Professor Cynthia Goh has been named the inaugural academic director of the University of Toronto’s Banting & Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (BBCIE). The BBCIE was launched in 2012 as a hub for entrepreneurship at U of T and brings together the university’s 9 accelerators, undergraduate and graduate courses and programs, clubs, meetups, and a speaker series. Located in the Best Institute on College St, with which the Centre shares a name, the BBCIE is named for two of the University’s most famous innovators – Frederick Banting and Charles Best, who discovered insulin in 1921.
As a long-time champion of entrepreneurship at U of T and a serial entrepreneur, Goh has extensive knowledge, experience and passion to ensure innovation and entrepreneurship become integrated into the University’s academic programs.
“I see that having an entrepreneurial mindset and a culture of innovation is an incredible added value to student training,” says Goh. “That's my view of the BBCIE. It's about ensuring U of T students develop a mindset that promotes new ways of thinking about, testing and ultimately building a better future - whether you are a science, engineering, music or social sciences student.”
Having launched several companies in the past 15 years, she knows first-hand about the unique education that comes from launching one’s own business. “In 1999 I got antsy,” she says. “I love science, but part of the reason I love science is because it makes sense of the world around us, and I feel like I want the science to impact the world. I had good papers, they were highly cited, but I wasn’t seeing anybody use them to make a product, and so I challenged myself to go ahead and make a product.” The initial outcome of this effort was Axela, Inc., a company that Goh founded to commercialize diffractive optics technology and has now developed a suite of tools and services that enable new approaches to biomarker validation, disease diagnosis, and personalized medicine.
Ever since, Goh has created multiple programs to educate the next-generation of entrepreneurs and improve the flow of research from the lab to the market. In 2004, she launched a non-credit seminar series on scientific entrepreneurship in the Department of Chemistry. The program eventually transformed into Entrepreneurship 101, Canada’s largest live and online entrepreneurial course. Goh is also director of the Impact Centre, a U of T Institute of science, engineering and commercialization experts dedicated to transforming research into real products through industry collaboration and entrepreneurship. In 2010 she launched Techno, the Impact Centre’s hands-on entrepreneurship training program for scientists and engineers seeking to build technology-based companies.
The relationship between academia and entrepreneurship is mutually beneficial. Entrepreneurship offers alternative career options and new experiences for students, especially at a time at which students are facing a challenging job market. University companies also understand the importance of academic research and maintaining links to the academic community, which translates into both collaborative projects and funding.
The rewards of entrepreneurship can be much greater than merely a job or new research project. Goh’s motto has long been “science to society,” and this is a driving force behind her support of scientific entrepreneurship. “This is not in lieu of research,” she emphasizes, “these are people who, as they do their research, they start to see that maybe somebody could use this. How do you make sure that the knowledge you're gaining can be useful to the world? If you just kept it to yourself, it would not be useful to anyone. But you can't just tell everyone, because they wouldn't know what to do with it. The idea for us is to try to see how you look at the world and see how they can use what you know.”
Chemistry is highly active in terms of entrepreneurial and commercialization activities, consistently ranking within the top 5 of all university departments in terms of invention disclosures, patents, licenses, and start-ups. Goh hopes that with her new position at the BBCIE, she can also bring some of this spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship to the broader university community. She intends to host hackathons, sessions, and competitions for those with an initial interest, and those who are more serious may engage in training at the campus link accelerators. Some may incubate a real company, and some will end up with a viable business. Others will end up with investments scaling up. It’s a grand vision, which stands to have a big impact on both Chemistry and the university as a whole.