November 20, 2018
Thousands of ideas — some grounded, some whimsical — have passed through the Engineering Physics Project Lab over the years. Take for example one student’s desire to create a machine that could convert discarded 3D printing “mistakes” back into 3D printing filament — or the single-minded passion of another student to convert, at any cost, his pedal bike into an electric one.
As it happens, the first student idea eventually became Red-De-Tec, a 3D printer recycling company featured in Popular Science and Bloomsbury Review. And the second idea? In 2005, Justin Lemire-Elmore created Grin Cycles in Vancouver, the most popular dealer of add-on electronic bike parts on the West Coast.
It was exactly this hands-on, entrepreneurial thinking that prompted Scott Phillips, a local success story in his own right, to recently donate up to $500,000 to the UBC Engineering Physics Project Lab. A graduate of the Engineering Physics program (Eng Phys) and CEO of the nationally celebrated Starfish Medical Devices, Phillips has not only created an endowment to expand the lab on its 40th anniversary, but has offered to match donations to the influential UBC space.
In 1978, UBC Professor Boye Ahlborn and the graduating Engineering Physics class founded the Project Lab, recognizing the potential of “real world” training and apprenticeship-like education in technology to effect positive societal change. Today this program graduates 60 students annually, many of whom, on the basis of the applied skills acquired in the Lab, are hired directly by companies or decide to launch startups themselves.
“The Project Lab is one of the main feeders of the BC entrepreneurial community,” says Phillips, who was named 2017 BC Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst and Young in the Technology category. “I wanted to give back to the lab because I credit much of my success to what I learned in the UBC engineering physics program and the unique environment there.”
In the winter of 1989, Phillips strove to start his own tech company, but realized, as a fifth-year UBC student, he still had much to learn. But his project that year — a laser-based technology for finding failures in the seals of large lithium batteries — won the Lab’s top prize. On the basis of that “gratifying” experience, Moli Energy hired Phillips, although he left in 1992 to finally launch a small medical device company. Comprised of a small team initially, Starfish has 135 staff today, having expanded into the largest medical device design company in Canada and one of the leaders in North America.
“Moli Energy was the only other job I’ve had,” jokes Phillips.
The Project Lab has launched many careers, often in unexpected ways. A project in the early 1980s, for example, led to a retrofitting contract with the Vancouver Planetarium. Or consider Astronaut Bjarni Tryggvason whose “isolation mounts” instrumentation — partly developed in the UBC Project Lab — orbited the earth in the Russian Mir Space station in support of 1997 NASA experiments in material science and fluid physics.
But if the undergraduate Eng Phys Project Lab has a somewhat lower profile than its graduate counterparts on the UBC campus, it nonetheless has a rich, storied reputation off campus. “There’s a positive feedback loop,” says Andre Marziali, the current director of the Eng Phys program. “Successful entrepreneurs talk to the younger generation and they seem to be recommending the program.”
Because of the Boye Ahlborn Endowment for Engineering Physics Project Lab—and the matching donations Phillips hopes this new endowment will inspire — Marziali is now able to hire staff, buy materials for students and replace equipment. The latter is key, given the pace of technological change and need to constantly upgrade equipment, including the latest 3D printers, laser cutters and so on.
And yet the Lab’s largest resource, says Scott, continues to be the confidence it inspires year after year in its graduates. “The lab has inspired so many people,” says Phillips. “It has given so many the self-confidence to try something new — to simply try.”