Two years ago at the University of New Brunswick, a group of faculty, students and alumni began to toss around an idea: could artificial intelligence (AI) help regulators trace the movement of cryptocurrencies and prevent crime?
Dr. Dhirendra Shukla was talking to entrepreneur-in-residence Sandy Bird, co-founder of cybersecurity pioneer Q1 Labs, about this idea when he found out that electrical engineering student Matthew Sampson was interested in an AI project. He asked Sampson to look into how AI could be used to ensure cryptocurrencies weren’t used in money laundering or fraud and from this simple question, the company Gray Wolf Analytics was born.
Gray Wolf is a shining example of how companies are created at the J. Herbert Smith Centre for Technology, Management and Entrepreneurship, known as TME, UNB’s entrepreneurship hub. Centred in Head Hall at UNB, it is a place where an array of people swap ideas, work on projects and support one another’s work. Its strength is its diversity and ability to execute on good ideas.
“We have created an environment where students feel empowered to talk to professors openly about what they would like to work on,” said Shukla, Director of the J. Herbert Smith Centre. “We are able to draw in mentors who are thrilled to talk to the students.”
Entrepreneurship and diversity are cornerstones of UNB’s mission and both are on display throughout the TME programs and the broader university. The TME community features not only a diverse range of people but also a diverse assortment of programs, all dedicated to launching or accelerating businesses.
Aside from the pervasive environment of entrepreneurial thinking throughout the centre, the programs range from Bachelor and Masters programs in TME, to I-Stem (which helps researchers find commercial applications for their research), to the Energia Ventures accelerator to Scale-Up Atlantic Canada, which helps established businesses increase their revenues.
Magnets for Newcomers
Several of these programs are magnets for entrepreneurial newcomers to New Brunswick. Energia, which supports startups in such sectors as clean energy, smart grid and cybersecurity, welcomes entrepreneurs from around the world, and the Masters of TME program boasts a strong intake of international students.
Three years ago, Nigerian Damilare Odumosu entered the Masters of TME program and founded his company All Farmers Online. This venture has developed a digital product that connects three parties that improve the agricultural supply chain in Africa: farmers, who customarily oversee small, family-owned plots; exporters and retailers, who bring the product to market; and unemployed young people, who can serve as a bridge between the two. It has a huge social, economic and environmental benefit as farmers in Odumosu’s native Nigeria lose 60 per cent of their crop before it gets to consumers.
Now living in Saskatchewan, Odumosu has persisted in the project and All Farmers Online has 8,000 users. He attributes much of the success to UNB and the Fredericton innovation community.
“The innovation community for me was really, really welcoming – that is something I observed across the board,” said Odumosu. “The [MTME] program provided me with resources and connections. With the [faculty’s] help and the opening up to the community, we were unified in our passion and dedication to innovation.”
UNB has a history of spinning out companies through the interactions of student, faculty, staff and researchers. Some have become global leaders, such as Q1 Labs, a cybersecurity company that IBM bought in 2012, reportedly for more than $600 million. Others are still in their growth stage. Agtech data analysis company Resson was formed by UNB students Rishin Behl and Peter Goggin and went on to raise more than $28 million in equity funding. Potential Motors, which is designing software for automobiles, has passed through both the MTME program and Energia, and recently raised $2.5 million.
Shukla and his TME team have worked with the founders of these companies and scores of other students of all backgrounds, sometimes to create great companies and more often to launch young people on their careers. “There are many people that we recommend [to potential employers] and the companies hire them. We are so fortunate to be in the position where we can help the founders . . . connect the dots and find their next steps,” said Shukla
Success with Investors
Another company that has had success with investors is Smart Skin Technologies, which came into being when international student Kumaran Thillainadarajah got a summer job working on a UNB research project. It resulted in him working on a pressure-sensitive substance that could generate electric signals when pressed. He started Smart Skin 13 years ago, and eventually developed a product called Quantifeel, which is a sort of decoy bottle lined with a pressure-sensitive cover. When the decoy is sent through an industrial production line, it can detect problems before they happen. The system provides actionable insights about the forces that containers experience during packaging, warehousing, and shipping. Its customers include virtually all the world’s major bottling companies, such as Coca-Cola, and 18 of the world’s 20 largest pharmaceutical companies. The venture, which raised $10.7 million in capital this year, is doing especially well among these companies, which need specific containers for their medications.
“Every vial we help produce means someone’s being protected and we take a lot of pride in that,” said Thillainadarajah, now the company’s Chief Technology Officer.
The UNB TME team supported the company at the outset and has been a partner with it through its growth, providing a stream of graduates as staff and working with it on research and development. In recent years, UNB has been focusing more on working with researchers on finding commercial applications for their work. The I-Stem program, which is modeled on the I-Corps program in the U.S., helps scientists assess whether there are commercial applications for their research, and how to bring these applications to market.
Other researchers are launching ventures because of the entrepreneurial spirit that pervades the university. For example, Dr. Alli Murugesan, a Senior Scientist and Translational Cancer Researcher at UNB Saint John, has spun her research into a company called BioHuntress Therapeutics, whose first product is a drug for blood cancers developed from a compound derived from bee glue (the cement that holds the walls of beehives in place).
While Gray Wolf Analytics continues to grow, taking on staff and gaining clients and investors, one interesting aspect of the company is how it has helped to educate an educator. Dhirendra Shukla may be the head of the J. Herbert Smith Centre, but he says he’s learned a lot about running and financing a company as the president and chair of Gray Wolf as well as having a lot of fun.
“Before I was a mentor and coach and teacher I was helping students connect the dots,” said Shukla. “But from a Gray Wolf perspective, being there to manage a startup and fund it, well, it’s not easy. It’s taught me about hiring people, managing the people, working on a tight, small budget and getting to reach new heights that I hadn’t done before.”
After a pause, he added: “It’s not easy and it’s very, very risky. But I’m doing it because it makes me a better teacher and a better mentor. Coming out on the other end, I think it will make me a better human being.”
About the University of New Brunswick
The University of New Brunswick is Canada's oldest English-language university. Founded in 1785, the multi-campus institution has a rich history and a dynamic focus on innovation, experiential learning and entrepreneurship. UNB has more than 10,500 students from over 100 countries enrolled in degree-credit courses on its campuses, online and at partner institutions around the world, as well as thousands of continuing education learners. As a comprehensive university, UNB is home to substantial research expertise in many disciplines. Its faculty and staff have collaborated extensively with public and private sector leaders to advance research and foster innovation.