Calvin Cheng: Graduate student & entrepreneur

May 18, 2016 by Mandy Koroniak

Reflecting on the last 5 years, it might be easy to think that Calvin Cheng was destined for entrepreneurship. Over that period, he started his own business, became involved with a charitable startup, and has undertaken development of a new type of arsenic filter, all while working towards his PhD in Chemistry. Needless to say, Cheng is a busy man. 

Cheng founded Sciventions Inc. with colleagues Cathy Yuzon, Nari Kim, Arash Joushaghani, and Prof. M. Cynthia Goh in 2010, which means that he has been an entrepreneur throughout nearly all of grad school. Sciventions is a scientist-to-scientist e-commerce platform that allows researchers to sell their early-stage science products not yet ready for commercialization. They currently have 20+ products available for sale on their website, serving both academic and industrial customers around the world. In addition to sales and marketing, Sciventions also undertakes product development to refine or scale up products prior as needed.

Around the same time that Cheng began building his company, he also became involved with another startup with close ties to Chemistry – Pueblo Science. Founded by Prof. M. Cynthia Goh and Dr. Mayrose Salvador, Pueblo Science is a registered charity that works to advance science education in low-resource communities. Cheng sits on the executive committee and has participated in trips to the Philippines and Guyana, teaching local teachers to do hands-on science using everyday materials. “It’s a passion project,” says Cheng. “When I visited the locations and saw the conditions and that teachers sometimes have to teach 60-90 students at a time, and understanding what limited resources they have really inspired me.”

His work with Pueblo Science and passion for entrepreneurship also inspired Cheng to undertake an innovative and practical PhD project – he is working to develop a passive filtration system for water contaminated with arsenic. Arsenic contamination is a well-known problem, so many solutions exist, but most involve big filtration plants, which are not practical in rural areas that may not have the infrastructure or critical mass for such facilities. So Cheng is working on developing a passive filter that relies on gravity instead of electricity, “sort of like a Brita,” he says.

To make this work, Cheng is taking nanoparticle synthesis technology and adapting it to create a simple sand filter. While still in the early stage of research, his filter already has the ability to take up arsenic better than what is currently commercially available as a passive filter. Arsenic contamination isn’t just a problem of developing countries either – it’s a problem that exists here in Canada too. The site of the former Deloro mine in Ontario is contaminated with arsenic, among other waste products, and in conjunction with engineers who are working to remediate the soil and water in the area, Cheng has conducted tests of his arsenic filter using water collected from the site.

Chemistry has supported Cheng’s activities through several initiatives. Earlier in May, the department also supported him to attend OCE Discovery, Canada’s leading innovation-to-commercialization conference. Through a travel grant he was also able to travel to the Philippines to meet with local businesspeople and stakeholders to assess the local situation, resources, and need for household scale water filtration. It’s been a tricky balancing act completing a PhD and building a company, but Cheng wouldn’t have it any other way. Cheng sees a couple of options for the future, and both sow the seeds planted during grad school – continuing to build up Sciventions and developing his PhD research into a commercial arsenic filter. Whether he pursues either, or more likely, both, he is looking forward to focusing 100% of his energy towards his entrepreneurial efforts when he finishes his PhD later this year.