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What I learned in grad school: Lessons from an entrepreneur

Dr. Paul Webster, CTO, Laser Depth Dynamics

Dr. Paul Webster

Dr. Paul Webster  wasn’t thinking about entrepreneurship when he entered graduate school. He was just curious about high-speed lasers – specifically, what happens when you apply lasers used in eye surgery to metal?  
Answering that question not only earned him his PhD in Engineering Physics from Queen’s University; it also solved a fundamental problem for industry: how to measure and control the depth of a laser’s penetration.  His discovery formed the basis of a fast-growing  PARTEQ startup company, Laser Depth Dynamics. It also earned him the 2012 Martin Walmsley Fellowship for Technological Enterprise from the Ontario Centres of Excellence, and the Atherton Entrepreneurship Award from PARTEQ Innovations. 
Below, Paul shares some of the insights that graduate school provided as he morphed from student to entrepreneur.  
1. Curiosity creates opportunities.
When I was considering grad school, I wasn’t thinking about lasers. In fact I was thinking of working in the nuclear industry.  But at the end of my undergrad I just happened to go to a talk about future opportunities, and met my future supervisor, Queen’s physics professor James Fraser.  He was working on the potential of laser imaging for medical applications. It interested me because it would allow me to chase an interesting problem with tools I thought would be fun to use.  But being an entrepreneur and starting a company? Not even on my radar.   
2. Academic research is a great source of ideas. 
An academic research lab is the adult version of a sandbox. It provides the equipment and the freedom to be curious about problems, without knowing if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and without being limited by imperatives such as making a profit or avoiding risk. In my case I was given the encouragement to buy the tools I needed and to pursue a problem that interested me.  It made me gravitate to an applied degree (Engineering Physics), and it got me thinking about industry problems that could be solved by high-powered lasers. 
3. Theory is important too. 
Being a graduate student means learning the underlying theory of complex things. You need that deep understanding to figure out why some problems are so hard to solve. For me, it’s all about understanding the difficulty of a problem, because it tells you so much about it, and how to approach it.  If it’s difficult, and if you decide to solve it, at least you respect it, and you know to set aside the time and resources to sort it out.  
4. Learn the language of the industry you’re interested in.
Because of my work in Dr. Fraser’s lab, I had to buy equipment, and to do that I had to talk to suppliers. I would seek them out at trade shows, and get them to talk about their work. Not only did this help to build relationships, it taught me to speak their language and learn how they think about things, and what was important to them.  As a graduate student, I wasn’t perceived as a competitor, and the laser industry is generally pretty friendly, so I was able to find out what people were struggling with. And once I developed a solution for one of those problems, my industry contacts became my sales channels. So speaking their language is very important! 
5. Never underestimate the value of trade shows and conferences.
Conferences focused on applied problems are especially important because they show students what’s out there. Talking to industry people is so much faster than reading papers, and if you are working on a problem it’s a great opportunity to find out whether someone’s already solved it.  On the other hand, it can also validate your work. I realized I had something unique when I went to an industry conference and heard a speaker talk about the exact problem I had solved in my research. That never would have happened without getting out and talking to people.
Paul Webster, PhD (Queen’s), is Chief Technology Officer of Laser Depth Dynamics Inc., where he is responsible for  research and development, product roadmap strategy, market research/business development and negotiation with customers and suppliers.
Listen to an interview with Paul Webster and his entrepreneur-mentor, Roger Bowes, on our YouTube Channel.