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Projecting a new generation into tech success

Four life sciences tech entrepreneurs give back to the influential UBC Engineering Physics Project Lab.

Name a bigger recent Vancouver tech success than Carl Hansen. A self-made billionaire in 2020, the co-founder and CEO of AbCellera Biologics found a way to combine genetics, data science and machine learning to develop antibody-based medical treatments. Yet, despite this breakthrough, Hansen, 48, still recalls a UBC student project of his, one that “didn’t go exactly where it should have gone.”

“We didn’t have the time to finish the project because it was too ambitious,” he says, grinning. “And our ambitions were too high for our student budget.”

The UBC program Hansen recalls so vividly is Engineering Physics, a discipline as ambitious as the students it attracts, integrating the high-flying abstraction of physics with the hands-on tinkering of engineering. It is to this interdisciplinary program—and the influential lab at its heart—that successful biomedical entrepreneurs and UBC Engineering Physics graduates Carl Hansen, James Taylor and Andrew Booth have each donated $250K. And these three gifts were prompted by a fourth Engineering Physics alumnus and entrepreneur, Scott Phillips.

In 2018, Phillips, successful in his own right as Founder and President of Starfish Medical, established the Boye Ahlborn Endowment for the Engineering Physics Project Lab with a $250K donation of his own, and promised matching funding to encourage other donors to join him in supporting the lab. Gifts by Booth, the CFO of AbCellera Biologics; Taylor, the Founder and CEO of Precision Nanosystems; and Hansen triggered the $250K match for a total of $1 million, resulting in a robust endowment in support of an innovative lab offering unique, challenging project-based learning.

“Engineering Physics and the Project Lab are both near and dear to me, a conduit for me personally.” says Taylor. “The training I received set me off in a career to take the most advanced concepts in physics and engineering to advance the human condition, to take the bleeding edge of science and commercialize it for better access for people.”

Graduates of the Engineering Physics lab have played a “critical role” in Precision Nanosystems, a global leader in the non-viral delivery of genomic medicines. Like many of the most innovative companies in Vancouver, Precision Nanosystems has a “founding employee base” of UBC Engineering Physics graduates, a number which, according to Taylor, continues to grow from year to year and contribute to the company’s success.
Starfish Medical, Precision Nanosystems and AbCellera Biologics were three of the companies, in fact, whose vital efforts to combat Covid-19 Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin praised in the 2021 BC Throne speech: AbCellera’s treatments against Covid-19, Precision Nanosystems’ work on a vaccine, and Starfish Medical’s development of an ICU ventilator. Although AbCellera’s story is now well-known internationally, Hansen is quick to point out that the other two companies are also “icons” of BC entrepreneurship. “Precision is one of the biggest exits in the history of the province,” he says, “and Starfish is the heavyweight champion of their space and organically growing at a rate that is really great.”

Despite its outsized contribution to the fastest-growing life sciences sector in Canada, with more than 2,000 companies employing over 18,000 people, the Engineering Physics Project Lab has long run on something of a shoestring budget. It’s costly for a university lab to keep up with the dizzying evolution of technology. But now, thanks to these generous donations, the Boye Ahlborn Endowment will significantly increase the lab’s budget and ability to support intelligently adventurous, hands-on students.

“High-altitude flier” is the affectionate term Dylan Gunn, Director of the Project Lab, has given to a certain kind of prodigy who enrolls in the program every year. “We often get students who are very high-level,” he says, “operating far, far above their undergraduate level.” These students will not only teach themselves advanced mathematics, quantum physics or cutting-edge concepts in data science and machine learning, but take on projects in optical quantum computing, radio astronomy, robotics or quantitative finance.

Gunn may have to explain to these students that only one or two researchers in the world can help them with their highly specialized problem. “We’ll say, ‘We likely can’t help you with the deepest technical aspects of your project, but we can help you get organized. We can help you with soft skills and professionalism. We can help you refine your problem.’”

From the clouds to the ground and back again
Refining the problem—this was what Boye Ahlborn, professor emeritus in Physics and Astronomy and former Engineering Physics program director, had in mind when he founded the Project Lab four decades ago. Ahlborn, Gunn explains, wanted to offer students flexibility to explore their own interests in the context of real projects and he envisioned the Project Lab as a vehicle to foster entrepreneurship.

“We tell students, okay, you want to do something truly novel? That’s amazing—but first? You need to zoom in and find the physical mechanisms at the core of the problem. What needs to be improved? What needs to be lighter, faster, stronger? What constraints and boundaries need to be overcome, and what formulas will serve that?”

Gunn has another useful analogy: Running the Project Lab is not unlike running a consulting engineering company that addresses everything from quantum computing and neural-networked robots to biotechnology and medical devices. “Only this consulting company of ours,” he jokes, “has very little overhead.”

What compounds this challenge? To extend Gunn’s own metaphor: the rate of staff turnover at this little consulting company is high (because the workers are students), and the team is junior (again, because they’re students).

But this is how everyone learns, Gunn points out. “It’s the best kind of revolving door.”

As a UBC student in the Project Lab in the 1990s, Andrew Booth devised an ambitious project with another fellow Engineering Physics student – to design and build a solar-powered car. At that time, universities around the world were experimenting with solar power, and Booth found himself assuming, among many engineering roles, the position of team fundraiser. Given budgetary restraints, Booth successfully pitched companies like Westcoast Energy, BC Bearing Engineers Ltd., Statpower Technologies Corp and BCTEL mobility.

The effort to bring this solar car to life, a car they called Raven, eventually evolved into what is known today as the UBC Solar Car engineering student team. And like that team, Raven’s integrated efforts far exceeded engineering and physics. Commerce students were given credit in their Commerce 468 course for developing marketing for the car. UBC art students created ads for student print newspapers and something called the Internet.

“Working on that project together was like starting a small company,” says Booth. “We begged, borrowed and stole everything we could to get it working.”

Inspiring change on a larger scale
The way the Project Lab brings together engineering and physics, as well as arts, media and business, makes it similar in spirit to another Faculty fundraising initiative: Applied One.

The massive, complex problems facing our world—think social inequity and the climate emergency, but also increasing unaffordability, global security concerns, and lagging productivity—won’t be solved by different disciplines working separately. For this reason, the UBC Faculty of Applied Science is also fundraising for a building whose organization and structure will enable the integration of engineering, architecture and policy. This building, Applied One, will help students and researchers accelerate solutions, and interestingly, the Project Lab has always done this, merging the expertise, methods and passion of engineers, artists, computer scientists, marketers and others.

“Applied One is an incredible opportunity to do at a much larger scale—and across a wide range of engineering disciplines–what we are trying to do every day in the Project Lab,” says Gunn.

And this kind of integration has real consequences for students and their ability to impact the world. As Booth points out, the Project Lab prepared him to help build real-world companies, a realization that prompted him to meet Phillips’s challenge and give back. Thanks to Taylor, Hansen and Booth, the $2M goal set by Phillips has almost been reached. The shortfall is now less than $400K.

The group hopes others will give to the lab. “Try to remember how you felt as a student,” says Booth. “Remember how, if only there had been a bit more funding, you knew you could sink your teeth into a project, one that set the stage for you in the future.”

If you would like to support facilities for future engineering physics professionals, please give to the Boye Ahlborn Endowment for Engineering Physics Project Lab.

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