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Combining fine art, food and high-tech

Faculty of Engineering program helps entrepreneurial students turn creative ideas into start-up businesses

Celeste Nantel is a robotics aficionado. Chloë Ryan has freelanced as a visual artist. One day last February, the two Mechanical Engineering students – weary of cramming for a thermodynamics midterm – began kicking around ideas for a start-up business.

As an artist, Ryan had been struck by the big gap between high-priced professional artwork and the cheap mass-produced prints that tend to decorate student digs. “We got to thinking about whether there’s some way we could incorporate robotics or software into the painting process, so as to provide a mid-level alternative to make art more accessible,” she recalls.

Several months later, their idea has turned into a start-up, Acrylic Design & Technology. Ryan, Nantel and a fellow Engineering student with robotics expertise are developing a system to produce acrylic paintings on canvas using a painting robot. They hope this novel approach will enable Acrylic to produce paintings tailored to the tastes of individual consumers – and eventually supply artwork to businesses such as hotels or office buildings.

With support from a McGill program that helps students jump-start promising start-up ideas, they’re aiming to launch their business next year.

Developing ideas with potential for social impact

“We don’t believe that art and technology are on either ends of a spectrum,” the co-founders note on their website. “By collaborating with artists and enhancing with technology, we are able to offer unique, ethical and affordable acrylic paintings to bring colour to any space.”

Ryan and Nantel were among the student teams who competed for grants from the Faculty of Engineering’s McGill Engine Centre as part of its TechAccel program, which involves a final showcase for teams to present their ventures. Acrylic’s pitch presentation won the $1,000 crowd-favourite prize at the showcase event that took place in September.

TechAccel Grants help students accelerate technologically based ideas that have business or social-impact potential and provide an experiential learning opportunity for the student teams. Grant recipients benefit from personalized coaching and business mentorship by an industry expert, and students get their involvement recognized under their Co-Curricular Record since the TechAccel program is an approved Enriched Educational Opportunities (EEO) program.

"The TechAccel Grant allowed us to transition our project from just an idea to something we work on every day,” Nantel says.

The triannual TechAccel program has distributed more than $151,000 to 50 student start-up ventures over the last five years from the Faculty of Engineering’s Engine Innovation Fund.

The 10 grant recipients of this year’s summer program showcased a wide variety of projects – from curating Afrobeat music to inventing a better toothbrush. Grants for the summer cohort totaled $34,700, an average of $3,470 per team, says Katya Marc, associate director of the McGill Engine Centre. “There has been an increase of 140% over last year in students applying to the TechAccel program so we look forward to growing our Innovation Fund and the Centre’s ability to support the growth,” Marc adds.

High-tech and the art of baking

Among the other projects on display at the September event: Jiayuan Wang, another Mechanical Engineering undergrad, is bringing high tech to the art of baking cookies. Teaming up with an outside businessman with marketing and sales experience, Wang has launched Cookiestruct, which makes cookie cutters using 3D printing.

The term cookie-cutter is paradoxical, in this case, since the moulds are custom-made, design-specific and individually produced to replicate precisely customers’ drawings and designs.

Customers send Cookiestruct instructions, an image or a picture – it could be an employee’s face, a logo or text – and the start-up shapes the recyclable, food-safe and compostable moulds made of PLA plastic by printing them in 3D printers.

Wang, who is from Shanghai, says he got the idea “baking for my host family back in the U.S.,” where he went to high school.

Wang and co-founder Félix Montgrain recently took on two online baking influencers as partners who have brought Cookiestruct “a lot of customers. We think this model can help our business,” says Wang, who is considering pursuing an MBA eventually. “It’s going well… A lot of people in Quebec are starting to know about us. When our friends and family bring up Cookiestruct, some people were like ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard about them’. We are very excited for the holidays ahead, when we project to sell more than ever.”

“We’re in the process of looking for more partnerships with people who bake online and help other people learn how to bake. Especially in these times of COVID-19, individuals need more creative ways to release stress.”

“We think that could be pretty exciting, especially for families.”

Wang first received funding from the McGill Engine in 2019, and additional help from this summer’s internship program to hire three interns, one each for social media, software development and web development. McGill Engine paid for one intern through its new Startup Internship Program, while the other two were paid by the business pair with equity stakes.

Cookiestruct received $1,200 from the summer grant and another $4,500 for the summer intern.

“That was a huge help,” Wang said.

The goal is to become “a one-stop shop for everything baking related,” said Wang, whose cookie cutters are sold at La Licornerie, an eclectic Montreal gift shop.

The start-up donates a portion of sales to Breakfast Club of Canada, which provides meals for children living with food insecurity.

Start-up resources for students

The McGill Engine Centre works in collaboration with the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship – the hub of entrepreneurial activity at McGill – in supporting student innovation projects. And there are a number of other resources for students looking to bootstrap promising ideas.

Within weeks of hatching their idea for Acrylic last winter, undergrads Nantel and Ryan applied to the Women Founders Project of Front Row Ventures, a student-run venture capital fund that invests in student-led start-ups across Canada. They were accepted into the program, which included a series of workshops during June and July that helped them develop Acrylic’s business model. By mid-August, they had a three-person marketing team on board.

Ryan, who went to high school in Ottawa, and Nantel, from Oakville, Ont., met soon after arriving at McGill at a meeting of the Junior Council, a committee under the Engineering Undergraduate Society aimed at fostering a spirit of community and creating activities for first-year McGill engineering students. Both credit the “JC” for providing encouragement and focus.

“JC was probably a game-changer for me regarding McGill,” Nantel says. “Without JC, I don’t know if I would have been involved in as many things as I am.”

Groups like the Junior Council and Promoting Opportunities for Women in Engineering (POWE) – a student-run association with a mission to attract women into engineering – “shape the culture to make it more welcoming for women in engineering at McGill,” Ryan adds. “There are a lot of equity initiatives, mostly student-run.”

Pushing ahead

Now, Ryan and Nantel are pushing ahead with further development of Acrylic's robotics and software, with an eye to launching the marketing phase of the business next year. The system allows customers to fill out a quiz on the company’s website to indicate their style preferences. Their software generates a design based on those preferences. If the customer approves, the painting robot (made largely from parts produced with a 3D printer) will produce the acrylic painting on canvas.

Eventually, Acrylic also hopes to partner with local artists “to be able to make their work more accessible on a wider scale,” Ryan says.

“Although right now I’m the artist behind Acrylic’s works, once we have our software algorithms developed and our painting robot running, we hope to partner with local artists to allow them to scale up the production of their work through Acrylic. Our paintings then become a mind meld of the consumer themselves, the professional artist we’ve partnered with whose style they like the best, and our algorithms. It’s then realized by our painting robot.”

“It’s a massive project, and we want to launch with better technology as soon as possible,” Ryan says. “We’re not offering the product yet, but we feel pretty confident – a lot of people have expressed interest.”

This article was originally posted on McGill Channels.

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