From Science to Business--A Personal Journey


My foray into the world of technology transfer and technology commercialization was more a natural progression in my career, rather than a sudden, conscious decision. But an integral part of this transition was the WestLink Technology Commercialization Internship Program ( TCIP), which has had a tremendous impact and has given my career the direction and traction that it now possesses.

I graduated with a master's degree in organic chemistry from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, in 1988. However, I never practiced as an organic chemist. Instead, I worked as an analytical and method development chemist in South Africa for 3 years, before immigrating to Vancouver, Canada, in 1993.

Soon after arriving, I found employment with a private environmental laboratory. The work was boring and mundane, so it wasn't long before I sought greener pastures and more mentally stimulating work. I went on to become a research assistant in the wood science department at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Six months after I had started, my supervisor asked if I would like to do a Ph.D. in wood science. I agreed, after some hesitation, but 9 months after starting the Ph.D. I came to the realization that it was not the correct path for me to be going down. My career ambitions had expanded to horizons beyond those of laboratory work to the world of business. So, like many other people I know, I decided to pursue an MBA, as I felt it was likely to be more useful than a Ph.D. in accomplishing my career goal.

At around the same time I made this decision, I had the good fortune to meet a technology advisor from the National Research Council's Industrial Research Assistance Program ( NRC-IRAP). The NRC-IRAP is Canada's federal innovation assistance program for small and medium-sized Canadian enterprises. The advisor had a client who was trying to commercialize the production of western red cedar wood oil from cedar wood waste. Since my unfinished Ph.D. work involved western red cedar, the start-up company hired me through the IRAP program, at the recommendation of the advisor, to help them commercialize the production of western red cedar wood oil--hence, my introduction into the world of technology commercialization.

Need more information?

The Association of University Technology Managers Web site is one of the most useful for information about technology commercialization in Canada.

I continued to work for the company as their R&D manager, whilst studying for my MBA part time. In addition to my laboratory duties, I was responsible for writing a business plan for the company, as well as proposals for funding.

After I completed my MBA, I decided to further extricate myself from the laboratory environment and concentrate on gaining additional business experience. My hand was forced in this because, unfortunately, the cedar wood oil company was not successful in its endeavours.

However, most of my work experience had been in the laboratory, and my lack of business experience turned out to be a real impediment to my job search, which proved more difficult than I had anticipated, even with an MBA. Prospective employers were not satisfied with the limited and very general business experience I had gained to date. As time went by, I became more and more disillusioned with my lack of success in finding suitable employment with my MBA and chemistry background. Until, that is, the WestLink internship program came along.

When I first saw the advertisement for the TCIP in early February 2001, I instantly knew that it would be a perfect fit for me. I had a great deal of scientific knowledge, an MBA education, as well as limited and informal technology commercialization experience (from a scientist's perspective). What I lacked, however, was practical and "hands-on" business development and technology commercialization experience from a "business" perspective--and that is precisely what the program has provided me with.

The structure of the internship program is truly unique as it involves spending 8 months in each of the three areas that contribute to the technology commercialization process--a university technology-transfer office, business development in a high-tech company, and a venture capital company. Each area has a distinct focus, ensuring that technology commercialization is experienced from three different perspectives--from the birth of the technology at the university, through the development of the technology in the company, and finally, to the financing of the technology; a truly unique opportunity.

My first placement, at the UBC University-Industry Liaison Office, introduced me to the concepts of technology-transfer, patenting, and licensing issues. A university technology-transfer office first evaluates new technologies and makes decisions on whether to seek a patent. The office then decides on whether the technology is licensed out or instead becomes the platform for a spin-off company. UBC's technology-transfer office is one of the largest in Canada, receiving approximately 130 technology disclosures annually. It was a tremendous experience working for such an organization and with such a knowledgeable group of professionals.

My second placement was with a biotech company called Chromos Molecular Systems, where I was able to put into practice the principals of technology transfer that I had learned at UBC. I worked closely with the vice president of business development in identifying and supporting the corporate business development strategy. In addition, I participated in developing new business and licensing opportunities.

My third and final placement (which is still in progress) is with a venture capital firm, Pangaea Ventures. At Pangaea, I evaluate business opportunities, which includes reviewing business plans and technologies. In addition, I participate in structuring venture investments and developing term sheets. In venture capital, a term sheet is a document summarizing the details of a potential venture capital investment that serves as the basis for a final business agreement. Due to the fact that the venture capital community is so small, very few people have the privilege of experiencing life at a venture capital firm--and it is certainly very valuable experience indeed. It encompasses a completely different way of thinking and is often referred to, jokingly, as "the dark side."

All things considered, to say that the WestLink program was a turning point in my career would be an understatement. It has certainly changed the face of my career and provided me with an experience that very few people will ever have. Personally, it has given my career the direction that it had previously lacked, and the future of my career now seems a lot brighter than it did 2 years ago. And better yet, I am getting paid!

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