Synapse is a not-for-profit company that works on behalf of UPEI to help its researchers, students and staff turn their ideas into practical solutions. “We use three principles in each case: Connect, Collaborate, and Create,” says Dr. Justin Moores, CEO.
Synapse, which started in 2015, brings different entities together to create partnerships or companies. It makes connections with industry partners and funders such as ACOA, Innovation PEI, Island Advance, Startup Zone, PEI BioAlliance, and Springboard Atlantic Network.
The collaborative process starts by focusing on the following questions:
- Is the innovation addressing a partner or market need?What funding or support is available?
- Is a patent for the idea necessary?
- Should external experts be brought in?
“The Atlantic region is ideal for this type of innovation because we already work well together,” says Justin. “We can use our small size to our advantage.
“The end goal is to create something lasting, be a collaboration with an industry partner, a new start-up company, or who knows! One of the really fun things about our role is we can never tell where the next great idea will come from. We get to be creative as we try to find a way to move the ideas forward.
“Recently, we chatted with people across UPEI’s faculties about ideas that can have benefits economically and socially. We are working on cool ideas involving everything from music to artificial intelligence, arts, and psychology.
“More and more, industry is coming to us to solve a problem. As a team, we know how to pull together funding, get the expertise together, manage projects, and help navigate the partnership process. We can do this at no cost to the partners, because we are a not-for-profit.
“A few of our projects have started with $5,000 in funding and have grown to a modest size and then to a major project in the million dollar range. As we help companies move forward and help students and UPEI-based researchers address those needs, eventually students may very well funnel into jobs with those companies.”
In one innovative project, an oyster producer needed a solution to the heavy labour of manually flipping oyster cages that can weigh more than 200 pounds. PEI second-year Engineering students came up with an innovative idea, and now Synapse staff is helping those students patent the device and get funding to build it. The idea has also made it to the Startup Zone, an incubator for entrepreneurs.
For more success stories, visit www.synapsepei.com/industry/success-stories.
“Particularly in Canada, too many good ideas do not get commercialized,” says Justin. “Synapse is a resource that can help bridge that gap by building connections with UPEI researchers to develop solutions. We can help them determine what they have and what is missing. We understand the ins and outs of patenting and how to market and build a company.”
About the staff
Synapse has six full-time staff members. Dr. Justin Moores has been Chief Executive Officer since January, 2017. He has a PhD in Biology, and came to Synapse from Ottawa, where he worked at Mitacs, a national, not-for-profit organization that designs and delivers research and training programs. He managed strategic accounts and directed tech transfer and business development activities with private industry, academia, government and scientific communities. There are three Technology Transfer and Industry Liaison Officers, each with different expertise and backgrounds ranging from Engineering to Biomedical Sciences.
Two new positions have recently been added: an Office Administrator and a Marketing & Communications Coordinator who helps promote the services provided by Synapse and the innovations happening on campus.
There are also employee interchanges with some of the partners. “That is an advantage to both organizations, and it means we all have more tools in our toolbox,” says Justin.
Jon Barrett joined Synapse in 2017. As a Technology Transfer Officer, Jon works with UPEI researchers, students, and academics. “I help UPEI researchers develop the technology they are working on by assisting with funding, connections with companies that will hopefully support the researchers to do the work, and commercializing any developed technology.
“The goal is that some type of great new technology will come out of the research collaboration which will create new jobs on PEI and help the economy in many ways.”
Jon has always had a passion for engineering. “Ever since I was small, I always enjoyed building things. I was very creative and analytical in pulling things apart, figuring out how they work, and then putting back together in a better way.”
Jon earned a diploma in Engineering from UPEI and then went to UNB in Fredericton to complete his degree in Mechanical Engineering.
He worked for three years with his wife in Bangladesh as a Project Manager for a hospital construction project. He came back to PEI to work in the engineering and construction industry, and then joined UPEI as a Business Development Engineer. He was part of the team that saw the engineering program expand into its new purpose-built facility and saw the first graduates of the full engineering degree program at UPEI. During this time, Jon played a key role in sourcing real-world engineering problems from industry, which form the basis for student research projects.
“The best thing about my job at Synapse is working with the researchers and engineers,” says Jon. “Each one has such a passion for what they do, and their research is unique. Projects range from wind turbines to precision agriculture, bio-printing, robotics, and biochar, which is converting waste products to an energy source and beyond.
“It is always exciting to help projects move forward and to see the researchers and the company connect, collaborate, and create. In making the connection, we will assess the various funding opportunities to support this research work. Most of the funding we help bring in pays for graduate students to work on the projects. They are a great resource to help carry out the research.”
For more staff profiles, visit www.synapsepei.com/about/staff/.
“We are not actively hiring at present, but we are always on the lookout for great talent who can help us move UPEI ideas ahead, and we are always open to chatting if someone wants to get in touch with us,” says Justin. “Give us a call. We are more than happy to have a chat and provide guidance.”
Most difficult positions to fill
“Having gone through the hiring process for each role this year, each position has its own challenges. We saw some great talent, but each person hired stood out in some way.
“The role of Technology Liaison Officer is probably the most challenging to fill because they need the deep technical knowledge, as well as the business and creative sense to know where an idea could go. The last time we recruited, we interviewed people with ties to Atlantic Canada who lived on both coasts of Canada and in Europe.”
“We work with many groups that are focused on growing the economy on PEI, and they all volunteer their time. Some soon-to-be-announced initiatives may lead to volunteer work.
“Our volunteer board is a huge resource in terms of industrial experience on and off the Island. There are currently a few vacant seats on the board, and we are always interested in expertise from business, engineering or science.
“We had our first co-op student last summer, a business student who helped us dig into the pure business side of some of the technologies. That person was a really great resource.”
What will the work within your company look like in five years?
“We do a good job in taking ideas to the next step, but there are so many cool ideas we haven’t seen yet,” says Justin. “In five years, I see Synapse having grown and having spun out ideas into existing companies and into a number of new companies as well.
“A goal of mine is to pull non-traditional ideas to the forefront. There are strengths on campus that are not yet fully tapped into. UPEI will continue to have tremendous economic benefits for PEI. It will just get better.
“There is so much expertise and so many creative ideas that have potential. It is certainly gratifying to help with red tape and make the process as easy as possible for someone to get their idea out and find a solution.”
For more information, visit www.synapsepei.com.
Synapse receives funding from several partners, including UPEI, The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, Innovation PEI, and Springboard Atlantic.