Student entrepreneurs learn life and business lessons

Businessman and McGill alumnus Rory Altman delivers a talk at the 6th Annual John Thompson Entrepreneurial Development Seminar

In business, as in life, the Golden Rule applies. This was the central message of alumnus and entrepreneur Rory Altman (BEng ’92), who spoke at the 6th Annual John Thompson Entrepreneurial Development Seminar on a recent wintry evening. A group of over 60 student entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs-to-be, and those supporting technological entrepreneurship was on hand to learn from Altman’s experiences, as he recounted the numerous ups and downs of establishing a successful telecommunications and media consultancy in the hyper-competitive US market.

Altman took the audience through his career, beginning right from his undergraduate days when he met a young professor by the name of Jim Nicell who taught him about Municipal Engineering (and who would later go on to become the Dean of the Faculty). Altman’s involvement in student affairs like the Engineering Undergraduate Society gave him a springboard into his professional career by giving him opportunities to interact with a diverse student body, which taught him how to come out of his shell.

“The stuff nobody tells you about”

Pivoting from here, he dissected his own work history as an entrepreneur, and offered to explain to the students “the stuff nobody tells you about.” Altman’s journey as an entrepreneur began when his firm was purchased by another larger firm; one that he soon realized was operating with scant regard for ethical business practices. It was an eye-opener at the time, and gave him an important lesson: values matter. He later partnered up with a like-minded colleague to launch his current venture Altman Vilandrie & Company, which has since prospered into a 150-person enterprise with offices in Boston, New York and San Francisco.

The question of ethics and values was a recurring theme throughout his talk, and he urged students to set these beliefs down in writing. “The success you read about in headlines is not necessarily real success,” he cautioned, as he explained that while business performance may depend on technical issues such as patents and IP, a huge part of an entrepreneur’s career is in the intangible area of reputation.

“Leadership is built on consistency,” he explained to the audience, “and reputation can be lost or destroyed in a very short time.” He stressed the importance of choosing and investing in people, and to pay attention to the relationships you build with employees, clients and partners.

Shark tank

This talk then was then followed by the TechIdea pitch competition among four student teams, who presented their technologically-based business concepts to a panel of alumni judges. Altman was joined in this role by alumni Mark Levine (BEng ‘91) and Sian Morgan (BEng ‘92), both experienced entrepreneurs and industry leaders in their own right.

First up was Sherpa, which promised to offer travellers a customized vacation itinerary developed using AI techniques. With the tagline “travel your way, now” the company was keen to underline the fact that the worldwide market for travel was over 1 billion people in 2018.

This was followed by Dyslexia Reader which aimed to develop a phone app that would help dyslexia sufferers to read by using a specially adapted font set to help them overcome their difficulties at identifying written text. With 1 in 5 students worldwide having dyslexia, it is a market with an urgent and real need.

The next to enter the ‘shark tank’ was a group called Halo Guard, which is targeting the collegiate sports market with a headband that would help prevent through early detection the three main causes of death and disability that occur during the practice of amateur and professional sports: heat illness, concussion and sudden cardiac arrest. The lightweight system would be paired with an app that would give coaches the real-time ability to monitor athletes and pull them out of dangerous situations before they arise.

The final team to present was Telesphorus, which offered a system that would deliver on Bill Gates’ dream of making brain diagnoses as simple and regular as getting a blood test. By combining non-invasive brain scan technology such as MRI with Deep Learning technology, the company would measure brain age and compare this against biological age, to provide an early marker for potential neurological issues, before any cognitive symptoms have been detected.

In the end, each team earned a prize, but it was Dyslexia Reader that was named the winner of the evening. Still, it is clear that all of the evening’s participants came away with something valuable, even if it was a simple reminder of one of life’s most enduring adages: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

The event was hosted by the McGill EngInE, the Faculty of Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship hub, focused on stimulating and supporting technologically-based innovation and entrepreneurship at McGill. EngInE Manager Katya Marc leant her MC skills to the evening, and gave an overview of the hub, along with a sneak peek at its new collaboration space in the Frank Dawson Adams building, which will be launched in the fall of 2019.

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