U of T Engineering startup, Amber Molecular Inc., recently closed their $5 million Series A fundraising round, led by Silicon Valley based Phoenix Venture Partners LLC. Amber Molecular is commercializing new materials for use in the OLED displays used in smartphones, TVs, wearables and VR headsets. The co-founding team of Professor Tim Bender (ChemE), Richard Garner (ChemE MASc 1T7), Trevor Plint (ChemE PhD 1T7) and James Stuart (Rotman, MBA), started Amber Molecular in the Fall of 2017 with the dream of taking an exciting laboratory result into the real world.
The story of Amber Molecular begins in the Wallberg Memorial Building, under the direction of Professor Tim Bender. Bender left Xerox Research Corporation to join U of T in 2006, with the ambition of joining the creative potential of a university research lab with the focus and pragmatism of an industrial product development team. The Bender Lab is internationally recognized for its development of new materials for energy and light-based applications, with a strict focus on green and scalable chemistry.
The spark for Amber Molecular came in 2017, when graduate students Trevor Plint and Richard Garner were approaching the completion of their graduate work on light sensitive materials. Both students held entrepreneurial ambitions stretching back many years; Garner had worked as a co-op student with biotech startups Spartan Biosciences and Epocal, and Plint had previously helped cofound an early stage financial tech startup. The discovery of a new family of light emitting materials with disruptive potential set the wheels in motion for Amber Molecular.
Although Bender, Garner and Plint brought a formidable array of technical skills to the table, when it came to business operations and strategy, the team had much ground to gain in a hurry. Enter James Stuart (Rotman MBA 2016). Stuart met the team while working at U of T Engineering incubator, The Entrepreneurship Hatchery, as the LaunchLab program lead. Stuart moved on to become the business backbone to Amber Molecular’s technical muscle. Stuart’s background in manufacturing-focused startups meshed well with the need for a lean, customer-focused business-to-business pathway to market.
As a team in the LaunchLab, Amber Molecular was put through a year of exercises and projects guided by their advisory board, which brought together a range of industry and business professionals. Although challenging, these tasks helped shape the original loose collection of ideas into a series of increasingly focused business plans. After a “Startup Defense” in front of a panel of Toronto-based investors, Amber Molecular was approved for ongoing advisory and financial support, which was crucial to its early development.
Over the course of 2018 and 2019, the Amber Molecular team took the technology developed in The Bender Lab, and the business ideas learned at The Hatchery, and put them to the test. From the floor of trade shows, to pitch presentations at technology investment firms, to boardroom meetings with senior industry executives, the team continued refining the business plan, eliminating faulty ideas and adding new knowledge until they had a viable path to market.
In early 2019, the Amber Molecular team came to the attention of Phoenix Venture Partners LLC (PVP). Based in the heart of Silicon Valley, PVP has a long history of investing in materials science ventures, including biotech, nanotechnology and semiconductor startups. The leadership team at PVP brought a unique combination of business acumen and scientific expertise, which allowed them to evaluate the goals and technical position of Amber Molecular. The journey from research project to business plan under the microscope of seasoned investors was long and winding, but as the motto of the team puts it: “ambitious, but not unreasonable.”
With the conclusion of the Series A fundraising round, the Amber Molecular team turns to the next chapter of commercialization. Supported by the U of T entrepreneurship ecosystem, and with the help of MaRS Venture Services, their current goals include the recruitment of chemists, chemical engineers and device engineers from Ontario’s well of world-class talent and the expansion of their technical capabilities to fulfill specific industry needs.
With their success, the Amber Molecular team highlights the broad capabilities of University of Toronto graduates and faculty from the Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry and the Rotman School of Management, and demonstrates the University’s critical role in the growth of innovative new businesses and industries in Canada.