Last summer, after my first year in ECE, I worked as a research assistant and simultaneously attempted to start a company! It was an amazing opportunity and I got the chance to experience both entrepreneurship and academic research in four months. Here is how it happened and what I learned through the process.
I have always been conflicted about what I wanted to do after my degree. I was interested in startups, artificial intelligence, microprocessors, web design, astrophysics, theatre, choir, you name it. Coming to UofT, however, completely changed my perspective. As soon as class started, I was overwhelmed by the flurry of events happening on campus at once. There were hundreds of clubs and an engineering event almost every day, and I wanted to take part in everything! Initially, I did. However, that turned out to be a terrible mistake, because I was soon overwhelmed with more work than I could handle. Eventually, I had to go through the painful process of cutting out what I could not do, and choose only a small set of things to focus on. This immediately made a huge difference. By funnelling all my efforts into just two projects, not only did I have more time for school, but I learned new things at a much faster rate. I learned to not say ‘yes’ to every open opportunity and instead focus on my own projects, and on developing my own skills.
Having both the opportunity to work on a start-up and research project taught me one thing: you must be willing to take risks. I realized that to take advantage of an opportunity, you have to be willing to gamble with your time and put things on the line. Last year, one of my professors posed a challenge to the students in our section, offering an opportunity to work in his research group. The challenge required us to create a software with an interactive user interface that had to perform a large number of simulations at once. It was far more difficult than anything I had tried before, and my Calculus final exam was just three days away. From the outset, it seemed completely intractable and the chances that I would be able to make it work were zero to none. But I could not pass on an opportunity like that, so I went all in, hoping to at least scratch the surface of the problem. This is where I was able to apply the skills and programming constructs I had learned during first year. Twenty-eight straight, gruelling hours later, my friend and I had solved it, and we wrote the documentation to our first project together. Two days later, we got the research positions.
While I loved working on research, I also wanted to explore the other side of the coin, and for me, that came with the Hatchery NEST. NEST is a startup accelerator/incubator here at UofT. My journey with NEST started with a simple problem: it is difficult to find events on campus that pertain to you. I wanted to solve that with a university-focused events platform that would recommend things for you to do on campus, and keep you constantly updated with networking opportunities. I was passionate about this problem, but it was difficult to motivate myself to work on it alone. In the last lecture of my engineering design course, I mentioned this to my team and they immediately wanted in. I ended up inspiring them to be more passionate about the problem than I was, which was fascinating. I learned to be more open with my ideas. By sharing my ideas, I created a support network around me that encouraged me to try more ambitious things. It was only as a team that we got into the NEST program.
NEST was a transformative experience. I directed and pitched our product at bi-weekly pitches in front of a panel of mentors and investors. NEST gave me the opportunity to learn about the incremental nature of product development, how to market a software product, what it means to envision an “ideal solution,” and what it takes to design a product around human needs and goals. We were constantly pushed to “grow thick skin” – investor-speak for taking criticism in your stride – as we faced brutally honest mentors, investors and even other teams. The criticisms we received pushed us to further avenues and taught us how to “pivot.” Every day, we were constantly revising our pitch and we learned to tell a compelling story through it. There were multiple points during the four months that I had lost faith in our idea. In those moments, I realized the necessity of a team in keeping an idea afloat. As team members we all motivated each other and kept each other going even through bad times. Sometimes, your team is the only safety net that prevents you from ditching an idea altogether.
During this summer, I learned the essentials of a startup and the work ethic of a researcher, but more importantly, I gained a sense of how to navigate and take advantage of the immense opportunities available on campus. And you should too! Do the things you are most passionate about, take risks, share your ideas, and never be afraid to fully commit yourself to your interests. With enough passion and time, you can turn your interests into amazing opportunities. Oh, and remember to fail early and fail often!