Engine - driving technological innovation in the art world


Published: 11Nov2022

It's not often that the art world collides with the engineering world, but that's exactly what happened when Chloe Ryan and Celeste Nantel, both undergraduate students in the Mechanical Engineering Class of 2023, began brainstorming ideas while studying for midterms two years ago. During high school, Ryan painted canvases that took hours to complete, and it was hard to sell her artwork for prices that paid for her time. Nantel was a FIRST competitor at her high school, developing applications for robotics. Together they hit upon an idea: A robotic arm programmed to imitate an artist's brushstroke.

Acrylic Robotics would bring painted canvases into the homes of those who could not afford original art. "We're the bridge between a painter's original that costs thousands of dollars, and Ikea art," says Ryan. "Our goal is to help artists monetize their work and bring more art to more people."

Ryan and Nantel applied for TechAccel, a program offered by McGill Engine, which is a technological innovation and entrepreneurship centre in the Faculty of Engineering. It was the Spring of 2020, just as the Covid lockdown began. They had to learn what a stakeholder was, and how to estimate a budget, and the due date was fast approaching. "We hadn't spent much time thinking about all of the aspects," says Ryan, "but that might have been a good thing. We just went for it." Their project was chosen, and they spent the next year in development.

Located in the Frank Dawson Adams Building, McGill Engine has been operating for nine years, helping students and professors develop their innovation and entrepreneurial skills through advising, training, project funding, and one-on-one business mentorship. Their vision is for its community both within McGill and outside the University to drive innovation to pave the way to a better world.

As its Associate Director, Katya Marc, MEng, MBA, oversees the strategic direction, management, and operations of the McGill Engine and its programs, which she co-designed and co-developed. The physical space was designed with a main open collaboration space for the community to talk and brainstorm, a seminar room for workshops, and private rooms and offices for meetings. Marc and the Engine team continue to support McGill undergraduates, graduates, and professors, as well as facilitate collaboration with companies all over the world for R&D.

"Both Chloe and Celeste worked very hard," says Marc. "It was amazing how quickly they advanced while in the TechAccel program, but that's the objective: to help students validate (or invalidate) their technologically-based idea through the lean startup methodology. We offer early-venture advising, and along with our partners such as the McGill librarians, offer co-curricular workshops on topics including intellectual property, market research, lean startup and design thinking methodologies."

At the end of the summer of 2021, Nantel left Acrylic Robotics with a heartfelt goodbye on Linkedln to focus on her studies. Ryan went on to Centech, a world-class business incubator based in Montreal that is dedicated to deep tech companies with high growth potential. She also attended Next 36 in Toronto and Next Al at HEC Montreal. Ryan says that she went into the three-month accelerator program at Centech with one company and came out with a refined idea that looked like another company.

"From both a social impact and growth perspective, it made more sense for us to provide our technology as a platform that serves artists," Ryan says, "instead of producing all the art ourselves." Acrylic Robotics will offer artists the ability to produce limited editions and is currently exploring non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Ryan spends her days on Zoom meetings (her own art in the background) and in the evenings goes through what the growing team at Acrylic Robotics has accomplished. It's a juggling act, leading a technical team of full-time engineers, meeting with investors and clients, building business models, and attending classes at McGill.

This summer, Ryan served as a mentor in the same TechAccel program that got her started. She also took part in the McGill Dobson X1 summer accelerator program. "I'm very grateful for all the resources that were available to me at McGill, and for what I've learned along this journey," she says. "I want to give back. I know that only 2% of venture capital goes to women-led companies and I want to see more women in engineering who are following their dream to become an entrepreneur."

In 2020, Ryan and Nantel were recipients of the Ian Mclachlin Prize for Entrepreneurship in Engineering at McGill, funded by Ian Mclachlin (BEng'60). In 2021, Acrylic Robotics came in 3rd in the Innovation & Technology Driven Enterprise track of the McGill Dobson Cup startup competition. In 2021, Ryan received one of the 1989 Polytechnique Memorial Scholarships, whose goal is to support and promote women in Engineering carrying out entrepreneurial activities. The Ian Mclachlin Award and Scholarship have allowed her to leave her part-time job and focus on her company and studies.

Ryan loves solving problems. It's what brought her to engineering and what continues to hold her excitement as the company grows and refines its mission. It's also what fuels sixteen-hour days. Ryan will continue as a part-time student at McGill in the fall, where she hopes to take part in the Mitacs Entrepreneur-Accelerate program. The next step in her journey is Year 2 of Centech's Acceleration program. Stay tuned as Dean's Report follows her trajectory.

Learn more about McGill Engine, which is funded by philanthropic support from alumni, who also play an important role in mentoring and coaching students.

The Faculty of Engineering prepares future-ready engineers, like Chloe Ryan. Join us in giving students a chance to learn by doing.

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