DiscoveryLab offers 'friendly roundtable' to innovators

· The Pulse

At his day job in biochemistry, Michael Overduin pursues data to better understand proteins and accelerate drug discovery. But at DiscoveryLab, he's in search of something a little less scientific: stories.

The quarterly meeting, which returns to Enterprise Square on March 14, is a chance for innovators of all kinds to pitch their ideas in a low-pressure environment, seeking advice and in some cases investment from a network of about 230 experts assembled by Overduin over the past six years.

"Rather than presenting for a Dragons' Den, I ask my friends to tell their story," Overduin said, noting that the program has heard about 330 pitches since its inception. "What happens then is we get the story before anybody else does, often, … because it's a friendly roundtable with peers."

That's not to say this storytelling lacks all rigour. Presenters are at various stages of development, but they have to be far enough along to submit a credible business plan summary. "You can't just come with a brilliant idea but no kind of conception on how to address a market need," Overduin said.

Those with the most traction are invited to present in person for 20 minutes; the rest get 10 minutes each to present online. Unlike Startup TNT, DiscoveryLab doesn't get involved in any deals that might ensue but just creates the opportunity.

"Hopefully, at the end of the day, the presenters make some new connections with an investor or adviser or someone from industry who can help," Overduin said. "Maybe they need people. Maybe they just need a bit of confidence. They can get all that from our events."

Overduin, who co-directs the National High Field Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Centre at the University of Alberta, started convening events in 2016, inviting the public in to hear talks about medical research. He noticed investors were attending to learn what was happening with cancer drug discovery and such, so he and his students started running DiscoveryLab in 2017.

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in 2020, the event moved online and accelerated to draw attention to mobilizing against the novel coronavirus. It returned as a hybrid event in September 2022 and has settled back into a quarterly rhythm.

Three men stand in front of a pop-up banner for DiscoveryLab

Michael Overduin of DiscoveryLab stands with Zhongyi Quan of Swift Charge and oncologist Piyush Kumar outside the September 2022 pitch meeting. (Karsten Sturmay/Bennett Jones)

The organization has run quite lean, relying on volunteer help and a bit of sponsorship money. Overduin incorporated it in 2021 and has been fundraising to hire help and upgrade the website.

Many more programs and players have emerged in this space since DiscoveryLab started, including the bevy of accelerators that Alberta Innovates introduced in 2021. But Overduin said his program fills a need for those who may not be able to spend several weeks in an accelerator.

"I'm an academic, so I've got very little time, very little money … and I've got huge aspirations to do something really positive. And so what do you do with people like me?"

Darrell Petras is among the advisers. He attends the events to find entrepreneurs who would benefit from programs at Edmonton Unlimited, where he is the director of business and community development.

"DiscoveryLab does a wonderful job bringing different parts of the innovation community together," he told Why Edmonton. "Not just the innovation community, but those companies that have a mature product and want to give back or want to acquire new innovation."

Among the Edmonton innovators who have applied to pitch on March 14 are Bing Cao of Nanode Battery Technologies, Jennifer Keith of JustCook Kitchens, Simba Nyazika of Lenica Research Group, Martin Ferguson-Pell of Click&Push Accessibility, and Ali Salman of Lawtiq. The event has also drawn presenters from outside of Edmonton, including Calgary's MakeSens, Neuraura, and ofBrains, as well as companies from elsewhere in Canada and as far away as Israel.

Although Overduin is eager to boost local companies — and would love to have more local investors — attracting innovators from outside the city is a win, too, he said, because it showcases Edmonton as a place to move to. And wherever the entrepreneurs are from, DiscoveryLab wants to help, he said.

"We want to make sure people are able to cross what they call the 'valley of death,' when you don't have all the data the investors want, and it's just a really hard journey," Overduin said. "We want to help those people especially that are struggling but have a hugely important problem they're tackling."