Alvin (Shaochen) Xu is the stuff entrepreneurs are made of.
Still in his ’20s, facing a multitude of challenges, he continues to grow his promising new technology-based company AltaCarbon Inc. step by step.
The young man, a University of Alberta graduate in 2012, is working several jobs, looking for investors, looking for lab space, doing whatever it takes to commercialize a patented process AltaCarbon has licensed from the University of Alberta. The laboratory-proven process turns coke, an oil-sands near-waste petroleum byproduct, into value-added activated carbon.
Alvin stumbled upon the project as a student.
“I was taking a U of A business course on writing business plans,” he says. “The assignment was for teams of students in the class to find an idea for a business, and write a business plan around it.”
One of Alvin’s team members was Heng Chen, a master’s student who, in the laboratory with Professor Zaher Hashisho, had invented a way of turning coke into activated carbon using microwaves.
“We went with Chen’s idea for our business plan. It was real, tangible. We came up with a name. Then our business professor suggested we enter the business plan in TEC Edmonton’s TEC Venture Prize student business plan competition.
“We won! Which wasn’t surprising because Heng had a viable process. We thought it could be competitive. We had a realistic business plan.”
Alvin had always been interested in business. “I attended a weekend Startup School taught by Michael Sikorsky,” he says. “It broadened my horizons and open me up to the world of entrepreneurship. I realized AltaCarbon could be a real business opportunity.”
The team negotiated with the University of Alberta, through TEC Edmonton, to acquire a license to use the patented technology. “It involved,” says Alvin, “a lot of negotiation.”
TEC Edmonton Technology Manager Darrell Petras says the AltaCarbon licensing deal was unique. “It’s an interesting technology. A student initiative has evolved into an Edmonton-based company, using made-in-Edmonton patented technology.”
Meanwhile Alvin’s team lost members. The original six were down to four when AltaCarbon won the TEC Student VenturePrize Competition. Two more members disengaged from AltaCarbon upon graduation. “It was down to Heng and I,” says Alvin. “When we both graduated, Heng decided to pursue his career.”
AltaCarbon was down to one. But Alvin’s middle name is persistence. “I brought on a business advisor. I was working full-time but I doing market research and financial projections for AltaCarbon.”
AltaCarbon, still not ramped up, kept winning business prizes, like Entrepreneurship@UAlberta’s inaugural Triffo Prize in Innovation in March of 2014, and, more recently, a $7,500 prize from the Energy New Venture Competition held in early 2015 at the University of Calgary.
So where is Xu at now? He has a new partner, third year University of Alberta engineering student Geoffrey Bekavac. His market research is positive. He’s hanging in with this project.
Xu is now looking for a laboratory with the equipment and the interest to scale up AltaCarbon’s manufacturing process. “Our goal is to scale up from making grams of activated carbon at a time, to kilograms.
“As we go along, I’m more and more of a believer. We can produce good activated carbon at a lower price point than the competition. And there are other possible applications for this technology.”
A kid full of dreams, or a determined entrepreneur who’ll climb Mount Everest, if need be, to make those dreams comes true?
“Certainly I didn’t anticipate all this waiting time,” says Alvin. “Even if it doesn’t work out, the learning experience has been enormous. What I’ve mostly learned is you often have to do things not by the book … if you want to get things done.”