What I got from Entrepreneurship in Science

Once again, SCI Team put on a successful event. This time, Entrepreneurship in Science.

Keynote by Dr. Ali Tehrani was animated, engaging, inspiring, and at places, controversial.
Questions were raised regarding his claim:

decide now, what you want to be: a 9-5 person, or a 5-9 person? Do you want to be a family person, or a career person? Because you can only be one or the other. It’s a choice, not a judgment. And don’t fool to yourself that you can do both, because you can’t.

His other points worth noting:

When everyone looks this way, entrepreneurs looks the other way. Biofuels is hot now, but it won’t be hot in a year. It would be gone. (The biofuel mentor invited at the event may have felt insulted.) That’s why everyone is selling out. Everyone’s leaving, to find their next thing. Get in early, and get out while it’s hot.

Find people who share your dream for your company, but you have to sell your dream first. Let them see what your dream is, and make them want to be a part of it. So you must dream big, to get your team excited. It’s 6pm, and as I speak, half of my team is still working. Not because I make them, but because they share my dream. My passion.

Entrepreneurship is about sacrifice. It’s hard work. I work 70hr weeks, and I love it. If I don’t do what I do, I will be “itchy” all the time. I’m not married. I don’t have time for a serious relationship, because it would be unfair to my partner. What am I gonna be, a 2-hr husband?

Just to insert a little blob here about Ali’s company Zymeworks: it’s a company that uses computer algorithms to simulate molecular interactions such as protein folding and enzyme substrate binding to produce molecules for industries such as pulp and paper and pharmaceuticals. As a double major in pharmacology and computer science, my reactions to learning about Zymeworks can be imagined.

Mentors invited also provided very nice insight. I didn’t know Professor Donald Acton from Computer Science was also an entrepreneur until I was introduced as such, and I was surprised by how much real business experience he has and is willing to share. Importance of company structure (incorporate your company if you are serious about it), and getting professional advises from a good accountant (“we actually interviewed several accountants”).

Also talked to a long-time Shad friend Daniel Dent, who founded OmegaSphere in high school (which is providing me with web hosting and awesome customer support for our project), and we talked about his plan to expand his business.

And my plan to start mine: TimetableBuilder (TTB). In a nutshell, we aim to improve the course selection process at UBC, which currently requires students to select the right sections manually. TTB allows students to simply name the courses they want to take – and optionally, what time they want to take them, whether they want extra days off, etc. – and produce timetables that suit their needs.

We brainstormed some business models that are interesting, but I don’t think I like:

  1. Auction the best timetables – users who place the highest bid can be guaranteed registration into that timetable. I can immediately see how UBC would not like this.
  2. Subscribe users to a mailing list, and spam them. That’s not my style.
  3. Donations – this will never put money on the table.
  4. Ads on the website – again, this will not put money on the table, and it’s ugly.

The best business model that I have in mind, is still this: incorporate our program into UBC’s registration system, charging UBC in the same way WebCT charges UBC. This benefits students because they won’t have to visit two websites (ours and UBC’s) to do their registration, and this benefits us because the hundreds of hours we spent will at least be compensated. And this gives us a good model for expanding to other universities.

Daniel Dent, being a businessman as he is, warns: the current registration system is not causing UBC problems, so they do not have a reason to spend money and upgrade to our more user-friendly service.

I thought about that for a while. And I can come up with a few reasons for UBC to support us:

  1. University support students’ entrepreneurial endeavor looks like a nice headline on Newspapers.
  2. If this project goes well, UBC will be its birthplace and a good parent.
  3. I don’t know how much UBC wants to be the university with the best registration system (for a while)?
  4. Hopefully student satisfaction counts for UBC.

That’s very well. Daniel Dent also warned: don’t work for the hours. That’s an easy trap to fall into. I’m sure the WebCT people don’t work for UBC by the hours.

Well, where TTB will go depends on how well it’s received when we launch it this summer. So all is just a big wild dream at the moment.



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