While in the final year of her PhD, Mahesha Asiriwardhana had a bold new idea to optimize the nutritional content of poultry feed with essential amino acids. These amino acids would not only contribute to the health of the chickens, but to the health of consumers and the environment as well.
To expand her idea beyond the lab, Asiriwardhana turned to Dal Innovates’ Lab2Market accelerator program. At the core of this 16-week program, students complete an in-depth customer discovery process to determine if there is a viable market for their product with the support of mentors.
Since 2020, 67 business leaders have mentored Lab2Market and Ready2Launch student teams from Dal Innovates. With the support of these trusted advisors these teams have raised a total of 4.2 million in private and public funding and created 83 jobs in the region.
Within the first week of Lab2Market, Asiriwardhana faced the daunting task of having to interview 100 potential customers. “I thought, how am I ever going to connect with that many farmers and animal nutritionists,” she recalls.
But then she met her Lab2Market mentor, Bethany Deshpande, CEO of SomaDetect, an ag-tech company that helps farmers gauge the quality of their cow’s milk. Deshpande, an experienced entrepreneur, also led her team to win $1 million at 43North, one of the world’s most lucrative business plan competitions.
Deshpande remembers how intense and fast-paced it was when she was first starting out. “I’ve been where Mahesha wants to go,” says Deshpande. “I’m able to look at things with an open mind, encourage her to explore the possibilities, and help her find her own path.”
Within the first minutes of their initial video call, Deshpande could see the vast potential of Asiriwardhana’s product. “There’s a real market need for efficiency and sustainability in our global food supply,” says Deshpande. “It’s what our industry is calling for.”
Deshpande then introduced Asiriwardhana to her incredible network of contacts in the farming sector. “Opening doors for this intelligent, hard-working, young person, that’s in my wheelhouse.” Asiriwardhana is now connecting with key people from companies like Cargill and Alltech, who are weighing in on her idea.
Thanks to the Lab2Market program, Asiriwardhana is no longer daunted by the idea of starting a company and she encourages others to seek out mentors. “Bethany allowed me to see that starting a company is not impossible, it’s totally doable,” she says.
Why it pays to pay it forward
For Deshpande, mentoring through Dal Innovates provides the opportunity to inspire bright young students to look beyond academia and flex their entrepreneurial muscles. She says it just feels good. “Lab2Market is where deep science meets innovative business, and it’s a wonderful place to be,” she says.
Mentoring allows Deshpande to pay it forward. “When I was early stages of business, people were incredibly generous with their time, energy, and information, so this is my chance to give back,” she recalls.
Mahesha Asiriwardhana (L) meets with her Lab2Market mentor, Bethany Deshpande (R), CEO of SomaDetect.
The might of mutual learning
“Mutual learning is the real superpower of mentorship,” says Brice Scheschuk, the managing partner at Globalive Capital who also co-founded MindFrame Connect, a not-for-profit that provides training and resources to elevate the mentorship experience.
Because graduate and post-doc students are specialists in their fields of research, being a Lab2Market mentor gives mentors the opportunity to stay current on the latest advancements. While mentors are helping students accelerate their entrepreneurial journey, mentees, in return, are sharing what they know.
“I’m just a sponge; listening to what’s happening, and learning about their worldviews on an issue,” says Scheschuk. “You always learn more from your mentee than they do from you.”
Targeting top talent
Each year Lab2Market turns out fiercely innovative students with qualities that tick a lot of boxes for employers. “Mentees have an intellectual curiosity, a desire for personal growth, and are coachable,” Scheschuk says. “These attributes put them a step-up in the talent equation.”
“As an employer, to know that Lab2Market researchers also have an understanding of entrepreneurship is a definite plus,” adds Deshpande.
Starting a mentorship journey
Like professional athletes, mentors must train and refine their performance to stay at the top of their game. Because mentorship is an essential part of the Dal Innovates ecosystem, MindFrame Connect works with its mentors to develop new skills and become more effective.
“In our one-hour session, mentors learn how to ask questions that draw out an issue and help the mentee find their own path, rather than prescriptively giving a mentee the answer,” says Scheschuk. For anyone interested in learning more, MindFrameConnect has a bank of resources for mentors and mentees on mentorship and how to build entrepreneurial resilience.
Learn more about this program and many others at dalinnovates.ca, lab2market.ca and ready2launch.ca.
If you are interested in becoming a Dal Innovates mentor or supporting student entrepreneurship, submit your interest today.
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