Creating a culture that fosters innovation and creativity is a passion of Isha Katyal’s, associate vice-president of innovation, and her enthusiasm to support innovators, both inside and outside CUE, have been instrumental in growing the new CUE Innovation Hub to great heights.
All her accomplishments have led Isha to being recognized by Edify as a Top 40 under 40 leader in Edmonton. The selection committee chose her for “bringing non-academic thinking to academia”.
From scientist to innovator
Isha describes herself as a scientist at heart, who is always “very curious and looking for new challenges to solve.” As a university student, she was always asking herself, “Who needs my research? Who cares if I find a new genomic biomarker? What can I do with it?”
This led Isha to exploring a career path after her PhD to see what happens to university research after it’s been published. “I’ve had incredible mentors over time, who encourage me to stay curious and think outside the box. Not everyone has to become a professor after a PhD!”
Isha gained inspiration from her entrepreneurial family – her parents and grandparents owned their own business in India. “They have all made something for themselves,” she said.
Vision for CUE’s culture of innovation
It seemed like a natural progression for Isha to join CUE’s BMO Centre for Innovation and Applied Research, shortly after the Allan Wachowich building was completed in 2019.
“The vision for the Innovation Hub first began in 2016,” says Isha. “Many universities were putting together proposals for the Strategic Innovation Fund from the federal government. CUE put together a proposal that was a mixed call for both infrastructure and resources. The Allan Wachowich building was one of the outcomes of that multi-million dollar funding. CUE’s partnerships in Brazilian universities, where most campuses have a tech-park, contributed to the vision of the CUE Innovation Hub”
When Isha joined, the applied research and innovation initiatives were at early stages, which was what Isha was looking for – A blank canvas!
“For the external community, we did have a lab built and offices to offer to early stage entrepreneurs but we couldn’t just be a property management unit. Universities are much more than just infrastructure,” says Isha.
Building connections between CUE and industry
Isha ensured that if businesses were contacting CUE they were not only going to benefit from our infrastructure, but were also going to “gain valuable connections with academics, hire talented students, and get quality business development support,” she says.
If they are looking to promote their business offerings on CUE’s campus and with our post-secondary network, we assist them. We build a special connection with start-ups to help them grow and CUE’s small size definitely helps in getting things done quickly.
For industries involved in biological work, “we have a level two designed biosafety lab,” says Isha, “This means a company does not have to worry about passing public and environmental health related accreditation processes.”
One of our clients, TestnTravel, for example, obtained the prestigious College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta accreditation to offer third party testing and validation for diagnostic tests. CEO and co-founder of TestnTravel, Mathew Diggle, told us, “We cannot actually operate without CUE’s state-of-the art facilities, and they have provided us with infrastructure and business development support that have helped us grow.”
The Centre for Applied Artificial Intelligence (CAAI), part of CUE Innovation Hub, is equipped with state of the art computing infrastructure that reduces machine learning model training time. “We have five GPUs (obtained via our partnerships with Nvidia and Artificial Intelligence Pathways Partnership), that allow for development of applied artificial intelligence based tools in the areas of finance (lending and borrowing), standardizing analyte detection, companion assistive technology, smart material detectors, sustainable energy and environmental calculators among others,” Isha explains.
Speaking about Isha’s work, Mike Wade, CUE’s director of the CAAI, says that Isha has been instrumental in the success of the Innovation Hub, including the Centre for Applied Renewable Energy and CAAI.
These areas are all doing really well, and that’s a testament to Isha’s enthusiasm, her work ethic, her intelligence and her ability to rally the team. She has gone above and beyond the call of duty and I’m really proud to call her my colleague.
A small university with a big impact
CUE is very comparable to other larger institutions for applied research, entrepreneurship and innovation support, despite being a smaller university. “We have outstanding entrepreneurial coaching and mentoring programs, infrastructure and academic support and strong connections with the Edmonton Regional Innovation Network. CUE goes head to head with large universities in Alberta, and in my opinion performs even better in many areas, says Isha.
By ‘better’ than the big universities, Isha points out that “CUE’s strengths lie in the fact that we are a small, close-knit community. For many entrepreneurs this means less competition, one-on-one personal attention, and there is less bureaucracy, for example approvals to move forward with a project might be made more easily than at a larger institution.”
For instance, she says “if an artist wants to put their paintings in the library or bookstore, we can make it happen really quickly, or, a small business can participate in a pop-up shop on campus to engage with customers and understand their needs before putting their money and efforts into something that may not be desired. It may be done on a smaller scale, but it’s done faster and is more personalized than larger institutions might be.”
Students and researchers are realizing their entrepreneurial dreams
For students wanting to learn entrepreneurship skills, they can sign up for Innovation Launchpad Mentorship Program, between now and December 23, 2022.
This six-week program matches mentors with mentees who are current CUE student entrepreneurs.
Mike Wade describes Isha as the driving force behind Innovation Launchpad, and he spoke about the “huge amount of passion” necessary to bring a program like this together.
Many students have seen commercial success through the program, including, Kelton Libich, founder and owner of YegRecycled and graduate from the Faculty of Arts program.
The Mentorship Program maximizes opportunities for participants to learn necessary skills and access valuable entrepreneur support in a practical, experience-based learning environment.
“The program helps build the soft skills: creative thinking, communication, problem solving, network building and enhancing your resume,” Isha points out. “You can even get some seed money, to help cover the costs.”
A leadership team that encourages creativity and innovation
Isha is quick to point out that the success she has achieved has been in part because of the open minded, creative and encouraging spirit of the CUE community and the leadership team.
Leaders here do not shut you down when you have an idea, even if it’s way out there. They allow me to be creative and get things done! I’m so proud of the culture at CUE.
“Innovation Launchpad, incubation support; AI Pathways, partnerships to develop more machine learning courses and initiatives – none of this would have happened without the open-minded and creative culture we have at CUE.”
“President Tim Loreman is a leader who allows for that flexibility and freedom, he has always been steering the ship in the right direction,” says Isha. “And all the vice-presidents and deans of each faculty have been so supportive and encouraging. They have provided me with the right feedback and criticism when it’s needed.”
That support from leadership is instrumental to support the big goals in the strategic plan for the Innovation Hub. “We have built the framework, but a lot of people don’t know about the Innovation Hub yet, or understand what we do,” says Isha. “One of my biggest priorities is to educate the public and our CUE community on what we do. My other big priority is sustainability — we are working hard on getting funding to support our excellent programs and initiatives.”
We continue to grow our connections with external partners
Isha’s time is mostly spent building connections with external partners. “About 60-70 per cent of my time is spent looking for external funding,” says Isha. External funding partners like Alberta Innovates, Employment and Social Development Canada, PrairiesCan and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada have been hugely supportive of CUE’s mission, she says.
For business development, there is so much potential for industry to get involved with the Innovation Hub. “We have academic expertise in many areas, and have an executive in residence that provides business development support in areas such as market research, coaching and advice on next steps to progress them forward,” Isha explains.
CUE President, Tim Loreman, says because of Isha’s efforts “CUE is increasingly seen as a vibrant and key player in the innovation ecosystem in Edmonton and beyond.” He attributes it to her “never ending can-do attitude and her infectious optimism.”