By Andrew Seale
Sell the research and get a faculty position somewhere, that's what they said. At least that’s what everyone seemed to be trying to sell Michael Helander and his colleagues on surrounding their OLED research.
But they’d put too much work into their research surrounding OLEDs – an electrical device capable of converting electricity into light using environmentally-friendly carbon-based organic dye molecules – to let a major company buy the intellectual property and stash it in a patent portfolio just so they could “sue a competitor down the road.”
“We decided we were going to commercialize it ourselves here in Canada, in Toronto,” says Helander. And in 2011 they did, spinning OTI Lumionics, their freshly-minted startup, out of the University of Toronto, capable of producing high-volumes of organic LED lighting panels.
“I always tell aspiring entrepreneurs, I think at some point to start your own company you have to be a little bit delusional… to be stubborn in the belief of what you're doing and ignore all the naysayers,” says Helander. “Eventually (you will) find a path through.”
For OTI that was two and a half years of bootstrapping with loaned space from friendly faculty at the university all the while picking up research gigs on the side. Eventually, they joined the university’s Creative Destruction Lab, a seed-stage program for massively scalable, science-based ventures. Through that they met their mentor, Lee Lau, co-founder of ATI Technologies, an early chip manufacturer that has since become an integral part of the computers we use today.
And he’d done it in Markham, a success story that inspired OTI.
“Lee was really our first external supporter that said ‘I’ll put capital into this because I believe in you and what you can do,’ ” recalls Helander.
Today, OTI is bursting at the seams, growing into a new space in the university’s Banting and Best Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The company has received $5.7 million from the Canadian government’s Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) and developed the aerelight, the world's first consumer-ready OLED lamp.
“For us the most exciting application isn’t ‘let’s replace a lightbulb with an OLED’ it’s ‘what if I designed my whole product or building or office in a totally different way,’ ” says Helander. “You have to start looking at the whole system level, doing a lot of prototyping exploration, interacting with designers to figure out not just what's exciting to market an application but how could this actually be implemented.”
And it’s being at the forefront of bringing OLED to consumers that makes all the bootstrapping early on, all the crashing in faculty labs and picking up research scraps, worth it. It gives OTI a chance to play a role in the future they helped pave the way for.
Plus, they can prove all the naysayers wrong by building a Toronto success story.
“There's a change where people are saying we can be a Canadian company based in Toronto and we can still act and think globally,” says Helander. “It can start from here.”