As Founder of Loonskin Labs, Studio [Y] gave Charlie Katrycz the resources to build a team and develop a business plan, become a semi-finalist in the world's largest biotech competition, and conduct product and manufacturing research and development at Autodesk's manufacturing facility at Pier 9.
Building an innovation nation of young leaders
For a boy who fled political unrest in Nigeria with his mother and siblings only to grow up amid poverty and gun violence in Toronto’s Jamestown neighbourhood, Lekan Olawoye comes by his community activism honestly.
He has been a respected youth leader in the city’s Rexdale and Weston-Mount Dennis communities, a former chair of the Premier’s Council on Youth Opportunities and a candidate for city council in the 2014 election.
Now Olawoye is director of Studio Y, a provincially-funded youth fellowship program at MaRS. And he is organizing a gathering of the country’s brightest young leaders and innovators who will spend the next two days with business, non-profit and academic mentors to draft a national youth strategy to fuel Canada’s social and economic future.
“We have a national system to develop hockey players in this country,” he says. “We need that same level of intentionality to develop young leaders and innovators in Canada.”
With a new government in Ottawa that arguably owes its electoral success to young voters and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to take on the role of minister of youth, the timing couldn’t be better, says Olawoye, 31, a father with three children ages 9, 4 and 2.
“Our baby boomers are retiring. The economy is changing. Youth unemployment is high. We need a succession plan,” he says.
Olawoye has snagged the country’s youngest premier, New Brunswick’s Brian Gallant, 34, to give Friday’s opening keynote speech. Navdeep Bains, 38, the federal minister of innovation, science and economic development, is leading a TED-talk-style town hall session. And Premier Kathleen Wynne will address the group.
Almost 800 people from every province and territory applied for 250 spots at the event. Youth between the ages of 15 and 30 make up half of those chosen to attend, and many were offered free travel and accommodation to ensure a broad cross-section are able to participate, he adds.
“This is not just about talking,” he says. “It’s about bringing 250 really smart people together to act and to build a strategy. And with that strategy, we are going to work with industry and our government partners to implement it.”
Apathy is Boring, a Montreal-based group that tries to engage young middle-class Canadians who don’t vote, is one of 25 youth leadership and innovation organizations partnering with Studio Y for the event.
Executive director Caro Loutfi, 26, says it is crucial that organizations like hers join with young people to develop a common playbook.
“It’s very difficult for us to assess whether young Canadians are better engaged over time if we’re not all speaking the same language and if we don’t have a vision that is defined collectively,” says Loutfi, 26. “So bringing everybody together to start defining that vision . . . is extremely valuable.”
The recent shift in the social and political landscape is “extremely promising,” she adds.
“When we have a government like this one that is keen and interested in collaborative approaches, we want to be taking this opportunity to push forward.”
For Olawoye, the opportunity to put groups like Loutfi’s as well as those that work with disadvantaged, indigenous and newcomer youth together with corporate sponsors, such as the Royal Bank, sets the stage for an exciting couple of days.
“We will have such smart people in the room with such diverse backgrounds, diverse expertise,” he says. “It’s going to be something fun.”
Meet some young leaders and innovators at Studio Y:
- Charlie Katrycz, 27 (alumni).
After completing a physics degree at McGill and working in home renovations, Katrycz joined Studio Y to develop his passion to harness “the creative power of fluids.” The result is Loonskin Labs, a startup that is developing new ways to build artificial circulatory systems that can be embedded into clothing and fabrics to prevent bed sores, treat wounds and help regulate body temperature. The process can also be adapted for water purification and to heat and cool buildings. Since February, Katrycz has been in San Francisco working alongside other innovators perfecting the manufacturing process. “Before I came to Studio Y, I was working out of my parents’ basement,” he says. “Studio Y was the first group that saw some value in what I was doing.”
- Selena Lucien, 26. (alumni).
Using knowledge gained during time as a court reporter, Lucien developed Small Claims Wizard, a website that makes legal advice more affordable and accessible for both plaintiffs and defendants. Through specialized software, users are guided every step of the way with filling out forms, document management and court filing. But while using technology to make the legal system more accessible, Lucien discovered that more structural change is needed. So she has applied to law school to change the system from within. “I’ve decided I can’t sit back and not try,” she says.
- Hibaq Gelle, 26. (fellow).
In addition to advising the provincial government as a member of the Premier’s Council on Youth Opportunities, Gelle has been working to ensure a proposed casino at Woodbine Racetrack makes winners out of area youth, newcomers and precariously employed residents. As part of her work at Studio Y, she put up billboard next to Highway 427 inviting people to her website myrexdale.ca to join the push for “good jobs, good training and good investments.” Gelle wants to change the narrative around Rexdale. “There are big opportunities here,” she says. “How do we maximize them for the most vulnerable people?”
- Erin Kennedy, early 20s. (fellow).
