Science of Innovation
By: Rehnuma Islam
While research entails excelling our knowledge, it also requires working with unpredictable outcomes and troubleshooting to obtain results that define a narrative. This ability to see things beyond what is apparent requires creativity. Therefore, being a scientist has allowed Dr. Wenjun Xu to become the forward-thinking trailblazer she is today. With a desire to solve an increasing number of problems, Dr. Xu has focused her energy towards innovative ideas in science and technology. As a result, she is currently one of many bringing forth solutions to large-scale global issues by brainstorming innovative ideas, right here at the University of Toronto (UofT).
Although business was important in the family, Dr. Xu took the unconventional route of completing a bachelor’s degree in forensics and biology. Further, while attending a seminar course in undergrad, Dr. Xu found interest in the field of stem cell biology and pursued that interest by completing doctoral studies in the laboratory of Dr. Cindi Morshead. Her research focused on the effects of myelin basic protein in determining stem cell behaviour. From the beginning, Dr. Xu displayed a willingness to perform academically, but also through extracurricular activities that would cater to her brewing interest in business. She quickly became involved with the IMS Magazine during the first year of her PhD, as an advertising manager. She further immersed herself in the world of business as a co-founder of two start-ups: an online skin-care retail store and an online platform for scientists to find resources and equipment at a discounted rate.
Finding the right tools to complete a research project can be challenging. Scientists can spend days, weeks, and even months setting-up collaborations for access to the resources and equipment absent from their own laboratory. Moreover, the costs of buying new reagents and/or necessary equipment can be impractical. For these reasons, Dr. Xu sought to find a solution to this paradigm. While completing her graduate studies, she partnered with a former colleague, and friend, Zhang Zoe Yi, to develop a platform called “Coolaborator”. This platform allows researchers to share information about unused equipment, and surplus reagents, which may be sought by another lab. By creating a way to facilitate the reduction of waste within labs, and by driving down the cost of reagents, every researcher could benefit. Her start-up gained momentum due to support from her supervisor, Dr. Cindi Morshead, and partners at the Faculty of Medicine’s Health Innovation Hub (H2i). However, Dr. Xu quickly learned that a start-up only grows by catering to an audience. Importantly, the audience that showed interest in her product was investors outside of academia, such as the Chinese government and other industry partners. She also discovered that both industry professionals and scientific leaders require evidence-based as well as data-driven ideas. From her experience researching market-value, pitching Coolaborator and building an overall narrative, Dr. Xu would go on to greater challenges, specially by competing in the hugely competitive CanInfra Challenge.
The CanInfra Challenge is a six-month public competition seeking to inspire breakthrough innovative ideas that would improve Canadian infrastructure. This challenge was put forth by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a top tier global management consulting firm, in partnership with the Globe and Mail and the Canadian Government. BCG wants to re-ignite discussions at the level of government, in boardrooms, and nationwide, around transformative ideas on Canadian infrastructure involving the latest technologies. Participants in this challenge put forth ideas to improve infrastructure on: transportation, energy, waste and water, utilities, and communications. These ideas are ranked based on public votes as well as expert judges, where the top 10 finalists pitch their idea to industry experts, academic partners, investors, and the government at the Canadian Transformational Infrastructure Summit in May 2018. The top two winners as well as the People’s Choice awardee, based on public vote, are given cash prizes.
One of the key problems faced in Canada, is a lack of knowledge on the health of our water. Currently, the government is data-deficient on the quality of two-thirds of Canadian sub-watersheds. As the second largest global consumer of water, Canadians need to make informed choices about the way water is managed. Dr. Xu brought together engineers, industry experts, and scientists to form a team that could enlighten the public as well as the government about the growing concerns regarding our fresh water. They also hoped to help raise awareness about the risks of a potential water shortage in Canada, if we continue to mismanage this most precious resource. The CanInfra Challenge was met with a creative solution, named the Canadian Advanced Hydrologic Network. Their team proposed customizing sensors, currently available on the market, which could obtain data on water level rises, changes in depth as well as flow of streams, and alterations in contaminants. By placing these sensors around watersheds that feed into larger bodies of water, data centers would gain remote-access information about the quality and quantity of water sources in Canada. A remote monitoring system could inform the government and public about the quality of our watersheds, allowing for better management policies. The Canadian Advanced Hydrologic Network proposal was selected by judges as one of the top 10 innovative ideas (out of 70+ proposals received across Canada) and will go on to compete among the finalists in the CanInfra Challenge.
Ultimately, as intimidating as pursing a graduate degree alongside a start-up may be, Dr. Xu mentions, “[that] the most time-consuming part was coming to a decision to commit and to build a new idea, while being responsible to your teammates—this took me over a year to decide.” Most importantly, Dr. Xu’s entrepreneurial skills have grown with increased experience developing start-up platforms and increased exposure to the different facets of entrepreneurship. Her advice to students with an interest in building their own start-up is to “take it as an experience, whether you succeed or fail, it’s all an experience that we would never trade for anything else—you may not understand your skillset as a PhD until you apply it.” She advises students to be honest with their supervisors about wanting more than an academic career. Further, the advice from experts at UofT provided her with a sense of security, as she mentions that “when we started CanInfra, we thought we can do whatever we want because, deep down, we were confident that UofT would provide exceptional resources compared to a smaller university.” Networking among peers is also important in finding the right group of people to work with. She credits the brilliant students at UofT, with whom she formed close ties, for allowing her team to make it to the final round in the CanInfra Challenge.
When discussing our graduate program, Dr. Xu believes that it equips students with fundamental transferable skills, such as resilience and a “can-do mentality”. Taken together, she believes that industry finds graduate students attractive due to their rigorous analytical abilities, scepticism in the absence of hard evidence, and a knack for never giving up. Graduate programs need to “ensue confidence in our candidates” and then use those strengths to excel in other fields.
As Dr. Xu continues to make an impact around Canada, we hope to see more of her innovative ideas in the future.