Grad students hone cleantech business ideas

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: June 1, 2022 10:00 a.m.

Jared Suchan earned $1,500 in the Kickstart Entrepreneurship pitch session held May 19.
Jared Suchan earned $1,500 in the Kickstart Entrepreneurship pitch session held May 19. Photo: University Advancement and Communications

Cleantech, also referred to as clean technology or greentech, are terms that have emerged in recent decades to refer to various companies and technologies aiming to improve environmental sustainability.

Recently, thanks to a unique partnership, U of R grad students got the opportunity to develop their own cleantech business ideas. Kickstart Entrepreneurship is a teaching and learning partnership between the U of R’s Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research (FGSR), Vancouver’s Foresight Cleantech Accelerator Centre, and Innovation Saskatchewan.

The program not only provided graduate student researchers with a valuable entrepreneurial learning experience but it may also lead to some made-at-U of R tech solutions to mitigate climate change and lessen environmental challenges.

The program got underway in January with a call out to grad students to submit clean technology business ideas that they felt had good commercialization potential. From those who applied, six students were selected to take part in the program.

During the four-month course, students received coaching from industry experts and support from their peers to advance their cleantech projects. Training sessions, consisting of six online modules and six live moderated webinars were delivered throughout the program. Kickstart also featured five virtual events that saw experts speak to the challenges facing the carbon capture and storage, water, energy, agrifood and biocircular economy sectors.

Stephen Wilson is the vice-president (Acceleration) for Foresight Cleantech Accelerator Centre and served as one of the instructors in the Kickstart program. He says that commercialization opportunities are often limited in post-secondary research because of the lack of expertise on marketing a product or idea.

“One of the challenges that academia faces is they don’t have great commercialization rates,” says Wilson. “What I continue to see is individuals within academia that would like to make an impact and bring their research and technology into the marketplace but they don’t necessarily understand how to do that. Not surprisingly, you don’t learn anything about raising money for start-ups when you’re doing a PhD in chemistry.”

Kickstart concluded May 19 with a pitch session featuring three students giving their concluding presentations in front of a panel of judges from industry, government and academia. The project teams were vying for $3,000 in prize money.

One of the final presentations was given by master’s student Kwaku Ayisi who pitched a green infrastructure crowd funding platform. Doctoral candidate Michael Fabrik presented a case for a mobile process that turns raw natural gas into methanol, and Jared Suchan pitched his research that uses subsurface bacterial microbes to detect mineral deposits.

Kathy McNutt, Vice-President of Research and International, began the pitch session by stating that the Kickstart Entrepreneurship program mirrored the focus of the U of R’s Research Action Plan which is contributing to the economic and social development of Saskatchewan as outlined in the Province’s Growth Plan.

“We recognize that graduate students, as an engine of research, remain central to the ecosystem and we will be supporting their research and knowledge transfer,” McNutt said. “The FGSR’s recently approved Graduate Advanced Training and Entrepreneurship (GATE) Centre will provide such support and help establish new partnerships with the non-profit sector, industry, local business, government and non-government sectors.”

For Michael Fabrik, who finished second in the pitch competition, the most valuable aspect to the Kickstart program was the group discussions and the lessons that came from those dialogues.

Speaker at U of R event
Michael Fabrik, a Process Systems Engineering doctoral candidate, received $1,000 for his second-place presentation. Photo by U of R Photography

“I learned that if you want to go and build something you have to do so deliberately,” says Fabrik. “As researchers, we like to dig in and analyse how something would work and imagine how to apply something and how people are going to come to you. The Kickstart program really challenges you to instead go directly to your potential customers to answer those questions. You have to be very deliberate to make it your solution happen.”

Environmental engineering doctoral candidate Jared Suchan’s innovative project using soil microbes to detect and validate drilling targets was judged to be the program’s outstanding project. Suchan, who is one of the principals of a junior mineral exploration company, is grateful for the judges’ decision and says that his involvement in the Kickstart program has help take his company to the next level.

Jared pitching in the competition

Environmental Engineering doctoral candidate Jared Suchan, pitches his cleantech business idea to a panel of judges at a May 19 event. Photo by U of R Photography

“It was an honour to be chosen as the first place finisher in the pitch session,” Suchan says. “The feedback and support from judges is encouraging as we transition our idea from the academic world into a product that can serve the mineral exploration industry. The mentorship and guidance from successful entrepreneurs was a priceless experience. They offered plenty of help and feedback that challenged our idea of what we were developing, and how to ensure that we were actually solving a real problem in the industry today.” 

Suchan’s team earned $1,500 for their first place finish.

The Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research is considering offering the Kickstart Entrepreneurship program again in the Fall.