QEC community: Past winners FREDsense share their story
FREDsense is among a group of incredibly exciting companies that combine high-tech and science with business to solve salient problems. Their unique biosensor detects chemicals in water and does it with speed and accuracy. We talked to Emily Hicks, President and Co-Founder of the company, to get her perspective on running a business as a scientist, her advice for QEC hopefuls, and lessons learned along the way.
QEC: What was the inspiration behind FREDsense?
Emily Hicks: We started thinking about the idea behind FREDsense when we were in school and were competing in a big genetic engineering competition called iGEM. We were trying to figure out how we could use bacteria and biology to be able to detect contaminants and clean up some of the tailings ponds in Alberta. After the competition, we realized it could be applicable to different types of water, not just tailings ponds.
QEC: What advice do you have for teams like yours, with many founding members in science disciplines?
EH: I would say [being business savvy] was one of the biggest struggles we had early on. The founding team of FREDsense was very science-focused, with biology and chemistry backgrounds. We even got a lot of flak for it early on, from people who said, “you should just give this idea to some businesspeople.” We were really passionate, and we just kind of did it! We did lots of competitions, and anything where we could get in front of people who would give us real advice about what we were doing. We had no idea what a business model was, or how we’d market it, but we were able to learn all of that by making a lot of mistakes and figuring it out. I think because we were really open to learning, we were able to pick up a lot of those skills. We consider ourselves the ambassadors for our technology, and with a scientific background, I really understand exactly what the tech can and cannot do, and I can talk intelligently about that. Bridging that business and science side is crucial.
QEC: At which point on your entrepreneurial journey did the QEC enter your radar, and how?
EH: The QEC was one of the earlier things we did. When we came out of iGEM, we won some awards, and had this really interesting idea. We thought there was merit behind the idea, but we really didn’t have much understanding about how we were going to turn it into a company. One of the first things we did was write a business plan, because that seemed like a good way to try and pull together our thoughts and figure out what we knew and what we didn’t know. We found out about the QEC by googling different business plan competitions. We thought, ‘even if we don’t win, we’ll be able to get our idea in front of people who presumably know something about business, and they’ll be able to give us some advice and tell us if we’re on the right track or not.’ These were the early days, and I think we were still super naïve about what we needed to do and how it was going to happen, but it was a really important exercise in proving to ourselves that we could do this.
QEC: Do you think you can credit your victory at the QEC to something specific? Is there a secret formula for success?
EH: We were actually shocked at our victory that year. We went into it thinking we were just a couple of science kids, and we were a little bit terrified that there were all these teams who know a lot about business while we were only starting to get our feet wet in the terminology of it all. I think one of the things we learned before coming to the QEC was the importance of selling a story. I think that’s really the key reason why FREDsense has gotten to where it is today. We just had a really good way of telling the story of why it’s so important and exciting, and why we were the people to do it, and it really resonated with people. We did check off the other boxes, like making sure it made sense financially, and that it was a good opportunity, but I think more than that, it was the interesting story that people really got. We gave people the confidence that although we may not have had it all figured out then, we were the right kind of people to figure it out as it went along.
QEC: What advice do you have for QEC hopefuls looking to submit their business plans to the competition this year?
EH: Just do it. I’ve seen a few really high-tech, science-y companies coming through in the past couple of years, and I think there are a lot of interesting things you can do with science. Being from that scientific background doesn’t stop you from having a good idea. There is some homework you have to do to figure out whether the idea is feasible, but I’d really encourage people in the science and engineering spaces to really think about these opportunities as a business opportunity.
To prepare for the QEC, we really tried to get as much feedback as possible in advance. We set up an advisory board of different people who read our business plan, and would give us advice on it. We found professors at the university, or people in the local industry who had some background in finance, accounting, science—whatever it was, to tell us if we were going in the right direction.
QEC: What was the most impactful part of the QEC weekend in Toronto?
EH: It was such a great place to get more feedback from people who had seen this kind of thing before and figure out whether we had considered all of the holes in our business plan. When the judges announced us as the winners, they acknowledged that there was a super long road ahead of us, and a lot of things that we still needed to figure out, but they had a real confidence in the team to be able to pivot and iterate to get from A to B. That was a huge vote of confidence from these people who had seen startups and had been in the business for a lot longer than we had. It gave us that boost and really pushed us to commit ourselves.
QEC: What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received from anyone about running your own business?
EH: One of the things that a mentor told me was a bit counterintuitive: to get advice from as many people as you can, but to be very careful about the advice you actually take and be able to make sure that that’s the right course for you, personally, and for the company. Sometimes, even the best intentioned advice just isn’t right for the place that you and your team are at. I find that there are people in the business world who give you advice based on their own personal experience. The good mentors are able to recognize that, and give you advice saying, “this is my perspective,” but being able to acknowledge that that may not work for everyone. We definitely encountered some mentors who gave us very concrete, opinionated advice, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t the right advice for our company. We had to figure out how to take advice with a grain of salt and do what’s right for us.
QEC: In your opinion, what’s one quality you think all entrepreneurs share?
I think one of them is a kind of stubborn naivety. I think about the response we used to get from our parents, telling them we were going to start this biotech thing, even though we were a bunch of undergrads. We had this stubbornness of believing we’d be able to figure it out and keep going. We also had this incredible naivety that it would be easy; we underestimated how hard it was going to be. I think that’s super essential, though, because if we knew all the challenges we’d have to face, we probably wouldn’t have wanted to do this. It’s a really enabling perspective to be both stubborn and naïve.
To learn more about FREDsense, visit their website here.
The QEC is an internationally-renowned undergraduate startup competition. It offers over $75,000 in cash prizes to its top winners, and applications are open until October 30, 2017. Apply now!