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What It Takes To Get Started With Us [Part 2]

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Welcome to part 2 of What it Takes to Get Started with Us. 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. If you haven't already, listen to Part 1 of What it Takes to Get Started With Us.

Listen to Part 2 of What it Takes to Get Started With Us

To read a full transcript, see below:


Andrea: Hi, everybody. I have a question and it came up because I've just loved hearing the stories of how everyone has gotten involved and pursued their venture ideas and their real determination to solve a significant problem. And it came up in a previous session today and we heard from Barb Kinnard. One of the things she said was that her science degree and her academic backgrounds have set her up so well to sort of pivot into business or to assume a role like she'd never expected for herself as a CEO. And I'm just wondering, from all of you, I am always so admiring of the background and foundations you have coming from science. So I'm just wondering if you have any thoughts to share, if you agree with her conclusion there?

Thealzel: Well, let's start with you. Yajur, do you agree?

Yajur: Yes, I do.

Thealzel: Nothing more than the thumbs up. How about you? Mirjam? Can you add to that?

Mirjam: It's definitely something our professors always taught us. They said, you can always teach the chemist the business side, but it's more difficult to teach a business person the science side, I'm not sure I agree with the second part, because I'm sure you can still learn those concepts as well. But I think it definitely helps you because you learn this analytical and strategic thinking, and you'll really learn how to dig deep into problems, how to solve them, find ways to solve a certain problem to improve processes. That's something that I really enjoyed doing. I was always more interested in Applied Research anyways, to really find a solution to a product out there and to make it more successful or more economically feasible. I definitely think that the science background helps to tackle some of those problems.

Thealzel: What about you Ina? Do you agree?

Ina: Yeah, I can agree with that, too. I think especially because I'm kind of on the research side of things in my business on top of kind of dipping into the business side as well. Maybe because I'm a little biased, because I come from a background with it, I feel like it's a little bit hard to gain sometimes the details and depth of knowledge that you need to know, in terms of how maybe a product might be used in a field, like even with the experience of the background of myself and the other, my other co-founders and my other coworkers, we still need to consult with other people who are more experienced in different areas. So that just kind of tells us that there's areas in science that we just don't know yet. But that still goes the same way for business, we still need to join entrepreneurship at UBC in order to learn the business side of things and marketing and everything. There definitely are some overlaps in terms of how we think critically about things. But there are depths of knowledge on each side that you might not know until you fully dive into it, or ask someone else who knows about it.

Thealzel: Right. I mean, I can certainly do that. I mean, earlier on, when I introduced myself, I told you that I never finished my graduate degree in biochemistry. But when I went off to business school, it was a completely different culture for me, because the way we were taught to think, to become a scientist, is very different than the way we were taught to be good business people. Or as I think of scientists thinking linearly, you pursue a particular path, you hit a decision point, you make a decision, you then keep going, you make another decision, and so on, so forth. Whereas in business is much more of a hub and spoke. And Yajur, you made a good point, you know about coming back to your customer. So you go out, you experiment, you come back to the customer, what does the customer want, try again, pivot, go out, come back. It's much more of a hub and spoke type of thinking. I think we have another question.

Michelle: Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for sharing your insights. It's such a challenge to be an entrepreneur at any level, and certainly at an early stage, lots of things coming at you, and appreciate, you know, the mindset that it takes to sort of transition from, you know, whether it's the science or the work you've been doing in academia to running a business. I appreciate obviously, you're working with entrepreneurship at UBC, but you know, outside of that, if there are mentors or people that you have been sort of going to for guidance or consult that has sort of helped you,Kind of wrap your heads around some of the bigger challenges that now being in the spotlight of entrepreneur is presenting,

Thealzel: Ina why don't you kick us off on that one.

Ina: We actually do contact our mentor that we were able to get into contact with your entrepreneurship at UBC quite a bit for the kinds of background knowledge that she knows about on how to run a business and the business side of things. And it's really nice because the experience she has, I feel like offers a really nice perspective from her about how our company is and how we are presenting ourselves. Because one thing that we kind of realized that we are was we really like the idea of our product. To us, it seems like it's a great idea and we could see how it could be used. But one thing that we needed to know is how it might seem to be useful to someone else who is not us. And so I feel like our mentor really helps with trying to get that perspective and telling us what we should do with how to come get our message and advice across to more people.

Thealzel: Mirjam, what's been your experience?

