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6 tips for startup success from McMaster Engineering innovators November 9, 2018

Are you looking to build your big idea into a start-up success? In recognition of Global Entrepreneurship Week, accomplished McMaster Engineering innovators and up and coming student startups share valuable advice for budding entrepreneurs.

1. Try to kill your startup 

Yes, it may sound counterintuitive but computer engineering alumnus Aly Orady knows what he’s talking about. As founder of San Francisco based startup, Tonal, Orady is intent on revolutionizing the world of fitness.

“Start with the thesis that it's a bad idea - that others already exist that are doing it, or others have tried in the past and failed for good reason,” explains Orady. “That is the only way you'll uncover the path to success, which is to understand which paths are riddled with obstacles or competitors, and which remain open for a new entrant. Really answer the question of why hasn't this done before, and why now?”

Tonal, a strength-training system powered by electromagnetism resistance technology and machine learning, was inspired by Orady’s personal journey of reclaiming his own health through weight loss and strength training. The technology incorporates expert-led videos and personalized guidance into full body workouts you can do from the convenience of home.

Orady adds, “There are more good ideas than people to carry them to the finish line. It takes great execution, daily problem solving, and an obsession with risk management to not fail. But true success comes with an obsession of the customer and the problem your product or service solves for them.”

2. Make many, many connections

“Be open to feedback of any kind and speak to as many people as possible,” advises Frances Lasowski, a chemical engineering PhD grad who founded 20/20 OptimEyes, a startup that is developing a novel eye drop that helps keep active ingredients in your eye for more effective treatment of ocular diseases.

The company won $20,000 at the 2017 Forge Student Startup Competition and is currently working to complete their final pre-clinical studies to show that the system is safe and effective.

“While we almost always hear different things from different people (and sometimes conflicting things), we've also developed great connections from people who couldn't help but knew someone who could,” adds Lasowski. “When speaking with other entrepreneurs, they've passed along some pearls of wisdom that are often just in time advice for us and have likely saved us a lot of effort down the road!” 

When Lasowski spoke with an entrepreneur at an eye conference who developed and launched over 10 products in the ocular space, she started to believe her startup idea could be something bigger.

“We were meeting with him to get some advice and ideas on how to position the technology when he told us he was interested in investing. That definitely made us realize if he wanted in this would really work!”

3. Build a diverse team before you build a strong product

All startups begin with a big idea but many fail because they lack the ability to execute, according to Cole Kirschner, founder of AgeRate, a student startup that has created a novel method of predicting biological age.

“If you build a motivated and diverse team, you will have a greater chance of success,” he says. “I would advise any McMaster Engineering student to align with other students who have complementing strengths.”

AgeRate began as a capstone project for the biotechnology student with co-founder Nathan Cawte under the supervision of Guillaume Paré. Kirschner pitched their project at the 2018 Forge Student Startup Competition where they took home first place and $13,000 in funding.

Kirschner also recommends taking advantage of the great resources for startups offered by the McMaster community. “There are many workshops and events that will provide you with the opportunity to sharpen your skills and network with students who may want to collaborate with you.”

“We aim to break the traditional way we view ageing from something that we cannot control to something that we can measure and change. If your start-up offers an innovative solution to an everyday problem, you will achieve success.”

The AgeRate test will be available for purchase in the spring of 2019. The team hopes that over the next five years, the majority of naturopathic doctors in Canada will offer the test.  

“The team envisions a future in which getting your heart rate checked will be as common as getting your AgeRate checked.”

4. Know your financial goals

“It’s important to select your financing strategy appropriately for your end goal,” says Ashlin Kanawaty, a recent mechatronics grad and mechatronics engineer at Mariner Endosurgery Inc., a Hamilton based medical device company leading commercialization of computer-assisted medical devices for laparoscopic surgeries.

“While some forms of investment may be easier to come by than others, it is important to keep in mind how this will affect the future of the company and shareholders in the long run.”

Kanawaty says having a good understanding of the competitors in the marketplace is another good way to start.

“Try to gauge if you have enough competitive advantage to succeed in the present, one year from now, five years from now.”

“Also, Mariner has been selecting the right group of engineers, managers and investors. Strong leaders with a clear vision for the company's direction are important, in addition to a solid team of product developers who share this vision and are technically capable."

5. Just Do It

“Find a way to try out your idea as fast as possible and just do it,” says Matthew Sheridan, Mechatronics Engineering and Management alum and founder of Nix Pro Color Sensor.

“You’ll never be right, you’ll never be even close to being right, but if you don’t try it, you’re not going to know one way or another and you won’t be able to fix what you’re wrong about.”

Sheridan’s invention captures the colour of any surface and sends that information to a smart-phone app that allows users to save, share, match and compare tones.

It’s now shipping to more than 50 countries, while the lower-priced Nix Mini Color Sensor released last summer is bringing the technology to a whole new market. Last Christmas, the gadget made it onto GQ’s list of best technology gifts for men.

Sheridan adds that good entrepreneurs also need to adopt a testing mentality – constantly looking for and listening to feedback from those strangers to ensure potential products meet a real need. “You just keep asking questions to validate what you’re doing, like a science experiment.”

“The reality of this industry is that you’re failing all the time and what makes you a good entrepreneur is getting over that and just moving forward.”

6. Have a little faith

“When building a startup, you will face a variety of shortage problems, such as lack of funding, workforce and trust. It’s important to believe and trust yourself,” says Enzo Jia, a recent mechanical engineering MASc graduate who has developed a flip-down smart visor for firefighters.

With his startup, Longan Vision, Jia is working with The Forge to turn his technology into a marketable reality. The company has already started demonstrating the visor with fire departments in Niagara, Hamilton, Waterloo and Brantford.

“My idea for this technology came up when I saw the Grenfell Tower fire last year in London that killed 72 people. I wondered if I could build a device for firefighters to locate victims in fire scenes and help firefighters exit the building.”

The next step for the company is to continue to raise funds and building a new prototype to run a field test. Jia’s goal is to launch the product in the spring of 2020.