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How to start a company during a pandemic

Genome Alberta has sponsored iGEM teams over the years that have gone on to demonstrate commercial viability. One of those teams was working on a green seed canola oil project last year and we helped cover a portion of their registration and travel costs. Patrick Wu is a Life Science Marketing Consultant who works closely with the iGEM teams here in Alberta and we asked him to check-in on another iGEM success story.

The pandemic has put significant pressure on many small businesses and startups around the world. But for a group of student entrepreneurs, COVID-19 has actually opened up a lot of new doors.

yOIL is a Calgary-based synthetic biology startup, which spun out from the award-winning Calgary iGEM project in 2019. The iGEM project focused on addressing the “green seed problem” in the canola industry. Their project aimed to remove chlorophyll from green canola oil and upgrade it to create an antifungal that can be used to treat new canola crops.

As of this writing, the company is just under a month old, but they have made a lot of progress even in the midst of a global pandemic. According to Sara Far, CEO and co-founder, the shift towards virtual events has allowed them to take part in more pitch competitions.

“Travelling would have been nice, but travelling is expensive,” says Far. For example, the team was recently selected as a finalist for the Wege Prize 2020 Design Competition, a global sustainability competition that held its first-ever virtual event. Without travel expenses, yOIL could invest their early funds straight into the company.

Customer discovery has also been easier during the pandemic. Canada’s canola oil producers are all over the country. Virtual meetings have made it easier to connect with them instead of travelling for in-person visits.

“It isn’t as ‘weird’ to do [video calls] anymore,” says Far. “Location isn’t a limitation.”

While the pandemic put a damper on their R&D plans this summer, the team is taking it in stride. According to Juan Sebastian Alvarez, Chief Strategy Officer and co-founder, this was a chance to re-evaluate their markets and do proper customer research.

“We’re looking for a first potential market that desperately needs us,” says Alvarez. He explains that even with the green seed problem, canola is already quite profitable. So yOIL is keeping an open mind about other options, such as pigment extraction, cannabinoids, and cosmetics.

Fortunately for yOIL, there is a growing support network in Alberta to help new life science startups. This includes FREDsense Technologies, another spinoff of a Calgary iGEM project.

“They’re like our iGEM startup parents,” Far jokes. “They’ve been a major source of support and mentorship for us.”
If you want to learn even more about yOIL and canola, here you go:

How to start a company during a pandemic

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