• Entrepreneurship at UBC

What It Takes To Get Started With Us [Part 1]

evolution is a podcast shining light on our ecosystem’s stories of innovation, impact and hustle throughout their venture building journey. Join us as we build community and knowledge related to entrepreneurship during the course of COVID-19.

What does it take to get a startup off the ground and how can you find the resources to get you there? Adapted from our entrepreneurship@UBC Immersion Week (EIW) session, "What it takes to get started with us", hear from 3 ventures a part of entrepreneurship@UBC's program on how they began their entrepreneurial journey, what they've learned so far and how they've grown from idea to fully-fledged company. Featuring Ina Na of DECAP Research & Development, Yajur Sondhi of Nyoka and Mirjam Mai of Filbrilex, and moderated by Theazel Lee of VANTEC and E-Fund.

Listen to the 1st episode of evolution Season 2

To read a full transcript, see below:


Chang: Today's session is about working with us. Here at entrepreneurship@UBC, we work with hundreds of entrepreneurs, innovators, and founders, both from UBC and across British Columbia. These entrepreneurs have remarkable ideas and innovations that will help the future of our world and create real impact. Through our CORE and Lab2Lanch programs along with our overlapping streams for social ventures and climate solutions, the later phase HATCH Accelerator program, we are privileged to be working with this community who are disrupting industries with their companies. Much of this starts very early with the early stages of venture building. Sometimes it's an idea with legs. Other times it's a discovery from the lab. No matter how you get started, going down the venture startup journey is never easy. Taking the steps to formalize your business is a daunting task. As a result, we are very excited to be speaking with several entrepreneurs from our newest 2020 fall Lab2Lanch cohort on how they did just that.

Students, professionals, researchers and academicians, and especially entrepreneurs, I'm pleased to introduce you to our outstanding panel, followed by our esteemed moderator.

First, our panel, we begin with Ina Na, Ina is the chief research officer of Decap Research and Development. She’s a Masters student from UBC and is performance-driven and passionate about research. Ina seeks new challenges to overcome and values building relationships with interdisciplinary collaborators to accomplish mutual goals. Ina has a Bachelors of Science in Biology, with a Master's in health and society also from UBC.

Next, we have your Yajur Sondhi from Nyoka. Yajur is a graduate of UBC Sauder School of Business and loves finding opportunities to serve people and thrives doing this in the advertising, energy, consumer products and technology sectors. Yajur strives to make the world a better place using the power of technology, dedication, and creativity. He has always been bothered by waste, inefficiency, and unethical behavior. He's seen people ignore and actively play down the environment as well as the economic and social impact of their actions. And this can create damage, and he's now passionately working to change this through his entrepreneurship journey.

Our third panelist is Mirjam Mai from Fibrilex. Mirjam is an R&D scientist with over 13 years of industrial and academic research experience. She's turned her interest in biorefinery and the circular economy into a cleantech startup Fibrilex. Mirjam is focused on bio-based and renewable resources on how to turn industrial or agricultural byproducts into useful materials such as insulin foam or packaging. She has coordinated product development for fiber-reinforced composites, industrial fluids, and nonwovens, as well as developed plastic formulations for bio-based and biodegradable consumer goods. Mirjam has a doctorate in chemistry from Dresden Technology University and a Masters in chemistry from the University of Munster, both in Germany.

And our moderator Thealzel Lee, Thealzel is an entrepreneur, angel investor, and business strategy advisor to companies with a focus on strategy development, and operational alignment. She manages the monthly Vancouver Angel Technology Network or Vantec, as well as the Vancouver chapter of the currency forum for the Northwest region. This is for the local startup community of angel investors and entrepreneurs. She also serves on committees with NACO, the National Angel capital organization in Canada, and the ACA or Angel Capital Association in the US. Thealzel is the co-founder and director of angel investment funds Nelsa Investments, which is a VCC, also the eFund, also VCC, and TiMIA Capital, a TSX Venture. Through these, she provides equity and non-equity investments for many entrepreneurs and ventures, Thealzel over to you.

