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QIC fostering entrepreneurship

Established in 2012 by the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science and Queen’s School of Business, Queen’s Innovation Connector (QIC) provides a number of programs and resources to help foster innovation and entrepreneurship at the university. With Global Entrepreneurship Week being marked Nov. 17-23, Gazette Editor Andrew Carroll sat down with QIC executive director and Special Advisor to the Provost, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Greg Bavington and Alix Murphy, Queen’s Innovation Connector Summer Initiative (QICSI) co-ordinator, to talk about the work being done and what it means for the future of Queen’s and its students.

[Queen's Innovation Connector]
Leading the way at the Queen’s Innovation Connector are Greg Bavington, executive director of QIC and Special Advisor to the Provost, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Jim McLellan, QIC academic director, professor and head of Chemical Engineering and Engineering Chemistry, and Alix Murphy, Queen's Innovation Connection Summer Initiative co-ordinator. (University Communications)

Andrew Carroll: Innovation and entrepreneurship have become buzzwords in recent years in regard to the Canadian economy and education system. Why are they important?

Greg Bavington: There is certainly a risk as trends come and go in education but I think this is really a response to a more fundamental shift in the economy. It’s been going on for quite a while and the shift is pretty deeply embedded, which is a trend to smaller companies with much shorter lifespans because of the pace with which technology replaces them. Even in the bigger companies, Google and Apple come to mind, these are companies that have gotten big because they have been highly innovative and they were founded by entrepreneurs. So they are buzzwords but they are not fleeting. The words might get replaced but the concept is going to persist and that is smaller, more agile, shorter life expectancy companies.

Alix Murphy: Even those larger companies are looking for innovation more than ever now. The innovation gap is where people high up want this and that to happen but employees don’t necessarily have the skills or experience to look outside the box. So that’s the kind of training we’re providing now, not just us but universities in general are working toward innovative programming. It’s also so prevalent at the university level because it is such a hub of talent. You have young people, eager to learn, shaping the economy for the future, so why not start at this level?

AC: Some critics argue that entrepreneurship is either difficult or impossible to teach. What’s your view?

GB: This cuts right to the nature-nurture debate and I don’t know of a single example where the person doing the study concluded 100 per cent that it is all one and not the other. It just never comes out that way. So entrepreneurship, I think, like all other things, is both. It’s not 100 per cent nature and no nurture. Our students come to us, our community members, faculty members come to us, with varying amounts of it in their nature. But there are a whole lot of skills that you need to execute on it and that is the nurture part. QIC sees itself existing in no small part to delivering on that nurturing. How do you start a company? How do you tell if an idea is possibly the makings of a successful business or just a cool idea? How do you find out who will pay you for it? How do you find out how much it costs to deliver to your customers?

AM: Many students come to us with an entrepreneurial spirit but they really don’t have the technical skills. That’s where we come in to teach it. That’s nature and nurture.

AC: What differentiates QIC from other similar programs found at the post-secondary level?

GB: There are a number of things and a lot of them are very intentional. QIC, first of all, is reflective of the career experiences of the people involved, who have come to see the value in diversity in skills. Big successful companies are not built by individuals, they are built by teams. Also we understand and recognize the tremendous diversity of the academic programming at Queen’s, which of course drives a diversity of interests, aspirations and capabilities among the student body. The breadth of the QIC has to reflect both of those things and does. We have a tremendous breadth of programs with varying financial and emotional commitment but they are all basically open to all students.

Also, the level of support students get is, I think, exceptional. In the case of QICSI, which involves a more-than-full-time commitment for an entire summer, there is financial support so that it doesn’t become something only the wealthiest students can participate in. Also because we run this program pan-university, on the university main campus during the summer, the access we have to facilities is excellent. There are large companies that would kill to have the resources that we have in terms of our ability to support prototyping efforts, bio-labs, machine shops, makerspaces, electronic prototyping areas, welding facilities.

AC: To date with the QIC, what are the successes you have seen?

GB: I think one of our dramatic successes is the number of students we are impacting now. The amount of pent-up entrepreneurial energy at Queen’s, we’ve just cracked the valve open and it’s exploding, it’s a groundswell.  We started out lurking around the engineering faculty and Queen’s School of Business with 20 students in QICSI in the summer of 2012. QICSI is still there, it’s still important, with 40 students, but we touch thousands of students through all these other events and conferences that we do. That’s absolutely a success for us. Students who have gone through some of the more intensive programs, like QICSI, have benefitted tremendously in their careers, whether it is starting a successful company that’s keeping them employed, or if they have sold for a lot of money, or allowing a company to fail and moving on to a second one or being hired by another start-up because they have learned that they love that way of earning a living. We’ve seen all those things as outcomes and I consider all of them to be successful.

AC: What are the biggest lessons you have learned regarding innovation and entrepreneurship and how these apply to Queen’s?

AM: We’re still learning and as Greg says we are a start-up ourselves. It’s still a relatively new concept to introduce this kind of a program in a university.

GB: I’m proud of what the team at Queen’s has accomplished. I’m proud of our student body. Faculty and staff have jumped right into it, making resources available as well as their own time and expertise. I’m proud of what we have accomplished so far but we’re still new at it. We are a start-up. So far a successful start-up.