Adrien Côté is the Executive Director of the University of Waterloo’s signature entrepreneurship program Velocity and its student entrepreneurship arm Concept. Passionate about the commercialization of technology and business, Adrien was a PI at California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, and the Portfolio and Strategic Relationship Manager at Xerox before becoming a Business Advisor and now the Executive Director at Velocity. This interview is brought to you by our outreach leads Malak Ali and Molly Lu.
BioTEC: Lots of students gain exposure to Velocity through business classes they take, but could you provide a quick overview of Concept and how it came about?
Adrien: Velocity over the last 12 years has really expanded in size and scope. It started as an experiential student entrepreneurship program in a campus residence with a small group of students. As we grew and developed a full fledged startup incubator, we wanted to remain true to our roots and spun up Concept as a program specifically for students to explore and start building their business ideas. The doorstep to Velocity, if you will.
At Concept, we are working to create cross pollination between students from all faculties and to connect with students on the impact they want to create in areas including human health, climate change and more. The Concept program is just over a year old and we have a lot of exciting things coming up!
BioTEC: You’ve had many research publications, citations, and hold over 50 patents. After doing this work at Xerox and California NanoSystems Institute, what prompted you to make the transition into R&D and entrepreneurship, specifically as an advisor?
Adrien: I was always keen to commercialize new science and technology and at UCLA, our research was spun out as a patent license. I was deep into research in the early 2000s and at that time there was little support for spinning out companies from universities. It was hard to figure out what the right steps were to be successful. Today it is much different. Had Concept and Velocity existed, I would have certainly worked more toward building a spin out.
Later, at Xerox, we did a lot of ideation and created long lists of potential projects and technologies, but not all of them ended up getting commercialized as the focus was on core business and the innovation plan set forth by leadership. My time at Xerox was remarkable. There was so much opportunity to be creative and to work with smart people. I am still excited for the technologies that didn’t get commercialized. Maybe they will some day.
When I got asked to be a science Business Advisor at Velocity, I accepted since the role seemed like a perfect fit. I truly believe that commercializing an idea or technology via a company is the ideal way to get it into the world. It forces you to focus on the problem you want to solve, which steers how you develop the technology.
BioTEC: As a former PI at California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, what differences do you see between the entrepreneurial field in the Waterloo region and the Bay Area? Or perhaps, Canada and the US?
Adrien: In terms of quality of ideas and ambition, we are toe-to-toe with California. Obviously there’s a scale difference; California has more capital, bigger networks, and many opportunities to connect accordingly.
That said, the concentration of innovators in the Waterloo region is very high. The other unique thing about the Waterloo region is that everybody is willing to help each other.
I can cold call someone if I’m curious about something and odds are that they’d be willing to make time to help out. In other parts of the world, you need to climb a ladder to access certain people. Looking ahead, more and more capital is being invested in the Waterloo region and it’s going to play a central role in growing our nation’s economy.
BioTEC: How do startups in the Concept pre-incubator program move into Velocity’s program? And how can student groups strengthen their chances of making this move?
Adrien: Often, we find that the technology is there, but that many groups have yet to productize it. The difference between developing a technology and a product is that a product meets customer needs. Further, it’s important to think about how you plan to scale a business around the product and the speed with which you’ll be able to generate revenue. For biotechnology companies, the time to generate revenue can be longer, so it’s essential to have a plan to get there.
To smoothly transition from Concept to Velocity, you’ll need to bridge business and technology development. For example, if you’re developing an antibody test, you’ll need to know everything about antibody testing: the technical aspects, the competitors and the industry trends. Ultimately, a good strategy is understanding your approach to get to revenue. The best way to learn these skills and get support is to spend time with Concept coaches.
BioTEC: What are some common pitfalls you find young entrepreneurs or students fall into when they first enter the biotechnology industry?
Adrien: I’m really excited about biotechnology and it’s a huge area in which Canada can differentiate itself on a world stage. We not only have great minds and universities, but also strong manufacturing capacity. All the pieces are in Canada, which isn’t the case for other countries. We just need to connect them well and build and fuel scalable businesses.
At Concept, we sometimes find that those pursuing a biotech startup target smaller rather than larger markets because regulatory pathways to a larger market seem daunting. You need to view regulatory approval as a necessary step to bring biotech into the world. Don’t run away from it. If well executed, gaining approval will actually increase the value of your company, and you shouldn’t let that step stop you from thinking big. As a student, you have plenty of opportunities to master this process: seeking out connections, doing a regulatory-related co-op, and learning about policy, regulation, and standards.
BioTEC: Is there a trend or pattern you see in biotechnology startups that succeed?
With biotechnology companies, success is about increasing value by hitting milestones and demonstrating you’re moving forward to de-risk the company.
To do this, you need to identify these milestones and how to hit them efficiently, then convince stakeholders that your plan is the right one. Think about what other successful biotech companies did when growing and how they got their first customer, and work backwards from there.
Biotechnology companies are not built in a silo. It’s important to go out into the industry, talk to others, build a network, find advisors, and leverage as much non-diluted funding as you can get. There are many great opportunities for grant funding in the space. Figure out how you can work with universities, which have a wealth of opportunities to collaborate.
BioTEC: The rate of startup creation is higher than ever, especially in an innovation focused area like Waterloo, how does a team or individual stand out in a seemingly saturated market?
Adrien: You have to be a good storyteller. Tell your story to as many people as you can and get them to pay attention to you. After that, say what you’re going to do and do it. You need to be responsive. If people are going to help you, you need to be accountable and grateful. Also, learn to challenge the word “No” and develop a sense of grit. You need to relentlessly focus on moving the business forward, and other people need to feel that.
BioTEC: What is one thing you wish you’d known in your university years?
Adrien: I wish I took some more risks to build a company at that time in my life. Had there been a Velocity or Concept, I would have been there all the time! It’s OK to strike out to try something.