Intern executivesWednesday, July 10th, 2013
THIS TIME A YEAR AGO, McGill Materials Engineering students James McGoff and Charles Vincent were toiling their nights away in a dusty, makeshift laboratory in their apartment, trying to create lightweight and highly insulated shipping envelopes and boxes using aerogel.
They would stay up until 2 or 3 a.m., wrangling sheets of the ultralight, cloud-like aerogel into packaging prototypes. (See sidebar.) Then they would get up a few hours later and head to class at McGill. They were, after all, students with GPAs to maintain.
This summer, McGoff and Vincent have swapped the apartment laboratory for a sun-filled office space at a business incubator in downtown Montreal. Instead of sleep-deprived students, they’ll be both interns and executive officers in their own advanced-materials packaging company, TemperPak.*
Both McGoff and Vincent have completed internships as part of their program requirements at McGill. They have worked at companies such as Boeing and Cross Chasm, and TemperPak’s third founding member, Brian Powers, recently completed an internship with UBS investment bank through his program at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Now, McGill is allowing us to internships at our own company,” says McGoff, with a touch of awe in his voice. “It’s really great because it gives us the best of everything. We get academic credit, and we get this office, and we get to work on our project.”
That’s quite the leap from TemperPak’s beginnings at a meeting of the now-defunct McGill Technology Entrepreneurship Club, where McGoff first met Sathy Rajasekharan, associate director of the McGill Centre for Biomedical Innovation.
“Sathy was telling us about blood shipments from Montreal to Florida that would arrive biologically damaged because the internal temperature did not remain at 22 degrees Celsius,” Vincent explains. Vincent and McGoff had recently learned about aerogel and its unique properties in Frank Mucciardi’s Heat, Mass and Fluid Transfer engineering course, and they began discussing the possibility of creating containers and envelopes using the gel.
It took eight months of working in their spare time, but by the beginning of 2013, McGoff and Vincent had nailed down the architecture of the envelopes and began testing their product with temperature monitoring devices. Rajasekharan then put them in touch with McGill’s Quartier de l’Innovation (QI) team.
LED BY PROJECT DIRECTOR ISABELLE PÉAN, the QI team at McGill has been working closely with colleagues at partner university École de Téchnologie Supérieure (ÉTS) to develop an innovation ecosystem in the southwest of Montreal. The idea for QI grew out of a partnership formed between McGill and ÉTS in 2010, and the project aims to connect academic institutions with industrial, social, and cultural actors.
“The idea is to develop an innovative and entrepreneurial culture in the district that is both international in scope and balances the urban, industrial, social and cultural, and education and research components of the QI project,” explains Péan. “At the same time, under the leadership of the founding universities, the QI will create favourable conditions for the development of a high-quality urban neighbourhood that will be home to a creative, committed community.”
When Péan heard about TemperPak, she alerted the McGoff and Vincent to opportunities with Centech, a business incubator affiliated with the ÉTS that had, as part of the QI initiative, recently opened its doors to McGill students and graduates.
Péan toured the Centech facilities with the TemperPak team in early 2013 and began to advertise on campus to raise awareness of the programs among students and professors. TemperPak became the first McGill initiative to be housed at Centech and to benefit from its resources and services. In April 2013, a second team, led by Professor Renzo Cecere and McGill student Toufic Azar, working on mitral valve repairs for cardiac surgeries, was accepted to the incubator.
“Opening access to Centech is just one of the initiatives resulting from the QI partnership between McGill and ÉTS,” adds Péan. Other projects include internship opportunities for McGill students with local businesses and non-profit organizations in the neighbourhood; a pioneering Network of Centres of Excellence (NCE) in alternate energy and sustainability called BioFuelNet Canada, led by McGill Professor Donald Smith; and many other projects.
“Applying to get into Centech and then being accepted was really our catalyst,” says McGoff, who points out that the application process helped them hone their technology and their business plan. “We talk to our professors a lot about aerogel and heat transfer, but when we ask about where to order the product, they don’t always know. It was also hard to find the people who can tell us how to get logos for the boxes or which warehouse is going to manufacture them. Centech helps in all these areas.”
NOW THAT THE BALL IS ROLLING WITH CENTECH, McGoff and Vincent predict the next eight months will fly by. The team is testing the insulation capabilities of its line of products and is hoping to obtain accreditation from the International Safety Transport Association. At the end of May, the team also received news that it had placed second in the Desautels School of Business Dobson Cup competition and will receive $9,000 to put towards further business development.
When asked to reflect on his experiences so far, Vincent offers a few words of advice, invoking concepts he knows well. “This whole experience is like a sine-wave; it’s always up and down,” he says. “You have good days but, sometimes, you are going to fail. You just have to strive and go for it.”
The deadline for the next round of Centech applications is September 19, 2013. Learn more about the QI at www.mcgill.ca/qi.
* TemperPak recently changed its name to LIFEPACK. The company website is www.thelifepack.com.