Network for entrepreneurial grad students and post-docs keeps growing, launches new startup program

Mark Lowey
May 29, 2024

A national network aimed at getting university research out of the lab and into the marketplace has grown to 33 participating universities and launched a new support program for startups.

Lab2Market (L2M) which supports innovation, commercialization and entrepreneurship skills training of grad students and post-docs pursuing STEM research, researchers and highly qualified persons, is piloting an “L2M Build” program for startups spun out of universities.

“The Build program is based on developing practical skills – project management, project development, connecting founders with the best possible experts,” Tarek Sadek (photo at left), executive director, Centre of Engineering Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Toronto Metropolitan University, told Research Money.

“We believe with this Build program, these startups will be able to compete for resources and support in the external community and will have high potential,” he said.

Seven university teams with startups began the year-long Build program in January, said Wesley Kosiba (photo at right), Deep Tech startup manager for the Innovation Boost Zone startup incubator at Toronto Metropolitan University.

The Build program is financially supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s (NSERC) Idea to Innovation (I2I) Phase One grant program. The grants are to  accelerate the pre-competitive development of promising technology from the university and college sector, and to promote its transfer to a new or established Canadian company.

In NSERC’s I2I “Market Assessment” stream, Lab2Market teams can receive up to $20,000 of funding for 16 weeks, to do an assessment of the commercial potential for their technology, product or process.

In the Build program, Lab2Market teams can receive $155,000 from NSERC for one year, for product development activities and which can also be used to pay the entrepreneurial lead through the university.

Participants in the Build program get an assigned advisor that they meet with regularly over the year, as well as access to a pool of mentors, Kosiba said.

Each team also gets a “founders council” – essentially a mock board of directors comprised of product development and industry experts – to ensure the teams stay focused and on track throughout the year. The founders council is modelled after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s delta V summer accelerator program.

Kosiba said the inaugural cohort of seven teams is working on a diverse range of technologies, including medtech, food and beverage, and clean energy.

“The exciting thing is we’re bringing together multiple stakeholders that haven’t really worked together,” he said.

For example, through the Lab2Market network, each team in the Build program has access to the resources of the Technology Access Centre Network of Canada (Tech-Access Canada) and its colleges and hubs for product development.

Tech-Access Canada, a national, not-for-profit organization, has 64 NSERC-funded technology access centres across the country offering R&D support.

Besides the Build program, Lab2Market is still running three other programs – Discover, Validate, and Launch – for grad students and post-docs at each stage in their entrepreneurial journey. The focus of each program is:

  • Discover if entrepreneurship is right for you through an online exploratory program, by learning a new way of thinking and determining if you have a passion for business.
  • Validate your idea as a business, by critically evaluating and stress-testing your research as a potential business opportunity.
  • Launch your business in the real world, by building your business case, preparing for funding rounds and becoming a startup.

Lab2Market’s impact on young academic entrepreneurs

“The L2M program has changed the way that I will approach new research questions in the future,” said Thomas Brenner, entrepreneurial lead for a team from the University of British Columbia.

“Stepping out of the lab was a humbling experience that provided me with invaluable insights and some very interesting conversations. The L2M program was imperative for identifying the gaps in my innovation and eventually reaching a market fit,” Brenner said.

Kelycia Leimert, entrepreneurial lead for a team from the University of Alberta, said:

“Between my PhD and my postdoc, I’ve been immersed in my research field for 10 years, yet this is the first time I’ve ever had the opportunity to get out in the community and spend time talking to care providers and women about their experiences, their needs, and how they can best be helped. I’ve gained a lot from the Lab2Market experience, but I think that’s the most impactful.” 

Sadek said the Discover, Validate and Launch programs offer the spark, foundational education and startup launch pad for university student entrepreneurs.

But he said the Lab2Market network realized another program was needed once the startups were launched, given that each fledgling firm is at a different stage in development and has its own unique needs, including skills sets, subject matter experts and investment.

The Build program, being delivered by Toronto Metropolitan University, was designed in collaboration with the entire Lab2Market network to deliver the support the startup needs now “to cross the chasm, from inside the university to outside in the marketplace,” Sadek said.

Since Toronto Metropolitan University and Dalhousie University launched Lab2Market with the initial team cohort in 2020, the network has generated some impressive performance indicators:

  • To date, Lab2Market has served a total of 38 cohorts of 594 teams from 36 universities (153 in the Discover program; 384 in Validate; and 57 in Launch).
  • The number of companies incorporated post-program is 97 (44 in Validate; 53 in Launch).
  • Forty-eight per cent of those teams are continuing to pursue commercial development (45 per cent in Validate; 72 per cent in Launch).
  • Lab2Market teams have created 176 jobs to date (69 in Validate; 107 in Launch).
  • The teams have so far raised a total of nearly $21 million to support their fledgling companies.

