Ryan Denomme, Class of 2010

When Ryan Denomme was in high school, deciding what to study in university, he had already reached a few important conclusions. He was interested in building things, solving problems and going to University of Waterloo.

While the university’s strong reputation for engineering excellence solidified his choice of institution, nanotechnology’s potential inspired him to choose the Nanotechnology Engineering program.

“It felt like nanotechnology would define the future of a lot of industries,” Ryan says. “I knew that I would be taking a risk, because nanotechnology wasn’t as established as the more traditional forms of engineering, but I was willing to take that risk to be part of something new.”

As the founder and CEO of Nicoya, a company that uses nanotechnology to help researchers more quickly and affordably understand and develop effective therapies and drugs for disease, Ryan is fulfilling his first-year goals.

He now supports the early stages of innovation, helping groundbreaking scientists find the clues they need to improve human life.

Co-op Opportunities

Besides helping innovative scientists, Ryan also supports NE students. Nicoya hires them for both full-time roles and co-op work terms, giving them access to the on-the-job experience that Ryan and his 2005 classmates had a more difficult time finding when the field of nanotechnology was in its earlier stages.

Ryan explains that the co-op requirement was a challenge for most of his first-year class when the NE program began: “Employers didn’t know about nanotechnology, and very few jobs aligned with our specific skillset.”

Ryan’s Co-op Work Term Employment History

  • Research Manager, SIMSLab
  • BioMEMS Researcher, University of Waterloo
  • Vacuum System and Thin Films Researcher, Intlvac
  • Microsystems Research Intern, École Polytechnique de Montréal
  • Quality Engineer, Dashwood Industries

“My first work term was not a ‘nano job,’ but I was happy to get something semi-relevant. And, while I was there, I gained an understanding of the basics behind concepts like lean manufacturing and Six Sigma. These were valuable skills that I wouldn’t have been taught in my undergrad NE degree, and I was happy to learn them on the job.”

By his second co-op term, Ryan set about making job opportunities for himself. He went on a personal research spree, looking at all of the companies and researchers that were involved with nanotechnology and considering how he might get involved.

He found himself an internship in microsystems research at École Polytechnique de Montréal. “At the time, taking that job felt like a big risk,” Ryan says. “I received only a cost-of-living stipend. That was hard, considering my many school expenses, but I hoped that the job experience would help me in the future. I learned a lot and was able to participate in a few publications that really boosted my prospects. Besides, I didn’t realize it, but in the process of looking for that co-op job, I was doing sales. I was selling myself – and those skills came in handy later on!”

After getting this experience, leveraging the Waterloo co-op program became much easier. In his final eight-month co-op term, Ryan worked as a researcher with Professor Patricia Nieva of Waterloo’s Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering.

Professor Nieva’s multi-disciplinary research group was investigating simple, cost-effective and reliable micro- and nano- technologies for advanced sensing that could be used in healthcare and the environment. Ryan liked the research group and enjoyed a lot of autonomy, which provided good opportunity to learn and progress his own project and career.

While pursuing his Master’s degree at Waterloo, Ryan evolved the lab-on-a-chip technology he had envisioned as a home diagnostic tool during his fourth-year Capstone Design project. He participated in the University’s Accelerator and Velocity programs, as well as the Communitech Rev sales accelerator program as he worked towards creating the product known as OpenSPR and developing the business that became Nicoya.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

Ryan had always wanted to own his own business. Growing up in a family of entrepreneurs, including his mom, dad, uncles and grandparents, helped him feel comfortable with the concept from an early age.

Even in high school, he was regularly running business ideas past his parents for feedback. But nothing ever took off. Nonetheless, his desire to create and his belief that his own business would provide him with some control over his own destiny drove him to return to the idea many times.

Ryan’s tenacity and drive were instrumental in Nicoya’s success. He remembers facing “constant and unexpected” hurdles during the

Ryan Denomme, speaking from behind a FedDev Ontario podium.
early days of his company. “The expected problems are easier to handle than you might think," he says with a laugh. “It’s the unexpected ones that cause the most trouble."

Ryan Denomme, Founder and CEO of Nicoya, speaking about FedDev Ontario's recent $2.57 million investment in Nicoya. 

For example, Ryan had assumed that he could follow the typical startup path of raising capital from venture capitalists to build his company. After a frustrating year of pitching his technology to investors, he determined that “it just wasn’t resonating with them.”

After deciding to change his focus to customers rather than investors, he built a prototype and an initial customer base. That made it easier to find investors. “The real path to success is usually a lot different and a lot less linear than the one that gets told publicly,” says Ryan.

In the process of solving his investment challenges, Ryan learned another valuable lesson: “As much as it’s important to have excellent products, a positive brand and solid financial metrics, business success is dependent on having the right people in the right jobs. It wasn’t immediately logical to me, perhaps in part because of my engineering mindset, but so much of the success of Nicoya is related to its people and their ability to communicate effectively.”

Lessons Learned

Ryan’s experiences in school influenced his career path and helped him navigate the many challenges associated with bringing novel technology to market. He observes that many of the hard lessons he learned in university prepared him to overcome the obstacles he faces in life after university.

Here are a few of his recommendations for NE students:

  1. Don’t be consumed with your homework. Make time to develop your skills and your network. Find your passion. You’ll need these to find a career that gives you a sense of accomplishment, which is the key to satisfaction.
  2. For your job to be more than just a paycheque, you need to have a passion for your work. Try to figure it out while you’re in school, because it will be harder to figure it out after graduation, when you won’t have the same amount of time or opportunity. Don’t be afraid to change your mind as you learn more about yourself.
  3. Take a risk, and don’t let a fear of failing stop you from trying new things. In order to grow as a person, you need to get out of your comfort zone. Pushing yourself to try new things can only lead to positive ends, whether you succeed or fail.
  4. Prioritize your own good health. I have learned that when I don’t take care of myself, I am less effective, take too long to make decisions and, sometimes, make poor decisions. Get enough sleep, exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet. These good habits can be hard to fit into long days when every hour matters, but they are crucial and they work to your advantage in the long run.