Re-Code STORIES: Interview with Travis Clements-Khan
Launched in September 2014, Seneca’s HELIX project provides stimulation for the design thinking required to develop innovative personal health products and
services by students, and works to foster the entrepreneurial potential of students and of youth in the community at large.
By winning the
EuroPITCH2015, Travis Clements-Khan, one of Seneca’s HELIXers, won the right to participate in the European Innovation Academy (EIA) held in Nice, France. The EIA is a 15-day startup weekend. 500+ students, from 65 different countries participate. Students come from institutions such as London Business School, Stanford University, Oxford University, UC Berkeley, and Cambridge University — Seneca being the only participating Canadian College.
At the EIA, Travis pitched a complementary idea to his hand held allergy detection tool, Aller(tec), which he works on at HELIX. The idea? allerZEN — a social platform for food allergy sufferers to connect. It would allow them to scan barcodes off food items and alert the user to allergens, as well as allow users to review and find restaurants that offer allergen free dishes.
His idea was selected as one of 80 companies to be developed during the academy. Travis and his international team of co-founders developed the app over the 15 days of the European Innovation Academy. At the end of the Academy they competed against the other 79 companies and placed in the top 15.
Below, Travis answers a few of our burning questions on how this all came about:
Where did the idea behind Aller(tec) come from?
TC: The idea started as a rapid diagnostic to detect whether an individual is suffering from a viral or a bacterial infection. The expense and regulatory hurdles required to bring to market a human diagnostic was unrealistic for my startup. And so I began to explore other ways to use the same fundamental concepts and ideas I had learned over the course of my studies. One of my professors, who suffers from a lactose intolerance, had always mentioned that he wished there was a way to tell if there was lactose in food. It was a natural progression from here. I began exploring the need, and the market. After some research, it was easy to see that people suffering from food allergies or intolerances needed a way to monitor or test the food they consume for allergens. Thus Aller(tec) was born. Aller(tec) is the first consumer oriented point-of-care diagnostic tool used to detect the presence of allergens in food products.
The allerZEN team at the EIA in France.
allerZEN, is a complimentary application to the device. As of now the two are stand alone products, Aller(tec) is being created through
NextGen Labs, and allerZEN is being created with the founding team from the European Innovation Academy. The app allows users to scan barcodes of food items in any language and notify them of potential allergens based on the user’s allergenic profile; to rate and review foods / and restaurants offering allergen free menu items; and connect with fellow food allergy sufferers. The future goal is for the two to be integrated.
When did you start to actively pursue transforming your idea into a feasible venture? Where did you go and who did you turn to?
TC: I guess you could say the stars aligned. Seneca’s HELIX program was just preparing to launch in the fall, and I had recently developed an interest in molecular diagnostics from my professor who was also new to the college. He has a background in molecular diagnostics and had came from industry; he taught the lab component of my program. I always wanted to work for myself. I can recall from a young age wanting to be an ‘inventor’. Seneca’s HELIX program was my chance to finally learn about what it really takes to be an entrepreneur. My journey started when the HELIX program launched on campus in the fall of 2014.
What was the link between your post-secondary education experience and your innovation and entrepreneurship process?
TC: After attending both university and college, I can say, personally, that both were critical to my success. Knowledge can only get you so far if you can’t practically apply it. University gave me the technical background and expertise in the field from which I came, while college gave me the hands on experience necessary for the real world. Similarly, entrepreneurship requires a deep understanding of your product/service/market and the drive to get it out to market.
What role did HELIX play in your journey?
TC: HELIX, along with the support of Re-Code, has and continues to provide many opportunities for the continued growth of the company. This includes everything from professional development to access to resources.
Did you have any mentors? Who were they?
TC: As an integrated entrepreneur in the ONE network (Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs), I have had the pleasure of meeting and learning from a variety of mentors from across the GTA. I’d have to say that Chris Dudley, the director of HELIX, and Dr. Frank Merante, my former professor, have had the largest impact on me personally, and on the progress of the company.
Following their lead, I will be acting as a mentor at this fall’s Youth for Youth (Y2) event, hosted by Seneca’s HELIX with the support of Re-Code. At Y2, high school participants will work over two Saturdays to bring their idea to life and learn about key startup activities such as customer validation, and pitching through mini-workshops.
What was your biggest take away from the European Innovation Academy?
TC: Diversity drives innovation. The differences between each and every one of us—the things that make us unique are the very things that a startup needs to be successful.
What about capital? Where did you find support? Did you have access to any social finance?
TC: To date, the company has received no financial support or backing (no cash or grants). All of the progress that has been made thus far has been through competition winnings (non-monetary). These winnings, starting with Startup Weekend York in January and ending most recently with EuroPitch 2015 in June, allowed the company to attend the European Innovation Academy and have garnered the support and momentum needed to continue our work.
One of NextGen Labs core beliefs is providing experiential learning opportunities for students. To achieve this goal, we have created an industry-academic partnership with Seneca College, where we train and mentor students in advanced molecular diagnostics and scientific techniques, in exchange for access to the lab space needed to run experiments. As of early August, we will have two co-op science without borders students, two recent Seneca College grads, and one current Seneca College student working on projects for the company. We are extremely thankful to Seneca College for providing us this opportunity. We are happy to say that much of the knowledge generated in the lab goes back into course development and content creation.
It has been difficult to find sources of funding, financing, and grants. Especially as many sources of capital often require full, or at least partial, matching funds—a difficult, if not impossible task for a recent graduate. Despite this, I’m happy to say that we haven’t let capital dictate where we have come from, or where we are going. Starting and growing a biotech company without capital is almost unheard of. I’m showing that it is possible, for anyone, to start a business – any business – from scratch.
What are your biggest needs now, and what support are you looking for as a social entrepreneur?
TC: We have held off actively pursuing investment or financing to fund our growth. Along with grant applications and partnerships with academic institutions for research and development collaborations, we are beginning to explore select investor partnerships that can help us accelerate our growth and move us closer to our goal.
Can you share one of the challenges you face?
TC: The most difficult thing is managing all the roles I have to play as a solo founder. Having access to mentors in areas such as marketing, accounting, legal, scientific, and technical—as a result of HELIX, has been invaluable.
If you could share one thing with the Re-Code network about what you’ve learned as a social innovator and entrepreneur over the past year, what would it be?
TC: Collaboration is key to fostering the creation of successful entrepreneurs. NextGen Labs wouldn’t exist without the cooperation of many different organizations like HELIX, Re-Code, VentureLAB, OCE, and many more, working together to achieve a common goal.