Startup founders’ experience with Lab2Market

“Lab2Market Launch was a game-changer for Synakis,” said Mickael Dang (photo at right), co-founder of the Toronto-based pre-clinical biotech startup developing biomaterial-based treatments of eye injuries and diseases.

“The mentorship, hands-on approach, and collaborative environment were exceptional. I've gained invaluable insights and confidence in my venture,” Dang said.

Synakis was spun out of research at the University of Toronto, where Dang is a PhD student in the laboratory of Dr. Molly Schoichet, PhD, the Michael E. Charles Professor in Chemical Engineering.

 In March, Syankis won the $40,000 1st place prize at the 2024 Desjardins Startup Prize Pitch Competition in the late-stage category.

Dr. Irsa Wiginton (photo at left), co-founder and business development officer at Kingston-based mDETECT, said Lab2Market “is a great program for those who are ready to take their ideas to the next level and prepare themselves for growth, investment and scale.”

mDETECT’s liquid biopsy blood test enables rapid assessment and monitoring that can determine breast cancer progression and scope of drug efficacy. The company was spun out of research at Queen’s University, including by Wiginton’s business partner and professor Dr. Christopher Mueller.

Mueller has received a $900,000 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to support a clinical trial to validate the clinical utility of the company’s technology.

Dr. Ralph Christian Delos Santo (photo at right),  PhD, is CEO and co-founder of Toronto-based Biofect Innovations, which uses a microbial platform to create tailor-made protein ingredients for various industries. Delos Santos and his team completed a four-month Lab2Market Validate program in 2021; since then he has watched the network grow over time.

“Every time I engage with the program, there’s something new to learn, shedding light on those 'unknown unknowns' we often hear about,” he said.

“Lab2Market has a way of revealing the little hints of success that you might not notice at first, always keeping us motivated. I'm really proud to be part of the deep tech community they’re building,” Delos Santos said.

Acute need to help startups in life sciences

The Lab2Market network now has established five hub institutions in five regions across Canada: British Columbia, the Prairies, Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic.

The network has had such a high demand for projects in life sciences, health technologies and medtech, L2M established a non-geographical hub focused just on this sector.

“There is enough of a difference in what you need to know to commercialize or develop a project in that space that it makes sense to have something that recognizes that,” said John MacRitchie (photo at left) assistant vice-president, Zone Learning and Strategic Initiatives, at Toronto Metropolitan University.

Multiple universities are involved in each of the five regional hubs and in the health hub. By this summer, Lab2Market will have a total of 10 universities actively delivering L2M programs.

This includes Université de Sherbrooke, which will deliver a Discover program focused on quantum technologies. Also, the University of Calgary will offer a Launch program this summer.

Pacific Economic Development Canada is funding a cohort in the Validate program at Simon Fraser University (SFU), delivered through SFU’s Venture Lab.

Apart from the NSERC I2I grant-funded Lab2Market programs, other programs in the network are funded half by Mitacs and half by federal Regional Development Agencies (RDA).

The Lab2Market network applied and is one of 20 applicants selected to submit a full application for federal funding to establish a Lab To Market initiative.

Federal Budget 2022 allocated $47.8 million over five years, starting in 2023-24, and $20.1 million ongoing to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada to launch a national Lab To Market platform.

While there’s no guarantee Lab2Market will receive funding, “having funding will make us really operate as a network and eliminate the risk that some regions will not have the funding to run certain programs,” Sadek said.

Kosiba said the need in Canada for programs to help startups is especially acute in the life sciences/health area, where “there’s this big chasm when it comes to medical tech, health tech being able commercialize.”

In Lab2Market’s Validate program, for example, 30 per cent to 40 per cent of the applications are in health technology,” he said. “There’s this huge demand, even in the earlier end of our funnel, for support.”

For the first time, Dalhousie University and the University of Toronto jointly hosted 22 teams in the Lab2Market Validate program for researchers in health innovation, which ran from February to April 2024.

MacRitchie stressed that Lab2Market’s focus is on addressing specifically the needs and opportunities around the academic entrepreneurs and the teams in university research labs.

“We want to help drive more and better opportunities out of the lab into the innovation ecosystem,” he said. “We want to have those opportunities to be more competitive and attractive to investors than they would otherwise be.”

Lab2Market’s other main impact is on training to develop the entrepreneurial mindset and competency skills of people coming out of university labs.

“They have the technical background, the understanding of the technology, and some understanding of how to make a difference with it, how it can move out of the lab and make an impact,” MacRitchie said.

Even if these highly qualified people decide not to create a startup but to work for another company, he said, “we’re creating cohorts of people that are going to go out and can help change some of those companies from within, and hopefully make them more competitive.”


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