Thealzel: Thank you very much, Chang. I'm so honored to be in the company of these great entrepreneurs. You know, once upon a time in a previous life, I was also pursuing an

academic path. And then I took a left turn, never did finish my graduate degree in biochemistry, got one in business instead. So there are a few short words about my entrepreneurial journey. So I'm going to ask each of our panelists, why or how did you become an entrepreneur? Let's start with you Yajur.

Yajur: Essentially, I kind of fell into it, which is kind of funny because I always wanted to join a startup or get into e@UBC, because when I was an undergrad, I got to check out. If you have a chance to post COVID, go to the e@UBC work site, which is inside the alumni building, it's really cool. Also having a chance to check out a lot of the startups who are doing talks and events as part of my coursework, or just in general. After graduating, I was working a corporate job, but then I had a chance to meet other people who are trying to form a venture. And so it just ended up working out that way. Just keep your eye out there. Think about what you want to do. Of course, be sure to continue to develop your hard skills and stuff, but just be open to opportunities. Thank you.

Thealzel: Thanks Yajur. What was your journey like Mirjam?

Mirjam: For me, it's my background, coming from Germany, entrepreneur culture is not so popular in Germany. So it was never really an option for me, or I never really thought about it. I always thought I would work as an ID scientist in a big Chemical Company, maybe making my way into management. And then coming to Canada, 10 years ago, I noticed this really vibrant culture of accelerators around UBC and other sources available that have entrepreneurs to start out. I started looking into different options, what kind of ideas I could use to start a company. And having worked for two local cleantech startups, as well. I kind of thought, yeah, it would be nice to gain this additional experience, to go away from the lab and learn more about the business side of things.

Thealzel: And what is your story? Ina, how did you become an entrepreneur?

Ina: So my story is kind of similar, I've always liked trying new things exploring new challenges. Previous to this, I spent most of my time in the science and healthcare fields. I got my bachelor's degree in biology and minored in Health and Society, I did a couple of jobs in academic and government labs, as well, the medical clinics. The world of entrepreneurship and business and startups was something I would only hear about here and there, but nothing that I actually had any experience in. So when the opportunity came up to just dive into this world, I thought, well, I have the time and the product that we're developing, it sounds like something to me, like it would be needed based on my own experiences. And it's something new and challenging, which aligns nicely with what I generally like to do.

Thealzel: So Ina, tell us a little bit more about your company like why this company is?

Ina: I kind of came to become part of this company may be a little bit differently than the other panelists because I wasn't there during the inception of the company. At Decap I came on later on as project manager, and then eventually into my current position now. It was compelling because the idea for the product that they wanted to design was something that was currently not available or widely available to people who could be using it now. I knew that the issue that it aimed to tackle was a problem because what it does is it is a needle or a syringe on capper and disposal device and it's supposed to protect people from needlestick injuries and I've experienced needlestick injury. I've had co-workers who have experienced needlestick injuries and up until now, we've just kind of had to deal with it because there weren't really any alternatives. Since this brought an alternative into the area, I thought, it seems like we really need it and I really wanted to be part of bringing it into the world and letting other people use it as well.

Thealzel: What about you? Yajur, could you tell us about your company and why you're in this company.

Yajur: Yeah. So to start off with, at Nyoka Design Labs, we're working to reduce waste generated by single-use products. The first product we focused on was glowsticks because I'm sure many of you have been to parties or events where people take a glowstick, they break it in a close and you know, the party goes on. But what happens when the party stops, and what happens with it after. And it turns out a lot of bad things. That value proposition and the idea if we want to have a very socially focused role, and also have found a solution to it that's leveraging cutting edge technology. We're taking enzymes found in nature, and putting them into a commercial on the shelf type of product that anyone can use. And after they use it, the party can keep going, because they're turning an item at an event where it used to cause a lot of waste to suddenly reduce the impact by a very significant margin. The way I kind of fell into that was they were looking for someone to join the team, and to help them understand how do we build up this marketing? How do we position it? And how do we really convince people that this product is worth it?

Thealzel: What about you Mirjam, tell us about your company, and why did you get into it?

