, are altered genetically so they are resistant to a specific herbicide. This allows farmers to get rid of weeds without damaging their own crops.
"The big problem is that because they put these genes into the nucleus of the plant, it gets into the pollen and it gets dispersed into neighbouring crops and related weeds," said Patton. Insects, birds and even wind will carry the pollen from modified crops to unmodified crops.
"There is a case right now in Saskatchewan where organic farmers are suing because their organic crops can't be guaranteed as organic, because they can't guarantee what is genetically modified and what isn't."
Patton is working on a technique that could ultimately solve the problem.
"Once this platform is out there, if I can get this to work, it will be a tool that will enable more people to do that type of research. I think that the bottleneck right now is access to that kind of technology."
Patton's MBA partner Li says the work is a natural evolution of existing technology.
"Several years ago people used DOS as an operating system on their computers and today they're using Windows. The new technology used by Joe can create a new platform for bioscience and agriculture research," Li said, adding that the program provides him with valuable lessons.
"To have something in the real world to practice your skills on is very important, especially for MBA students. We learn a lot from text books: finance, accounting, marketing and so on. But nowadays for an MBA program, a lot of them are based on case studies but case studies cannot replace real work experience," added Li, an international student from Tian Jin, China's third-largest city.
Both students have considerable experience behind them. In China, Li earned his masters degree in chemistry. He worked for the Chinese Academy of Science as a researcher then moved into sales and marketing with General Electric's thermoplastic division, before joining Clariant.
At Clariant, he used his previous experience to solve a vexing business problem: the plastics industry couldn't meet the rapidly changing demands of the cell phone industry for different colours of plastics. Clariant had a technology that would solve the problem, but wasn't aware of the cell phone's need for it. It was only through Li's initiative that the problem and solution were paired up.
"It was a totally new market for Clariant, so I introduced the technology to Motorola and Nokia. In my last year at Clariant, I doubled my sales in just six months."
For his part, Patton has been working for several years on developing the new technology and bringing it to the market, earning degrees in science biotechnology, law, and his MBA in order to bring his dream to life.
"I have spent seven or eight years thinking of this. It is one of the reasons I have done those two other degrees, to deal with intellectual property aspects," said Patton, who heard about the pilot project while working in TEC Edmonton's legal department while working towards his MBA.
Pamela Freeman, TEC Edmonton's vice-president of company development, says the program, run with Alberta Ingenuity, also provides student teams with industry mentors.
A technology commercialization body operated by the U of A and the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, TEC Edmonton will also provide assistance in issuing patents on behalf of the students, Freeman said.
And the most promising pairs could get an audience through TEC Edmonton's Deal Generator, a program Freeman describes as "the largest angel investment group in Canada."
Patton says he's getting something out of working with Li, not only because of Li's business acumen but also because Li is an international student.
"Tony has got a pretty good background and he has done a lot of work for some chemical companies in China and has a pretty good hold on how to rule out which things won't work, which is half the battle," he said. "It's kind of nice to be able to draw a line through something and say 'That won't work' and stop wasting time on it. He's able to see things I may have over looked or not considered at all."
"And in China, culture isn't just limited to people's social lives. It has tremendous effect on the way people do business. There is so much more based on relationship there than there is here."
Li knows his international experience is a strength.
"The Chinese people and people from the U.S. or Europe will have very different approaches to solve the same problem," he said. "I try to use my previous experiences, my special approach, to solve problems in North America in Canada."
Freeman says the pilot program will be evaluated this spring.