July 19, 2018
Interview by Anjali Bhardwaj
Edgehog utilizes recent advances in material science to enhance the viewing experience of all electronic displays. Their technology platform features an anti-reflection surface for smartphones and watches, allowing for unparalleled easy viewing of the display even under direct sunlight while saving battery life in the process. As of April 2018, the team got incubated by TandemLaunch; since then, Edgehog was recognized by Mitacs with the 2018 Outstanding Entrepreneur Award, and has gone to Taiwan to dive deep into Taiwan’s startup community as part of the International Startup Global Program at Garage+ to meet with manufacturers, investors, and other business stakeholders. We talked with Calvin and Mathieu, Co-Founders of Edgehog who met and assembled their startup through our Entrepreneur in Residence Program.
Can you tell me a bit about yourselves?
I started my entrepreneurship journey during grad school at the University of Toronto. Volunteering with a startup charity, Pueblo Science, I travelled to rural Philippines to train local teachers on fun, hands-on experiments using only everyday materials. It was through this experience that I truly believed in the power of passionate individuals to make a difference in the world.
I owe much of my professional development to role models around me, especially my mentor and graduate supervisor, Professor M. Cynthia Goh. Prof. Goh is a research scientist, serial technology entrepreneur, and the Academic Director of the University of Toronto Entrepreneurship. It was with her encouragement that I completed my graduate degrees concurrently with running my own startup, selling early-stage scientific innovations from research labs via our international e-commerce platform. Coming to TandemLaunch affords me the opportunity to work with incredible mentors and colleagues and live the lessons of building fast-growth venture-backed startups.
Unlike Calvin, I don’t have much entrepreneurship experience, but because of my academic path, I know a thing or two about new technologies. During my undergrad, I studied Engineering Physics at Polytechnique Montréal and learned the connection between physics and many modern technologies. For my masters, I went to McGill University in the Physics department, where I fell in love with graphene. I realized graphene could make very good photodetectors, so I moved to Barcelona to do my PhD on this topic at ICFO, the institute of photonic sciences. I like doing science and produce knowledge, but I always felt compelled to give something back to society, something more concrete. So I started looking for other ways to develop new technologies outside academia. When I came back to Montreal and found out about TandemLaunch’s EiR program, I was sold!
Tell me about Edgehog.
Edgehog specializes in anti-reflection technology for many different applications of glass. One example is the covers on cell phones. Even in direct sunlight, the Edgehog technology allows us to read the screen perfectly because no sunlight is reflected. Another good example would be solar panels. With the anti-reflection technology, much more sunlight is transmitted into the solar panels, and with that you get an increase in efficiency. An added bonus of the technology is that the treated glass is superhydrophobic, giving the surfaces a self-cleaning effect much like how lotus leaves roll water droplets off their surface to keep clean. Applied on outdoor solar panels, we prevent the typical 25% drop in efficiency due to dust and other fouling over months.
These tools are essential for running a startup, and in life in general.
How did you come up with the technology?
In the TandemLaunch model the EIRs work with the Technology Manager at TandemLaunch to scout for unique technologies coming out of research labs. Combing through thousands of new research papers, we happened to come across this particular technology from Brookhaven National Laboratory in the United States. Through discussions with other academics and with industry stakeholders we found out that this is a big problem for quite a few areas of application, and so we decided to commercialize the technology. What helped a lot was that this technology fits with our technical backgrounds in physics and nanomaterials.
So far what has been the most difficult part of building Edgehog?
Finding the right market fit , which evolves alongside with progress in technology development.
I agree, one of the biggest challenges we face as scientists is finding the right market for our technology. As scientists, we are trained to handle the technical work, but we know very little about the business side. The process of taking a technology from the lab to the market is very challenging, but it’s also a great learning experience.
A typical story in academia is where a student has developed a setup and once that student graduates no one else can reproduce the work or know how to manipulate the setup. Our job as science-based technology entrepreneurs is to take that level of prototype and develop it so that anyone can make use of it without specialized knowledge.
There are a lot of people who want to become entrepreneurs for the money and use money as a motivator. My question to you is what motivates you?
There are a lot of risks involved in entrepreneurship. There is a chance where the financial returns are not as big as you would hope. I’m in this field for two main reasons. One, we have the opportunity to take on executive-level responsibilities and decision making that is not common at an early stage of career development. It’s one method of fast tracking your career. Two, starting a technology venture allows us to bring early-stage scientific innovations to the market much more quickly than the conventional 20-year timeline. The prospect of making a difference within my lifetime is exhilarating.
That’s right, for me, a big motivation to become an entrepreneur is the possibility to make a concrete and positive impact on society. Also, I’m someone who enjoys learning new things, and since I started working at TandemLaunch I’ve been doing something new everyday. Commercializing a new technology is a fascinating but complex process, and it’s not something they teach you in school. There aren’t that many ways that you can learn this. The best way is to actually do it, and this is what start-ups are about. In terms of money, it really shouldn’t be the main driver because the odds are not really in your favour. The good thing about TandemLaunch is that you don’t need to worry about money since we earn a living salary.
TandemLaunch is really good in that way. Looking at the track record of their portfolio companies, there’s an amazingly high success rate. I believe a major contributing factor for this is their unique model of artificially putting together the technology, market and the team.
What type of chemistry is important when working together as Co-Founders?
I think Calvin should answer this, he is a chemist.
Haha. I would say communication is key, to be able to disagree with each other and be productive with our discussions.
Another important aspect is that co-founders should complement each other. Diversity is key. You don’t want two co-founders that think exactly the same and have the same skillset. It’s all about learning from each other.
How do you feel about being in the tech industry in Montreal?
Montreal has many universities and has a large talent pool. The city also has a low cost of living, which fits very well with the startup lifestyle where we can minimize spending during the early stages of our venture. It’s also great that we have access to many government funding programs that support technology startups.
I was already sold to the city of Montreal from the beginning. I lived here for seven years before I moved to Barcelona, but my heart remained in Montreal. Montreal is a very creative city not only in the technology sector but also in art. I think that might be due to the fact that it’s a bilingual and very multicultural city. Diversity is the key for creativity.
How does an education play into how co-founders run a startup?
Formal education is not a necessity for all startups. However, I believe that relevant technical expertise is essential for building a technology startup. At early stages, our resources are limited, and it’s critical that we assemble a team with diverse skills so that we can handle a lot of the work ourselves to control the pace of development. This domain knowledge could be acquired through formal schooling, or through other experiences.
I agree, technical expertise is crucial for running a science-based startup. Having a PhD in science allows us to understand and evaluate different technologies. It also allows us to talk to other scientists and researchers on an equal footing. Another benefit of education is that it gives you the tools to learn and think for yourself. These tools are essential for running a startup, and in life in general.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Is there a typical day?
As a Co-Founder of a startup, it’s important to identify the most critical tasks we need to accomplish. So while this mentality is a daily constant, the actual work changes everyday. Some examples of that include performing lab work, strategizing with the team, seeking advice from TandemLaunch partners, working with academic partners, and engaging with industry stakeholders, the latter of which involves quite a bit of travelling. Lastly, we’re continuously developing our own soft and technical skills. One very simple way of doing that in our open concept TandemLaunch office is just chatting with fellow entrepreneurs from different companies, each of whom contribute unique skillsets, technical expertise, and perspectives.
Thank you for your time!