Q & A with James McLellan

James McLellan, Professor, Chemical Engineering, Queen’s University

James McLellan, Professor, Chemical Engineering, Queen’s University. Photo credit: Queen’s University

When he graduated with an undergraduate engineering degree from Queen’s University and a Master’s in engineering from the University of Waterloo in the early 1980s, Jim McLellan started looking for work with large, established businesses. His attitude was typical of the time, but the decades since have seen those kinds of employment prospects become much more precarious, even for the most highly qualified candidates. Today, he is back at Queen’s as a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, where he teaches courses on innovation and entrepreneurship that nurture the ability of students to create their own jobs. However, the challenge is not simply a matter of helping students turn their technical background into a viable business but also ensuring that they understand the importance of complementing that background with the skills of partners and colleagues who can ensure that such a business thrives. As the academic director of the Dunin-Deshpande Queen’s Innovation Centre (DDQIC), he has helped to spearhead an annual summer program that brings together students from diverse backgrounds who have demonstrated just how much can be achieved through this approach.

How did the DDQIC originate?

The Queen’s Innovation Centre (QIC) was founded in 2012 as a “lean startup” initiative between the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Smith School of Business, with a mission to encourage, enable and support the innovation activities of students, professors, entrepreneurs, regional and Canadian companies through incubators, accelerators, mentoring, experiential learning opportunities and workshops. In the Fall of 2016, the QIC received major support from the Deshpande Foundation established by Gururaj Deshpande, who came to Queen’s from India to get his doctorate in electrical engineering, and from the Dunin Foundation established by Chemical Engineering alumnus Andrew Dunin. In February 2012, we decided to mount a summer experiential program to guide a group of students through this process. We started with a group of 20, from the School of Commerce and Faculty of Applied Science (and a very persuasive Biochemistry student) and they went through an intensive two-week boot camp to orient them on things like how to bring ideas to market, team dynamics, finance 101, engineering 101, small business accounting, and marketing. Then they formed themselves into teams and with some seed capital we provided them — $4,000 each —  and spent the rest of the summer launching their own ventures.

How have those ventures fared?

The students regularly take things further than we would have expected and maybe even they expected. Continuing companies include Mosaic Manufacturing, who make an add-on to 3D printers to enable colour printing, CleanSlate UV, who make a device for UV sterilization of mobile devices for the health sector, and Iris Technologies, who make an e-ink secondary computer monitor for concussion patients. For the past two summers we have piloted a new program we call Foundry, which gives students access to build ventures around research-driven intellectual property developed at the university. Last year one team acquired a substrate that enhances the signal response in Raman scattering. Their company, SpectraPlasmonics, now offers a fast, inexpensive means of using this powerful technology to identify contaminants such as melamine in milk or fentanyl in a drug sample. Without telling us, the team applied to the prestigious Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan Competition in Singapore, where they started in a pool of 550 applicants and won first place. That earned them a prize of $125,000 cash, plus an offer for another $100,000 in venture funding plus the equivalent of thousands of dollars’ worth of legal and corporate services.

What can we learn from that kind of outstanding accomplishment?

It’s easy to think, especially when we’re talking about sophisticated technologies, that the only people who could possibly commercialize them are the people who invented them. Wrong. SpectraPlasmonics was started by five students — in engineering chemistry, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, applied economics, and life sciences — and none of them had any experience in Raman scattering. The substrate had been developed by a group of my colleagues in the Chemical Engineering department at Queen’s. But when it comes to entrepreneurship and innovation, you don’t need to do all the work. You need to have the idea and the vision for it. You need to know enough to recognize the additional expertise you might require to get over technical, licensing, or regulatory hurdles. You need to know where you’re going to get that expertise and how you’re going to pay for it, not that you’re going to do it all yourself.

How do you encourage people to think of their work in these terms?

One of the things that I like to emphasize is the ‘realm of the possible’. Most students would never dream that they could actually create their own company. We ask them to come up with an idea for a venture, applying systems and design thinking to help identify opportunities, and to be curious about the world around them. You can always be observing and gaining insight. It makes life a lot more interesting. When you’re sitting in a drive-through waiting for coffee, ask ‘how does that work?’, then ‘how can that work better?’ That perspective is more difficult to relate on a personal level when you work in an area like chemical engineering, because a lot of what we do occurs behind chain link fences and barbed wire, in high pressure vessels and millions of tonnes a year. Contrast that with what I call consumer retail thermodynamics. My favourite example is the Columbia Omni-Freeze Zero™ sportswear, which uses polymer with an endothermic heat of mixing to augment cooling. Originally developed for a membrane, it turned out that it absorbs water. That’s not something you want in a membrane, but in this case it provides a cooling effect for something you’d wear during athletic activity. This is how you take advantage of thermodynamic or other kinds of phenomena to come up with solutions for a consumer market.

What are the broader implications for turning ideas into businesses?

We need to up the ante for graduate students, but we need to do it in a way that goes beyond the very linear notion that you do your research and you identify something and you commercialize it. That’s an important pathway, but if you look at how often that leads to a venture, it’s relatively small. We can do better by providing a foundation of knowledge and experiential opportunities, bringing together diverse groups of students, and encouraging students to look more broadly at the world around them and see how ideas can be put to practice, which is at the heart of innovation. The way I describe it to people is that we’re accelerating the rate at which students unlock their potential — whether it’s in a start-up environment or a large company environment. We get them to take a step back and say where they could use their knowledge and concepts in non-conventional ways. They might create their own start-up, or they might be more comfortable going into a start-up, or if they do go to a larger company, they’ll create opportunities for themselves there because they’ll have a better mind-set to contribute in a more substantive way.

That’s one of the things I’m always trying to get across to my students: be curious! You’ve got some inherent abilities that you don’t even realize are broadly applicable. Some of those may be in things that are not directly related to chemical engineering, but you’ve got those systems thinking skills. Look beyond the chain link fence at the chemical plant, you’re going to find all sorts of different opportunities.