Mirjam: I started the company myself, and I basically came across the idea at a conference. And what my company does is provide an editor for concrete, for ready-mix producers, that makes it possible to use very small sand types that are usually not suitable for concrete. During the conference, I heard about the challenge that sand dredging creates lots of environmental and social problems. I started to research more into the problem and I was really compelled to do something about it. The technology that was presented at the conference, I thought somebody should do something. I was surprised that the general audience was really dismissive. When I talked to a friend about it, he said, so why don't you do it? Why don't you start a company and take that technology to market? I was like, I don't know how and then I thought, well, I could figure it out, I guess. I started taking some of the entrepreneurship at UBC courses, the lunch hour courses and then applied for the social venture stream in spring. Participating in Lab2Lanch basically teaches me those skills, how to test the theory, and how to build the company.

Thealzel: Tell us a little bit more about your journey. I mean, certainly, you learned some lessons along the way. What were the hardest lessons for you?

Mirjam: Yeah, that's an interesting story. I had a co-founder and we started the company together because I heard that it would be helpful to have co-founders to shoulder the work together. And that was the original idea to share the workload. As it turned out, we had different ideas about how it would happen, how much time we could put in. For my co-founder, his personal circumstances changed, we couldn't put as much time in, so I had to remove him from the company. And that was a really difficult decision and discussion with him because we have been longtime friends for over 10 years. I actually worked with a business coach to help me on how to do it in a productive way, because I didn't want to lose the friendship, and it worked out well. It cost me a little bit of money and a new office, but it worked out well in the end. And yeah, that was tough learning, so choose your co-founders well.

Thealzel: Well, that's a very good tip. How about you Ina, what was a really hard lesson that you had to learn for your company.

Ina: Something kind of happened earlier this year that put us in the experience of it too, is that just don't be discouraged in the face of failure or criticism. What is most helpful is to use that criticism and the lessons learned from the experience to your advantage. What happened earlier this year was that we applied for a grant which we learned that we did not receive. And we had planned to use the money from this grant to make some pretty important product testing projects. Then, at the same time, which everyone probably knows COVID happened and even if we had that money to do those things, we wouldn't have been able to do any of those projects still. But we couldn't just sit around and wait for the pandemic to go through its process. We didn't know when that would end, but we still had work to do, we needed data that we needed to get. So what we ended up doing instead is first we looked in different areas for grants. And we were able to get one, a MITACS grant to fund a project that was different than the ones that we were originally planning to do. But it still contributed to the development of our product, so it was useful. We still needed the data that our original projects would have provided us, so then we went back to our ideas, and we worked on some of the projects we intended to do so that they could happen in a place where code restrictions wouldn't interfere as much and still get the data we needed. And finally, we took a look at the criticism received on the grant review from the grant reviewers on that grant application that we didn't end up getting, and we're using that application for the next round of the competition. So things don't always work out. And most of the time, it might not. But unexpected things do happen. And even if they could prevent you from moving forward with your plans. That's okay, as long as you pick yourself up and take what lessons you learn from the experience, and continue with a new approach.

Thealzel: Thank you, Ina. What about you Yajur? I think we're getting the story that is not a perfect ride to be an entrepreneur.

Yajur: I 120% agree with that. We also face the COVID tidal wave. And what that taught us was that you have to really understand what you offer and how you can pivot that offering to meet the needs of other people. So for example, our original target market for our first product, the light wand, was glowsticks. Our beachhead was originally supposed to be outdoor parties, events, things like a fire festival, Burning Man, Decentral, there's a whole bunch of different events where people so she got there and party. But due to COVID, suddenly, that entire market segment has eventually evaporated overnight. So what do we do? How can we pivot? And what do we offer? So like I was saying, we realized that it's not that we're offering a glow stick, we're offering an alternative to the waste. And so who else cares about the waste of the generating? Turns out a lot of people do when they're using things like glow sticks, the UN, people in government and industry, also understanding your market. Turns out, over 75% of the total use of single-use glow sticks is within industry and government. So really understanding how you can pivot and what things you're bringing to the table. That's probably the hardest lesson so understand, really understand that I can’t emphasize that enough.

Thealzel: That's great. One of my first entrepreneurial stories was that I had the franchise rights for children's stores in Eastern Ontario. Other than my children being very well dressed. I can commiserate with you Yajur, it's about understanding the product and what the market wants, and it was tough to lose that franchise.

Thealzel: All right. I'm going to open up the floor to questions from the audience...

Stay tuned for Part 2 of What It Takes to Get Started With Us!

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