For many people, life seems uncertain during university years. For some, it’s a time of self-discovery, dreaming of discovering a career that will ignite passion and drive. That hope was fulfilled for Emily Hicks, who started her career with an idea formed at a competition in her undergraduate degree.
While a Biomedical Sciences major, Hicks joined the University of Calgary’s team at the International Genetically Engineered Machines (IGEM) competition after her first year.
“I loved the idea of using biology to solve problems and being able to use different genetic elements as building blocks to engineer real-life solutions,” she says.
Hicks remained involved with the competition, and by the time she graduated, she and her team had developed anidea in which they used bacteria to measure different compounds found in oilsands tailings ponds, converting them into beneficial compounds.undefined
From idea to viable business
Right after graduation, Hicks and her teammates founded FREDsense – a company based on their IGEM idea. Almost immediately, the challenges of transitioning from university to business-ownership made themselves clear.
“It was a lot of work just figuring out howto set up our own microbiology lab and how to get equipment on a really cheap budget,” Hicks explains of the early days of FREDsense.
“We’ve really grown a lot in terms of our lab, what we’re able to accomplish, and our team. We have a product on the market now, which is exciting.”
Hicks also realized that entrepreneurship was different from university in other, unexpected ways.
“I was a very good student, I worked very hard, and that work ethic has been tremendous at helping me out in the startup world where there’s so much to do. I think I stressed a lot about my grades and how I did in school, and it’s really the skills that I learned not in the classroom, but the IGEM competition where I really got involved in research in a hands-on way,” Hicks says.
“It’s those hands-on skills, like learning how to give presentations, that mean so much more than the grades I got.”
Overcoming impostor syndrome
Hicks tackled starting and growing a business pragmatically and patiently. She and her team didn’t have Business degrees or previous business experience, but she pushed herself to overcome that mindset.
“I found it really difficult to just give ourselves permission to just try the thing and just jump in and see what wecould do with that,” Hicks says.
“One of the obstacles that I encountered was feeling like I needed someone to give me permission do the things I needed to do to start this company. You kind of just have to jump in and do it.”
Hicks explains how it was the little things that made them feel more validated, like ordering their first set of business cards.
“It may seem silly, but once you have that card that says that you’re so and so and that you’re a co-founder of a business,that gives you the little validity and the little boost that says ‘Oh yeah,this is a real thing.’”
And FREDsense is, undeniably, a real thing. With their first product – a trace arsenic detector – geared mainly toward mid-sized cities in the United States, FREDsense has expanded their services to include custom sensor work for companies requesting their technology for other specific uses.
Lots of support for entrepreneurs in Alberta
Hicks had help from various mentors as she started and developed FREDsense, but she also found the entrepreneurial community in Alberta to be tremendously supportive.
“That’s one of the things that struck me early on, that even as a student with an idea, there were so many people that were willing to meet us for coffee, or drinks, or whatever, that would give free advice and opinions. I was always shocked that people would do that just out of the goodness of their heart, that there were so many people in the community that were willing to be supporters,” says Hicks.
“So much of that early advice and mentoring that we got, whether in a formal or informal capacity was critical for us in order to learn the skills that we needed and to get the business started.”