The Risk Takers series looks at how a few of Canada's creative minds fearlessly went their own way.
Cynthia Goh has helped found six startups that range from nanotechnology applications to improving science literacy in emerging nations.
Cynthia Goh is no stranger to risk.
A native of the Philippines, Dr. Goh was just 18 when she first came to North America, with what she describes as “no money, no nothing,” to take up a scholarship at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Now, years later, as a long-tenured professor of chemistry and medical science at the University of Toronto, and director of the school’s institute for optical sciences, she is taking on risks on an entirely different scale. When she is not wrapped up in her teaching at one of Canada’s top-ranked universities, Dr. Goh is relying on her entrepreneurial spirit to commercialize her knowledge, which includes putting faith in her students to test their skills in the real world at the numerous companies she has helped found to further that end.
“Universities are discovering amazing things, but there’s this big gap before those amazing things can become something of value to society,” she explains. “You have to turn them into a product or a service, something that somebody can work with.
“For all of us it’s a risk because it’s something that’s outside our normal comfort zone, because we were trained to be scientists.”
Darren Anderson, the chief technology officer at Vive Crop Protection Inc., one of the six startup businesses that Dr. Goh has helped to found, knows all about that transition from scientist to businessman, having completed his PhD in chemistry under Dr. Goh in 2006. Toronto-based Vive began operating the same year, developing nanoparticle-based materials for agricultural applications such as crop protection, and has now grown to 30 full-time employees in two centres in Toronto and another in Guelph. Dr. Anderson feels that getting students involved is a win-win situation for Vive and the other companies that Dr. Goh has helped to get off the ground.
“When I give talks about entrepreneurship, I say that folks coming out of grad school in particular have the perfect mixture of arrogance and humility that is required to do a startup,” he says. “They’ve got the arrogance because they’ve done something that [few of us have] ever done before and they’re coming at it with a belief that they’re going to be successful.
“And obviously just the risk tolerance of folks at that stage in their lives is significantly different than if they had a mortgage and two kids and all that kind of stuff.”
One of the establishments where Dr. Anderson gives his talks at is the MaRS Discovery District commercialization hub in Toronto as part of the Entrepreneurship 101 course that Dr. Goh established to get students to connect with their entrepreneurial spirits. Tony Redpath, a MaRS senior fellow, has worked with Dr. Goh extensively for the past 15 years and helped put together the funding to found her first company, Axela Inc., when he worked for Primaxis Technology Ventures. Dr. Redpath helped out in the execution of Entrepreneurship101, and the success of the course led Dr. Goh to create Techno, a one-month intensive course for prospective scientist and engineering entrepreneurs – or “technopreneurs” – which is currently in its fifth year of operation and has led to the creation of more than 50 startup ventures.
“The only way to become an entrepreneur is to get out and do it,” Dr. Redpath says. “The analogy I draw is it’s kind of like trying to drive a car. The only way to really learn how to drive a car is to drive, but they don’t let people out on the road without teaching the rules of the road. If you don’t know the rules of the road, you get crushed. It’s the same with entrepreneurship.”
The breadth of the companies that Dr. Goh has helped to start is wide. In addition to Vive and Axela Inc., which uses atomic force microscopy, which scans matter on a very tiny scale to help better understand DNA and proteins, there’s also Sciventions Inc., a scientist-to-scientist e-commerce firm, and Pueblo Science, which helps improve science literacy in emerging nations. Her latest venture, Phantin, uses photo catalytic nano material to help break down organic matter in the presence of light.
“We’ve made it so that in the presence of moonlight we can break down a lot of organic matter and one of our targets is killing bacteria in a hospital setting,” she says. “We’ve done some tests in China recently that show it’s working very nicely.”
In all of her ventures the underlying principal for Dr. Goh is trying to create beneficial products for the world through the use of science, ones that hopefully will be commercial, able to create jobs and wealth. It doesn’t always work out – her other startup, Dalenyi Biosurfaces Inc., was eventually folded into Sciventions – but from her point of view, it’s always worth trying.
“There’s always a risk,” she admits, “but for me it’s about bringing it up front so that you can confront it and I do that with my personal life, too – whatever you’re scared of, you’ve got to face right away.”
Though she says that moving to North America, against the wishes of her parents, was “probably the biggest risk” she ever took, she’s not about to stop trying to innovate and create new opportunities for herself and her students. It’s what gets her out of bed in the mornings.
“I’m always afraid that if I get complacent about things I’ll stop doing things tomorrow. For me, it’s not just the company I build, it’s actually the full model of how we move things to the world,” she says. “We’re getting more and more exciting products and ideas from the student body and the faculty so these are exciting times and I’m looking forward to the next five years.”