A brilliant solution to urban transportation woes

Commuting. It’s the bane of every city dweller’s life, whether you drive, take public transit, cycle or walk. And, it’s getting worse.

But, now, thanks to three University of Toronto graduates, the way we commute could soon change.

Phil Lam, Jonathan Lung and Torrin Gillen have developed an electric hybrid vehicle that combines the benefits of driving a car with all the good things that come from riding a bicycle.

The vehicle, which is battery operated, can be charged using the grid, the sun (there’s a solar panel on the vehicle’s roof) or by pedaling. The engine is fully programmable, which means it’s easy to adjust the pedal-to-engine power ratio to fit the driver’s circumstance – and makes the vehicle accessible to people with compromised motor function. And, it comes loaded with smart braking, speed control, anti-theft protection, fitness tracking and innovations that make it a connected vehicle.

But having a great idea and getting it to market requires two very different sets of skills. Lung (a computer scientist), Gillen (a mechanical engineer) and Lam are experts in their fields, but novices when it comes to starting a business. And they knew it.

“We definitely needed help with the business end of things,” says Lam.

So, they headed straight to the University of Toronto’s Impact Centre, an incubator they had heard good things about.

The vehicle’s circuit board.
The vehicle’s circuit board ensures smooth acceleration and deceleration, and safe regenerative braking.

Impact Centre puts students on the road to commercialization

The three-wheel urban vehicle parked on a trail in a park
The vehicle is an environmentally friendly alternative to cars, bicycles and public transportation.

The centre is the brainchild of Dr. Cynthia Goh, a professor with the Department of Chemistry, who wanted to help bring the benefits of science to the world by bridging the gap between academia and industry.

“Students are really in the best position to come up with innovations that benefit society,” says Goh, herself a serial entrepreneur with four successful companies under her belt. “The Impact Centre helps post-graduate science and engineering students with a solid idea by making sure they have all the resources they need to accelerate commercialization.”

And, they don’t need to be students at the University of Toronto; any student with an innovation that has a social benefit -- and the passion to see it launched – is welcome to apply. Among the students currently incubating companies at the centre are two from the Philippines.

For those who are accepted, there’s an intensive one-month workshop specifically geared to learning about how to start a successful tech-based company. Once the aspiring entrepreneurs have nailed the basics, the centre supplies them with work space, advice, mentoring, funding opportunities and connections – and, crucially, lets them retain their IP as long as they haven’t already received government funding to develop the idea.

Each year, the centre produces about 15 start-ups based on the results of scientific research, many of which now have sales and follow-on funding.

Lung has nothing but good things to say about the Impact Centre. “It’s been instrumental to our success so far,” he says. “We wouldn’t be where we are without the mentoring and connections the centre provides.”

The three young entrepreneurs are busy working on an advanced prototype and if all goes according to plan, Sojourn’s vehicle will be on the streets of Toronto within the year and into production in two years’ time.

Says Goh, who sees the vehicle as the way of the future, “I’m encouraging them to move it along quickly. I want one as soon as possible!”

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