May 24, 2018

Learn to see the world like an entrepreneur

Haskayne Entrepreneurship and Innovation courses available to non-MBA grad students; info session May 31
Pierre Wijdenes, PhD'18, at the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking.
Pierre Wijdenes, PhD'18, at the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

“It’s not for me.”

Or so thought Pierre Wijdenes, as he passed on a course in entrepreneurship during his master’s program in Bordeaux, France almost 10 years ago. You’d never guess it today. Chatting outside the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking, Wijdenes is teeming with inspiration and insight as he hits pause on a hectic schedule to reflect on his transformation from academic to award-winning entrepreneur.

With his June convocation just around the corner, the PhD graduate in biomedical engineering is leaning into a wide-open future of self-made opportunity as he maps out next steps for his startup, Neuraura. The biotech company was borne out of entrepreneurial training Wijdenes received at the University of Calgary, starting with two Haskayne courses available to all non-MBA UCalgary grad students.

Open to all graduate students

“I thought, ‘The course is free, my supervisor supports me taking it, so why not try?’” says Wijdenes, recalling the fall of 2014 when he followed his gut instinct and enrolled in Introduction to Entrepreneurship (ENTI 781). Entrepreneurial training had always seemed foreign and intimidating until Wijdenes got inspired to step outside of his comfort zone.

“Anybody can be an entrepreneur,” muses Wijdenes. “Some of us just need the right time, explanation and inspiration to see how to get started.”

Chad Saunders agrees. The assistant professor at Haskayne’s Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation teaches ENTI 781 during fall block week. “Part of what students learn in this course is how to identify an idea that can become a startup opportunity,” says Saunders.

It might seem surprising, but non-MBA grad students are often well-suited for entrepreneurial thinking. “Non-MBA students often have the deep domain knowledge necessary for an effective business idea,” says Saunders. “Entrepreneurship takes creativity, expertise and a willingness to work with the element of the unknown. It’s a mindset grad students often develop through doing research.”

Learning the tools and talk of the trade

Introduction to Entrepreneurship gives non-business students the language needed to talk about entrepreneurship with confidence and competence. The introduction course is a prerequisite for Venture Creation (ENTI 785), which takes place during the winter term. Venture Creation takes in students from the introduction course alongside MBA students, creating a fertile mix of talent and expertise.

“Diversity of thought is really important in planning a startup,” says Saunders. “Typically, no single student has all the skills needed for a business to survive. You need a range of experts in finance, marketing, the subject domain of the venture and more.”

Getting ready for Summer Inc.

Students typically work through ENTI 781 and 785 as a cohort, and many go on to participate in Summer Inc., a business incubator program offered by the university during the summer months.

For Wijdenes, the mentorship, training and workspace provided by Summer Inc. were important resources along his entrepreneurial path. Even though his initial startup concept didn’t pan out, the experience prepared him to try again: “Don’t be afraid to fail. You may fail, you may succeed. Learn from failures, move forward and focus on success, whatever that represents to you. With entrepreneurship, you get to control a bit of your destiny.”

Now, working with the Creative Destruction Lab (Rockies), Wijdenes and his business partner Colin Dalton are confident for the future of Neuraura. Fresh from a win in the Cumming School of Medicine’s TENET i2c pitch competition, Wijdenes plans to stay in Calgary while developing connections and opportunities for his business nationally and internationally.

“In some ways, Calgarians are still pioneers. It’s still a bit of the Wild West here,” says Wijdenes. “People rally behind new ideas. Other people in other places might say ‘you can’t do that, that’s not how it’s done,’ but here, they tell you to go for it, and support you when you do!”

Supervisor values entrepreneurship

Having the support of a supervisor is a requirement for graduate students interested in pursuing entrepreneurship courses. For Wijdenes, having a supportive supervisor, Naweed Syed, opened possibilities.

“To achieve its Eyes High goals, the University of Calgary must train the future generation of outstanding innovators, scientists and entrepreneurs who will help fill a huge gap in our Canadian talent pool for years to come,” says Syed. “Initiatives such as the Haskayne entrepreneurship and innovation courses will succeed as long as supervisors allow their students to participate in these courses which are generally not required for their degree. As a supervisor, I was very supportive of Pierre's aspirations to become an entrepreneur while completing his PhD.”

Information session planned for May 31

Students and faculty are invited to attend an information session on ENTI 781 and 785 May 31, from 12 tp 2 p.m. at the Hunter Hub collision space (MacEwan Student Centre 171).

The deadline for non-MBA graduate students to apply for ENTI 781 is June 8. Timing the course during block week is intended to accommodate students who are unable to fit the course into their regular program requirements. All UCalgary non-MBA graduate students can apply, with permission from their supervisors. Graduate students may be eligible for a tuition reimbursement from the Faculty of Graduate Studies. Funding for this tuition reimbursement is made possible by the Government of Alberta.