April 10, 2019

Entrepreneurial graduates

At their very core, every engineer is a problem solver, someone who is able to break down the big picture of life and see where the opportunities for improvement lie. This is true no matter what the trajectory of their career, but for those with the entrepreneurial spirit, that drive takes them even further.

These engineers think beyond the tangible and follow their intuition down a road of innovation and creation, using the skills they developed at Schulich to bring their ideas to life.

Building bikes from the pavement up

Motorcycles weren’t of much an interest for Kenny Kwan when he was growing up. In fact, he didn’t even touch one until he was on internship between his third and fourth year of Manufacturing Engineering at Schulich. A friend suggested they take a riding course together and, for Kwan, it was love at first ride. He bought a bike, rode for a few years, then the unthinkable happened. A drunk driver cut him off, sending him straight into the side of a car.

“It literally almost killed me,” he says. “While I was healing, I decided to rebuild my bike but I couldn’t find any source for the parts I wanted. My friend suggested we start an online business together to get parts at cost so, in 2010, Ill-fated Kustoms began. It was very casual until 2015, when I took a pay-out from my employer and opened a storefront. We’re a full-service shop now, doing repairs, restoration and custom builds.”

Kwan says his education in manufacturing engineering allows him to understand not just the aesthetics of custom bike builds, but the functionality and safety as well. His bikes are meant for the road—not for show. And while he never thought he’d be a business owner, Kwan says the skills he learned during his degree at Schulich helped him turn his passion for motorcycles into a full-time, successful business where he spends every day doing what he loves.

Let the project drive you

Olivia Norton was one of a kind during her undergrad. She was the only person in her year who decided to pursue a degree in Computer Engineering with a specialization in Biomedical Engineering. Norton credits this unusual fusion with carving the first steps of the path towards starting her own business. Now, as the co-founder and chief technical officer of Sanctuary AI, she spends each day pursuing her dream of creating robots that look and act exactly like we do, only better.

“One thing I really enjoy about the entrepreneurial side and having a smaller, more nimble team is the ability to shift gears faster without so many of the hierarchical hurdles that are necessary in larger companies. It gives you the opportunity to move across different fields and pollenate your ideas from all different streams of thought. This is something that comes up a fair bit in artificial intelligence—there are a lot of opportunities to merge ideas into something that is phenomenal and previously unheard of.”

Norton says it’s important for entrepreneurs to feel invested in the future success of their project, adding that success can mean different things to different people. Whether it’s a focus on innovation, making money or being an independent professional, she says there needs to be a torch to carry through tough days when things don’t go as smoothly as planned. 

Breeding the entrepreneurial spirit

Developing entrepreneurial skills is an important aspect of becoming an engineer, even if there’s no desire to start a business. That’s why the Schulich School of Engineering requires every student to complete a capstone project before they graduate. The school has even partnered with Innovate Calgary to counsel entrepreneurial students on intellectual property rights and prototype development as well as advice on how best to communicate their ideas.

Engineering is about sparking new ideas to create new things, and finding solutions that have never been imagined before,” says Bill Rosehart, dean of the Schulich School of Engineering. “For our graduates to be successful, we need to teach them how to think through a problem just like an entrepreneur. We need them not only thinking outside the box, but questioning if we ever needed a box in the first place.”

Rosehart says the school is always looking for ways to give students more opportunities to build and test their designs. There are even design challenges built into orientation activities for new students. As part of its expansion and renovation, Schulich established spaces for students to access the machines they need to engineer their designs. Projects have included creating a $25 prosthetic limb for amputees in developing countries and building a tabletop ice hockey game with a real ice surface.