Becoming a scientist-entrepreneur: An interview with Dr. Cynthia Goh
Dr. Cynthia Goh
Professor, Department of Chemistry, University of Toronto
Professor, Institute of Medical Science, University of Toronto
Professor, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto
Director, Impact Centre, University of Toronto.
By: Alexa Desimone
Photo By: Krystal Jacques
Growing up on a remote island in the Philippines, Dr. Cynthia Goh found her passion in the simplest of places—a chemistry textbook. At a young age, Dr. Goh became interested in understanding how atoms and molecules worked together in order to control the properties of matter. This interest led her on a linear path to becoming a scientist. She received her PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles, after which she went on to pursue postdoctoral fellowships at Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, prior to accepting a faculty position at the University of Toronto in 2001. Currently, Dr. Goh is a Professor in the Department of Chemistry, the Institute of Medical Science, the Munk School of Global Affairs, and Director of the Impact Centre.
As a physical chemist, Dr. Goh’s research investigates a fundamental aspect of chemistry: structure-property relationships. Understanding the chemical, physical, and structural properties of a molecule can provide extraordinary insight into its specific mechanical and thermal behaviours under certain conditions. Dr. Goh is particularly interested in the mechanical interactions of monomers—molecules that can react to form very large molecules or polymers—in creating various assemblies that can aid the building or designing of structures where cells or matter can thrive. However, there was no way of measuring these specific interactions, until Dr. Goh invented the technique of diffraction-based sensing.1
Here’s how it works. The simple concept of diffraction—the bending of light as it passes around an object—is manipulated to gain insight into a particular binding event for a protein or molecule of interest. For instance, a protein immobilized on a solid support will produce a biological diffraction grating when illuminated. This diffraction grating translates to a specific diffraction image. When combined with a solution containing the target molecule of interest, the immobilized protein will bind with the free-flowing molecule creating a change in the diffraction image. This binding event can be recorded, and the change in height and/or refractive index measured. With this knowledge, Dr. Goh was able to develop a method of measuring the strength, kinetics, and thermodynamics of multiple protein-protein (or protein-molecule) interactions.
It was with this discovery that she began the process of commercialization and the development of her first company, Axela Biosensors Inc. Dr. Goh was new to entrepreneurship, but she wanted to make a difference. Commercializing her technology allowed other researchers to benefit from its utilization and in turn add even further value to society. This is when she realized her second passion—translating scientific discovery to technology and products.
As a successful scientist, Dr. Goh felt that there was something more she could be doing. She wondered how her work in the lab could make a greater impact on society. Dr. Goh decided to expand her basic science knowledge into tangible applications. Though many scientists would like to translate their research findings into these meaningful outcomes, often they are at a loss due to a lack of knowledge on how to develop products and companies to bring discoveries to the market. To address this training gap, Dr. Goh developed a seminar series entitled “An Introduction to Scientific Entrepreneurship.” The goal of the seminar series was to train students at the start of their careers, when they have the necessary drive and ideas to become successful scientist-entrepreneurs.
One of the many success stories that came from the non-credit seminar series was a company called Vive Crop Protection. Dr. Goh and a few of her students discovered a way to synthesize nanoparticles in an inexpensive and efficient way. Although Dr. Goh and her students were not experts in the agricultural field, they were able to manipulate the nanoparticles to deliver pesticides to crops in an eco-friendly process. This new product enabled farmers to enhance crop performance while reducing the exposure of soil to harmful chemicals. By translating and applying their research findings into a solution for an important problem, they were able to add value to their technology and positively impact agricultural practice.
Stemming from its great success, Dr. Goh’s seminar series partnered with the MaRS Discovery Tower and became “Entrepreneurship 101,” a program designed to help nearly 20,000 yearly registrants gain the knowledge of how to become an entrepreneur.
As the Director of the Impact Centre, Dr. Goh strives to bring science to society. The Impact Centre is an independent institute at the University of Toronto that is tailored towards researchers and companies within the natural sciences and engineering fields. It is here that the academic and industrial worlds collide in order to accelerate the development of emerging products or services that will benefit society.
In 2010, Dr. Goh introduced Techno, a one-month intensive workshop for academic scientists interested in building a technology-based business. Techno is the Impact Centre’s flagship entrepreneur training program. The program emphasizes the importance of hands-on experience and provides an opportunity for mentorship, whether it be financial advice or website development. If Techno trainees choose to continue and found their own company, they become Techno Fellows where they are provided further mentorship, year-round training, and access to fundraising tools. Techno has helped grow numerous start-ups since its inception, making an impact in a variety of different fields. Strikingly, many of the start-ups founded through Techno are interdisciplinary crossing multiple scientific fields. As evidenced by Dr. Goh’s basic chemistry research developing into an agricultural company, it is possible for even the most basic science discoveries to have applications in other fields. For students interested in developing a technology-based business, Techno can provide the skills, knowledge, and support necessary to produce a scalable business.
Since the beginning of her career, Dr. Goh has wanted to give back to underprivileged communities. “One of my passions is to actually bring technology to the low resource communities of the world…one of our companies that came out of the Impact Centre, called ‘Pueblo Science’ is focussed on bringing science literacy to the remote villages of the world, starting with the Philippines,” Dr. Goh explained. Pueblo Science is a non-profit company that aims to promote science literacy in low-resource communities in countries such as Jamaica, Guyana, Thailand, and Philippines. Volunteers are tasked to design experiments to teach children basic scientific concepts using only local resources. The program challenges volunteers to be creative with limited resources and helps them learn how to effectively communicate science in lay terms. Pueblo Science allows a new generation of scientists to be inspired, while allowing its volunteers to develop critical skills in scientific communication.
Dr. Goh has committed much of her career to bringing scientific discoveries out of the laboratory. She feels that as academics, we have a responsibility to the public to bring innovative discoveries into the marketplace. “Anybody can innovate in their backyard…but at the university we have additional knowledge that is not easily access[ible],” stresses Dr. Goh. Through her seminar series, the Impact Centre, and Techno, Dr. Goh has helped make scientific entrepreneurship more accessible than ever. The lesson that Dr. Goh left me with is that a deep understanding of science is essential to building solutions to society’s problems.
- Goh, J.B., Loo, R.W., McAloney, R.A., & Goh, M.C. (2002). Diffraction-based assay for detecting multiple analytes. Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, 374, 54-56.