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albertaCALGARY, Alta./Troy Media/ – To help diversify Alberta’s economy, we need to encourage graduate student entrepreneurship.

The collapse of the oilpatch has devastated Alberta’s economy. Once again, the province is calling for economic diversification. This time, because of environmental concerns expressed by the rest of the country, the call is more serious.

The City of Calgary has sought the advice from big U.S. cities that recovered from similar industry collapses. The resounding source of their recoveries? The development of secondary industries rooted in university research and driven by graduate students.

Compared to Canada, the United States has a distinct advantage: the Bayh-Dole Act permits federal research funding to go to university startup companies through grants. This nurtures entrepreneurial graduate students by providing salary support upon graduation and laboratory space as a proving ground for concepts.

Based on their training, most graduate students are already entrepreneurial – that is, they take an idea through a development process. Entrepreneurs seek help in this process. Sometimes the help is transactional, sometimes it’s free. In their thesis projects, the most entrepreneurial students will go beyond their circle by seeking help to solve problems from other departments, faculties, universities and industry.

Alberta’s biomedical technologies can help diversify the economy, with an assist from a heath-care system that supports health-based start-ups. For example, Surface Medical Inc. (SMI) won a Manning Innovation Award in 2015. SMI was founded by two graduates of the University of Calgary’s Master of Biomedical Technology (MBT) program, which teaches scientists about business.

Much like what is being done in the MBT program, we need to introduce thesis-based graduate students to the concepts of product development, patents, marketing and business planning. This will help them to find suitable business mentors.

We also need to expand the Innovation-2-Capitalization business plan competition started by the Cumming School of Medicine at the U of C to support early-stage, student-run companies.

And, upon graduation, we need to support entrepreneurs-in-residence with fellowships and research space to help them through the critical proof-of-concept stage.

The goal is not to take students away from completing their research projects. Rather, it’s meant to support students financially at the end of their thesis, helping them to make prototypes, file patents, pursue market analysis, prepare business plans, raise venture capital, etc. Finally, the U of C’s Faculty of Graduate Studies now allows entrepreneurial elements, such as patents or business plans, as chapters in a thesis.

Should graduate students consider becoming entrepreneurs?

Many business gurus, including Stephen Covey and Seth Godin, suggest that the concepts of the classic job and career are disappearing. To keep costs down, companies now hire consultants rather than employees.

Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau recently introduced youth to the concept of job churn – a future of frequent short-term employment and career changes.

In the future, many graduates will have to run their own consulting businesses. Indeed, starting a consulting business is one strategy that people take when the economy slumps, as it is now in Alberta. Godin suggests the best consultants will be artisans who have a coveted skill to offer – the unique skill sets of graduate students would put them in this category.

Through the new entrepreneurship programs at the University of Calgary, students can guide an idea through development, while remaining inside the shelter of the university.

In the process, they will be helping to build the foundation of a diversified Alberta economy.

Derrick Rancourt is a professor in the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, where he chairs the Graduate Science Education’s Professional Development Taskforce.

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