A profile of Ron Gonzalez, PhD, MBA
Dr. Ron Gonzalez, a PhD neuroscientist by training, felt he was a late bloomer when it came to entrepreneurship and commercialization, but it hasn’t stopped him from diving in to provide leadership to launch a number of Canadian start-ups. The 30-something entrepreneur is a co-founder and the CEO of Instant Chemistry, which is described as “a biotechnology company that’s revolutionizing the way people use dating services.” In short, the company is developing genetic tests to help identify better matches between couples.
The company is the brainchild of Gonzalez who developed the concept which he was doing his MBA at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto during a course on start-ups. Simultaneous to his role at Instant Chemistry, he’s also the VP of Business Development for another start-up called Avertus Epilepsy Technologies Inc. as well as the Director of Marketing for Fireline Inc.
It wasn’t long ago, however, that Gonzalez was a bench scientist. Commenting on how he made the transformation to become an entrepreneur, Gonzalez gives a lot of credit for the MBA program he took following his PhD: “I found that the MBA was a very instrumental tool to move out of academia and open my options up for other opportunities.” Gonzalez also claims that an additional benefit of the MBA was that he was able to do an internship at the Ontario Brain Institute (OBI), where he honed his business development skills. Says Gonzalez, “A lot of learning happened on the job there, so that experience was a huge leap from academia into industry.”
Gonzalez also recognizes that mentors have played a critical role in his development. While he admits that making mistakes can be important for experiential learning, his mentors have made their own mistakes from which he vicariously learns. He stresses that the lessons they can impart are extremely valuable: “The world moves very fast and if you’re not efficient and you make too many mistakes, it’s going to slow you down. So mentors ultimately help you become more competitive.”
The convergence of his scientific and business training is most exemplified by Instant Chemistry Inc., the company he started during business school. “It’s been a really fun ride because it was an idea and concept I had in class and it just had so much momentum, we felt we had to do it.” He now spends much of his time optimizing his business plans, pitching to investors and running the small organization.
Creating a new service category hasn’t been easy, but Gonzalez stresses the importance of understanding the marketplace and the unmet need that’s being filled. Instead of attending conferences to present scientific on his research, he now attends a variety of different types of conferences and trade shows to “get a feel for the market and identify who our potential customers are.” He says that, “at Instant Chemistry, we’ve been constantly doing research, market validation and sending product out to thought leaders everywhere and getting feedback which has helped us focus our next generation of products and iterate on our current products to make them better.” The approach has allowed Instant Chemistry to be “nimble” and quickly create a number of different products for different customer segments.
Gonzalez is also providing leadership to two other start-ups, one of which capitalizes on his interest in neuroscience. Avertus Epilepsy Technologies Inc. aims to develop a device that warns parents of impending seizures in children. Gonzalez says, “One of the biggest fears that parents have for children with epilepsy, who can’t be treated with medication, is that they’ll have a seizure during the night”. Commenting on the impact of the company’s mission, he goes on to state that, “the idea of developing a product that can alert a parent of an impending seizure is something that’s very rewarding as it can give parents piece of mind.” Harkening back to his own reason for leaving the bench, Gonzalez says, “I really enjoy this project and is the type of work that I always wanted to do because it gets that basic research out of the lab and affects people’s lives and actually help them.”
Fireline Inc is similarly looking to help people and potentially save lives. The small company is developing a device to prevent stove fires, the number one cause of fires in the home. Gonzalez comments that the current CEO and founder of the company developed the product because he felt there had to be a way to prevent these types of fires. As part of the corporate team that’s been assembled to help bring the device to market, Gonzalez is excited with his involvement in the company stating that, “It’s been a great experience because it doesn’t have anything to do with science, but it’s still very rewarding and you learn a lot by working outside of your comfort zone.”
Despite the mix of ventures he’s involved with, Gonzalez claims that having earned both a PhD and MBA haven’t been put to waste and finds that both degrees have been highly useful. “Doing the PhD allowed me to develop the skill to ask the right question…Now that I’m working in an industry and an entrepreneurial space where nothing is certain and a lot is not known, I’m comfortable in that space and not intimidated with it because it’s a lot like doing research.” Moreover, his research skills and curiosity are now being exploited towards finding solutions for different problems: “You learn how to take a problem, dissect it, turn it into it’s different parts and then try to figure them out one by one and also realizing there’s a bigger picture and seeing how all these different components work together.”
Complementing these skills, Gonzalez notes that the MBA was, “helpful in that it forced me to work on teams and helped me get back to developing that team dynamic. It was a great way to learn those skills that I had neglected for a long time, which are so valuable now because now I’m on several teams so I have to work on those teams to bring out the best of each member of the team.”
Commenting on how the diversity of projects has shaped his development as an entrepreneur, Gonzalez says that, “The more I work on these different projects, whether it’s genetics, neuroscience or home fire prevention, I feel like the end goal is the same: Learning how to run a business.” He goes on to say that, “At the end of the day, they’re very similar and critically important so I do feel there’s a lot of cross-pollination of ideas and the ideas get translated between different ventures.”
Working in Canada has had its advantages for Gonzalez and he thinks it’s a great place for start-ups because of the untapped human capital. While recognizing that these young and highly educated graduates provide cost-effective talent for start-ups, he acknowledges that it’s an unfortunate commentary on Canada’s competitiveness, “We have a really rich pool of talented young people which unfortunately hasn’t been fully utilized. So there are a lot of highly trained young people who were trained to do more, but unfortunately there are limited opportunities for them.”
Gonzalez however does encourage young scientists to create their own opportunities and says that government needs to find ways to support their ideas for new businesses. “PhDs leaving grad school who have interesting start up ideas…are really highly talented individuals…[We] should invest in them and give them a chance to develop their idea or product.” He adds that government needs to provide ways to allow entrepreneurs to fail, as he sees failing as an important learning opportunity and part of an entrepreneur’s development. He states, “…it’s not about investing in winners or losers, because no one can predict them; it’s about investing in a solid team and trying to develop those individuals.”
Gonzalez’s passion for the work he’s doing now is clear as he highlights that, “The most exciting part is to be able to create something, build it and watch it grow. I think that’s something you get a rush with. It’s like when we were in academia and you published your first paper. There’s nothing like launching a product and seeing people use it and comment on it. It’s a great experience.”
Asked where he sees his future, Gonzalez is quick to say that he’ll be doing more of what he’s currently doing stating that, “In five or ten years, I’d like to have launched five or ten companies because launching a company is probably the most fun thing you can do.”