March 7, 2012 | by: Heather Boyd-Kinnie



07 MAR 2012 09:58PM

It was just a routine flight. But then Karina LeBlanc got talking to her “chatty” seatmate – a venture capitalist named Gregory Phipps, then connected with the Business Development Bank of Canada.

“Sometimes you tell people your life story on an airplane, despite the fact that you don’t know who they are,” recalls LeBlanc, the freshly appointed executive director of the University of New Brunswick’s Pond-Deshpande Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

LeBlanc spent part of that January 2002 flight outlining her background. She mentioned her chemical engineering degree from the University of Western Ontario and her MBA from York University. She also talked about her job at Procter & Gamble.

A few weeks later, Phipps (who now works at Nova Scotia’s Innovacorp) called LeBlanc. He was connected with a Fredericton startup called Mathis Instruments. The company, Phipps said, could use her blend of engineering and business knowledge.

“I was hesitant about leaving my Fortune 500, Toronto-based job for a startup in Fredericton,” LeBlanc recalls. “But he convinced me to do it. And I’m glad he did.

“It was probably one of the best decisions I ever made.”

LeBlanc, who grew up in Montreal and moved to Toronto as a teenager, packed up and headed to Fredericton. There she helped take Mathis Instruments (a company spun out of UNB) from concept to commercialization.

“That’s where I cut my teeth in the world of startups. It was my first experience in a very small organization,” she says.

Not all of LeBlanc’s ideas blossomed in the smaller environment. Some of her attempts at employing strategies from Procter & Gamble “fell flat,” she admits. Corporate ideas can’t always be layered directly on top of a startup’s foundation, she learned.

“We made lots of mistakes but we learned a lot of great things,” she says. “It was a great ride.”

LeBlanc’s next post, at Autism Pro, also stemmed from a conversation with Phipps.

She worked at the company, which developed software to help teachers work with autistic children, for six years. During that time, as director of business development, she helped Autism Pro raise more than $4 million.

Autism Pro was acquired by a California company in the fall of 2010.

The acquisition prompted LeBlanc to break out on her own as a consultant – helping new entrepreneurs and company founders raise cash and navigate the “potholes” encountered by early stage companies.

Now, as the initial executive director of the Pond-Deshpande Centre, LeBlanc is tasked with using her skills to reach a much larger group of entrepreneurs.

The recently launched centre is funded by a $5-million combined donation from New Brunswick’s godfather of tech – Gerry Pond – and U.S. tech titan Gururaj Deshpande. Both are UNB graduates.

“Karina is very well rounded and almost a perfect fit for what we were looking for,” Pond said in an interview.

“She has a technology background, she’s an engineer by training, she has an MBA, she has worked for Fortune 500 companies, and more importantly for us, she has a fairly rich startup experience.”

LeBlanc’s assignment at the Pond-Deshpande Centre is to cultivate innovation and entrepreneurship “at the grassroots level.”

That could include promoting entrepreneurship as a career option to high-school students, or pairing researchers with budding entrepreneurs.

“It’s about trying to make those magic matches between those with the ideas and those who have the ability to take them to market,” she explains.

LeBlanc will also encourage entrepreneurs to embrace potentially risky decisions, like she did in moving from Toronto to Fredericton.

“The question is: do you choose the scary path or do you stay with what’s more known? I’m glad I chose the scary path.

“It was a life-changing moment in all respects.”

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