Innovating new business connections

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When Ty McKinney needed advice for his new wellness app, 8 Bit Cortex, he turned to Edmonton’s DiscoveryLab.

It’s a forum where aspiring entrepreneurs across Alberta (and the globe) can pitch their business ideas to experts, advisors and investors. 

“One of the best ways to figure out the best path forward with a new idea is to get critical feedback from experts,” says McKinney. “So we tried to take many opportunities to do that, with DiscoveryLab being one of them.” 

Not only did the University of Alberta graduate receive valuable feedback from DiscoveryLab’s experts, he also made a critical connection. A potential investor is now helping McKinney find new customers as well as get his business ready for future investment. 

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 A screenshot from a wellness app with the question asking you to select recent activities and selecting text with graphics such as ‘Work from home’ ‘Caffeine’ ;Give Gratitude’ etc.
A screenshot from Ty McKinney’s wellness app, 8 Bit Cortex. Courtesy of Ty McKinney.

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Friendly roundtable 

Michael Overduin, a professor of biochemistry at the U of A, launched DiscoveryLab in 2017. Since then, he’s developed a roster of more than 200 advisors from around the world. Meetings—digital and in-person—are held four times a year. More than 250 companies have pitched at these sessions. Sponsors include the Edmonton Regional Innovation Network, Alberta Precision Exchange, and the law firm, Bennett Jones.

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“I think we provide something unique—a friendly place where you can talk openly about something that really matters to you, even at a vulnerable stage of development,” says Overduin.

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“It's not just a hard pitch, it's a friendly meeting to get to know the business advisors and investors who can help you and identify solutions to any problem. It's not just investment that you might want, but it might be space or advice on what you should protect before you go to market. Maybe you need someone on your team to help as an advisor. DiscoveryLab is not a dragon’s den, it’s a friendly roundtable.”

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A man with his hands clasped in front of him leans on a railing that surrounds a spiral staircase and a large silver canister.
Michael Overduin in the National High Field Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Centre at the University of Alberta. Courtesy of NANUC.

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Connections are key 

Initially, the meetings were open to academic researchers and clinical scientists looking to commercialize their work, but DiscoveryLab now welcomes any business at any stage. Entrepreneurs from across Alberta—and the globe—can pitch their business plans. Advisors then get to ask questions, offer suggestions, score the pitches, and if they choose, follow up with presenters. 

“At the University of Alberta and in the wider Alberta ecosystem, we see brilliant minds developing new solutions to the grand challenges of our time—especially in high-growth sectors such as health, energy, agriculture and AI,” says Sheetal Mehta Walsh, Senior Advisor to the President of the University of Alberta.  “But great ideas need a push forward. That's why the people behind DiscoveryLab are making a real difference in advancing the kind of solutions that can create a better world.”

Mark Olson is the founder of Flokk Systems, a company from Carstairs that provides devices and software for ranchers and farmers to digitally track the health of their livestock. After presenting at DiscoveryLab, he says he made several significant contacts, including Dr. Elise Fear, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Calgary. 

“That’s why you participate—to find those connections that wouldn’t be obvious and you’d probably never track down on your own,” says Olson. 

“We are now supporting Dr. Fear in securing [$1.6 million in] funding that will train students in advanced livestock monitoring technologies. If funded, this initiative will provide Flokk a pipeline of new technologies and very qualified personnel.”

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A man uses a handheld device to read a tag on a cow’s ear.
Mark Olson uses the Flokk handheld device to read the tag on a cow. Courtesy of Flokk Systems.

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Speeding up the process

Dr. Luc Berthiaume is a fierce proponent of DiscoveryLab. He believes it can help new businesses get to market faster by providing advice, mentorship and investment opportunities to new entrepreneurs.  

Berthiaume, professor of cell biology at the U of A, started his own company, Pacylex Pharmaceuticals, in 2010. With the help of family, friends, angel investors, and a local sports charity,he raised $7.8 million to test a new drug for treating blood cancers. In 2021, the company launched its first clinical trials in lymphoma patients at the Cross Cancer Institute. Pacylex will soon start trials in leukemia patients in Texas, thanks to a $1.4 million (US) grant from the U.S. Department of Defense. 

But Berthiaume thinks the research could be much further along if DiscoveryLab had been around to connect him with potential investors when he started Pacylex. (His company still needs millions more for a second round of trials, so CEO Michael Weickert presented at the forum in May 2022.) 

“We could’ve started testing easily three to five years ago,” says Berthiaume. “DiscoveryLab is absolutely critical because it gives you exposure and you never know when or where investors are going to click with your work and you might be the beneficiary of seed money.”

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A smiling white man with salt and pepper hair and a gray suit.
Luc Berthiaume is developing a new drug for blood cancers. Courtesy of Pacylex Pharmaceuticals.

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Building community 

DiscoveryLab is also vital to Edmonton’s business community as a whole—making it more conducive for people to build successful companies by growing an ever-expanding network of mentors and investors.  

Darrell Petras is one of DiscoveryLab’s 200-plus advisors. He’s the Director of Business and Community Development for Edmonton Unlimited. It’s an agency created by the City of Edmonton and dedicated to building a strong community of innovators and investors in the city. 

Petras attends Discovery Lab to find aspiring entrepreneurs that would benefit from some of Edmonton Unlimited’s programs—including Experts on Demand, which pairs startups with business professionals. Each company receives 100 hours of support from an expert that will help take the business to an international market. 

“DiscoveryLab does a wonderful job bringing different parts of the innovation community together,” says Petras. “Not just the innovation community, but those companies that have a mature product and want to give back or want to acquire new innovation.

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“Dr. Michael Overduin and his team have created a comfortable place to build companies. There are so many people who are willing to volunteer as advisors to sit on sessions and build networks. Everybody’s there for each other and to really bond. It’s just so meaningful.”

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