Kennedy is using her passion for robotics to improve the environment. As part of her Robot Missions startup, she created a poodle-sized robot she calls “Bowie” to pick up plastic and other debris from beaches. This summer, with money from a crowdfunding campaign she is launching May 2, Kennedy will pilot an improved version of Bowie to collect five kilograms of garbage from the Toronto Islands shoreline. “I’m looking forward to the day when a variety of modules will be listed on our website so that if you want a robot to plant flowers, you will download it on a 3-D printer in the morning and be ready to go in the afternoon.”
- Anayah Phares, 25. (fellow).
Phares, formerly Rosimay Venancio, is developing CHEERS, a mentorship program for youth leaving foster care, with mentors like her who have been through the system themselves. Before joining Studio Y, Phares was chosen as one of 60 youth from the Commonwealth to receive a young leaders’ award from the Queen, but was barred from travelling to London last June due to a passport snafu. With her Canadian citizenship now secure, she is set to meet the Queen this June and spend 10 days networking with other young leaders from around the world. Through Studio Y, Phares learned about the different systems — education, criminal justice, social services, health care — that youth in foster care and group homes must navigate. “Youth in care don’t succeed academically, are criminalized at an early age and don’t access preventative health care,” she explains. “How can youth in the child welfare system have a positive experience with all these systems?”
My leg was shaking. Well over 600 people crammed in, waiting to be wowed. Demo Day is a big deal at University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. The crowd was slowly being warmed up by the Lab's previous success stories. The bench had been set. Expectations ran high. I was selected to be the first demo on stage. Was I prepared?
The night before had been a big showcase at MaRS - Studio [Y] Fellows were graduating to the alumni roster. A few hundred gathered. Friends, family, and the MaRS community came out to support the accomplishments of this nascent program. The room was warm and welcoming. Dimly lit, a living room atmosphere was set by Keaton Evans - photographs of travels to northern communitities hung from the walls, throw rugs, pillows, chairs, and musical instruments lay about. People told stories and songs were sang. It was as warm and welcoming as it gets.
Back to Demo Day. The bright lighting exposed my every insecurity as the huge crowd hushed as I took to the stage. I was so happy to have the practice from the previous night. Control my breathing, minimize the gravity of the situation ('it will all be fine! people do this every day, this aint the first time and it won't be the last!') look for a familiar face in the crowd... none. My mum and team mate Graham were hidden somewhere in the sea. 600 people may not seem lie that many, but when they are all looking at you for entertainment, they have the tendency to grow in weight and measure.
I made it through my pitch unscathed, though unintentionally I omitted the intriguing stat that our suits could cool surfaces 3X faster than those worn by NASA astronauts to keep cool in space. Oh well. There is always next time. I hope for Loonskin Labs that we make it into the Creative Destruction Lab - they are the gold standard in Canadian accelerators, and it would be an honor to join the ranks of OTI Lumionics, Thalmic, and Nymi.
We were lucky enough to be featured in an article on Betakit after the event.
Over the past week our team was in San Francisco competing in the Oxrbidge Biotech Roundtable and SRone Onestart Competition. The OneStart Competition is the largest biotech startup competition globally, and brings together biotech teams from top academic institutions including Harvard, MIT, and Stanford. It was a thrill to be a semifinalist among such talented researchers. The event spanned two full days of lectures and workshops on entrepreneurship in the medical industry, bringing in industry experts from Johnson&Johnson, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and GlaxoSmithKline. A highly informative and exciting event, we look forward to seeing the results, and staying involved with OneStart in the future.
by Bronwyn Oatley ~ 26 Jan 2015
In late December, Charlie Katrycz received word that he’d made it to the semi-final round of the Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable — the largest biotech start-up competition in the world.
His team, the four-person group at Loonskin Labs was one of 35 teams out of 300 that was selected to compete at the semi-final round in San Francisco in February. At that time, they’ll pitch once again, before having a shot at 150k and free lab space should they make it to the final round.
The group is making a wearable garment that has an embedded circulatory system — a product designed to help those who suffer from thermoregulatory challenges — such as those who suffer from diabetes, multiple sclerosis or parkinson’s disease. The product also has the potential for non-health related applications. Katrycz imagines a time when triathletes, skiers, astronauts or scuba divers could heat or cool their bodies faster than mother nature allows.
For Katrycz, this project has been a labour of love that began during his undergraduate studies at McGill University, when he first became fascinated by patterns and fractals in nature. When he moved home to Toronto, he started doing experiments in his parents basement, eventually renovating the space to enable his work.
During his time at Studio Y, Katrycz has worked tirelessly on Loonskin Labs, seeking to explore the many potential uses for the technology he’s developing.
Of the experience working on Loonskin Labs over the past few months Katrycz notes, “Studio Y has provided me with the time, space and the money to do this start-up on my own. Through the program I’ve built my design and business acumen. It would have taken much longer to do this without Studio Y, because I would have had to work to support myself at the same time.”
During his time at Studio Y, Katrycz has also been able to benefit from the support and collaboration with other Fellows in the program. Recognizing their compatible skillsets, Fellow Hilary Predko has gotten involved in Loonskin Labs, leveraging her experience in wearable technology to support the development of the garments.
Join us as we congratulate Charlie on this accomplishment and support him as he continues to build Loonskin Labs!
Find out more on the MaRS website!