Mirjam: Yeah, that was basically one of my first steps that I took to assemble an advisory board. I reached out to a previous employer who was an entrepreneur. I asked him if he would be willing to be my main mentor and if I could ask him some tough questions about his experience when he started his bio plastics company. As well, if he had any advice of what you would do differently now that he knows how the whole process works. We communicate regularly, and I'm asking questions about the general process of how do you start the company, and he explained a lot of those processes to me, and he also suggested getting input and to participate in those courses to learn more. Then two other mentors, one is a good business friend who works in a consulting company in Vancouver, and he has experience abroad from Hong Kong to the US and Germany. He is of German background so he gives me the feedback really straightforward and without sugarcoating, and I really appreciate it, and of course, the great mentor network at UBC is super helpful as well.

Thealzel: Thanks, Mirjam. What about you Yajur?

Yajur: The main piece of advice that I would have, something that's really helped us on our journey is having a network of mentors, essentially acting like an umbrella, like a group of umbrellas covering us in areas that we may not have as much expertise in, or helping us understand pieces of our business or pieces of our business plan that helped us get us to market and help us really establish ourselves. Like we've had some awesome people give us advice about IP, the legal side, including one of the esteemed entrepreneurs in residence, so thank you to them. And just like talking to people and understanding what you can learn from them. It doesn't have to be like a formal mentor mentee relationship, you don't have to go Hogwarts with it and be like, ”okay, he's Dumbldore”. You can have and find people around who you can teach you things, so like I said, just keeping your eyes open, being really aware, and being willing to listen to people.

Thealzel: Well, it's really important to have a network of advisers to help with different things. As an angel investor, you know, when we're looking to invest in companies, it's never about the widget. It's not what the product is, whether it's a molecule or an algorithm, or a gearbox for manufacture, it's never about the widget, but about how to build a business around it. Part of that chain of building a business, you're looking at the supply chain to build the widget. And then you're looking at sales channels to sell the widget. Can any of you please talk about that type of chain? Yajur, let's start with you.

Yajur: Yeah, so as I was talking about before, our initial beachhead target market actually got snowed out by COVID. So it wasn't so much going back to the drawing board, but going back to the sales and positioning board, and understanding, how can we use the things our product or widget already does really well, or other assets and things that we’re already working on and thinking about? We have a few other side products that we're also working on in the background, because what we realized was that maybe going with a single product approach may not be the best versus going with a more portfolio based approach that's building on our own abilities within our team. Because then we can more rapidly bring things closer to market, or increase stability and increase the volume of cash flow coming in and out of the business. So it's easier for us to scale faster when we do have those big wins that do require a lot of capital outlay to really capture.

Thealzel: Great, thanks a lot Yajur. Ina do you have any experience in building your supply chain to make your widget and then selling it through the channels.

Ina: We're not quite at the point where we are able to sell our product right now. We are at this moment, just using 3D printing to try to develop different versions actually, of how our product could look like. What we found is that, although the concept is to just uncap a needle and then dispose of it, we also found that, through just consulting with different people, including our mentor and talking with different people about it, is that we could make adjustments to it.

Have a variety of different products and kind of expand on one idea. So we don't quite have a supply chain ready or a single product ready to be sold yet. But we have one product that we were able to expand into a few that we could now work with.

Thealzel: Do you have any customer input not customers and paying customers but user input into designing your product?

Ina: Yes. That was one of the things that helped quite a bit, we approached a couple people from different industries. This product could be used in a location where it is common to use needles, and one of those locations is animal facilities or veterinarians. So we consulted with a facility manager in a laboratory, and we also consulted with the head of an animal hospital. With both of them we consulted on how we can make this product more usable? How could we make this product more attractive to the purchase and we used that as input into how we could modify our product to make it just more attractive and viable.

Thealzel: What about you Mirjam?

Mirjam: I'm in a really early stage with the auto company, so I've made a few prototypes. I bought some cement and sand and started mixing that in my backyard and put it into little ice cube trays. So I haven't quite figured out the supply chain yet. I started making some connections with the engineering department at UBC to scale up the process or to actually use some industrial equipment, and I'm not doing all the mixing and drying at home but that's something for the latest stage. So at the moment, I'm really looking for the product market fit, which is the best market to target. From customer discovery, we found that the North American market does not really have the same shortage issues. It's more in the US and probably mid Middle Eastern and Asian countries where that's a concern and where we would have the most environmental impact as well. So it's more learning about those markets and how to introduce our product there. Also the construction market is really conservative, slow to innovate. They're building codes, regulations about the same sizes and everything. It looks like it's going to be a long journey anyways to introduce the material into the market. So the supply chain, it's something that we are going to work on in the future definitely.

Thealzel: Well, it certainly is a journey to do we have any other questions from the audience? Yes, Chang?

Chang: So a lot of us here sound like we’re from science, maybe from engineering. I myself did English literature at UBC and I'm an entrepreneur. I'm definitely an example of you don't have to be an engineer or a scientist to jump into entrepreneurship and to make great innovations. So I'd like to hear from each of the panelists. If they could go back and redo their education, they go back to UBC now, what would they study? Or would they study, same thing? Or would they go study something else?

Thealzel: Let's start with you Mirjam.

Mirjam: That's a great question. And I always ask myself the same thing, if I would ever study chemistry again or if I would pursue a PhD degree again, because it doesn't really seem necessary. It's almost overkill. But on the other hand, I really appreciated the background and the whole learning of how to stick with one thing for three to five years and to really work on it, and show perseverance and even if there were problems coming up during your research, and so on. So I think it's definitely helpful to have this experience. And I might study maybe something more into engineering or biotechnology, but I don't think that I would completely switch into a different field.

Thealzel: Is that the same story with you Ina?

Ina: Yeah, I feel like I quite liked what I studied, what I ended up studying and what I'm currently studying now. And I really don't think I would have been able to get the kind of background that I have to be able to help the company in the way that I currently do. I don't think I'd actually be in the position where I would be part of the company that I'm with now. Maybe I could do something different, but the type of environment that I'm in, the people I work with, is just so good that I really don't think that it's possible, but I really think that this is something that I'm pretty happy with at this moment.

Thealzel: Is that your experience Yajur?

Yajur: I'm really happy with the path I ended up taking from an overall perspective. I guess if there was a chance to rewind like rerun it, TV remote style, maybe taking a few more courses related to entrepreneurship. To all the people who are listening in, we're still at UBC, check out some of the courses that integrate entrepreneurship, or some of the courses that allow for students from outside of that faculty to join in, because there's a few, depending on your background. So I know engineers can go to business courses. Be open to it.

Thealzel: But some things you can't learn in school. So here's a really great question from Alison. While I've got you as an early stage venture, how are you working to build company culture.

Yajur: So one of the things that we're doing is that we are finding companies whose values we admire. For example, we have a list of companies that we're like, okay, these are the things about this company that we really value. So we really value the openness and dedication to innovation coming out of Tesla. But then some of their other practices may not be the best. But then we're like, oh, there's Patagonia., Ben and Jerry's, and there's the general idea of us wanting to become a B Corporation, and really having an integrated social purpose and value purpose inside of the company. We have our guiding North Star and then we also actively talk about it with people who are either working with us, or with people that we interact with. Really having an active engagement with your values throughout your company and throughout the business nearly every day.

Thealzel: Right, and what about you Ina?

Ina: I think in terms of building the culture of how we are as a business together, I feel like it stems from how we decide who we hire from the hiring process, who we decide to take on from there. And it might be different from startup to startup. But from what I've seen, it seems like it's really important to hire people who maybe if they don't have the necessary experience, but if they're at least passionate about what they're doing or passionate about joining, I think that the skills that they would need to know can be taught. But what might not be as easy to teach is their self motivation and their passion and variability to keep on with the project and help us keep working on it.

Mirjam: I can second what Yajur and Ina said. I haven’t found the northstar yet, the company that I will try to follow in their culture, but it is definitely something I am looking into at the moment. I have an intern working for me at the moment, and as Ina said it is important for me to see that she is interested in sustainability and has an environmental interest in doing something positive that impacts the world. This is something I will be looking at in additional hires as well, making sure that they see the vision of the company and want to bring that forward and help.

Thealzel: Thanks Mirjam. One last thing, I wanted to ask each of the panelists, what is the one tip that you want to give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Mirjam: Get a whole bunch of mentors to help you, and find as much help and information as you can.

Ina: I’d say just network. Having connections is very important and you never know who you meet no matter who they are or where you are, might be able to help you in the future.

Thealzel: Thanks Ina, Yajur brings it in?

Yajur: You don’t have to dive head first if you’re not sure. You can roll around in it, talk to entrepreneurs, get in touch with people at e@UBC, people at other accelerators, mentors, and systems. Get a sense and a feel for it, because regardless of where you go you are always going to be doing things entrepreneurially in one way or another. Just be open to it.

Thealzel: Thank you to all the panelists, Mirjam, Ina, Yajur.

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