Daria Venkova, BSc’18, MBT’19
By Deb Cummings
It may have been the childhood spent in Siberia, or the 50 steers she bought on a whim, or the songs she’s composed and sang at local coffee shops.
Then again, it could have been the math sessions she taught for Renert’s after-school program or her time volunteering at the South Health Campus Hospital.
Whatever the influence, this year’s Arch Award recipient in the Early Career Achievement category is most definitely a polymath.
However you combine these eclectic experiences, you’re left with one talented upstart — Daria Venkova, BSc’18, MBT’19, the CEO of Creative Protein Solutions (CPS), a platform diagnostic company that detects diseases across many animal groups. Perhaps life in Siberia next to the Ob River or raising all those steers or the week she spent milking cows at a dairy farm in Ponoka did, actually, pay off?
Of course, it requires much more than this to become a CEO at the age of 24. While completing her master’s degree in biomedical technologies, Venkova began working with the founder of CPS to help the company develop a business model. It was at this point that Venkova stepped up to the podium and began representing the company during pitch competitions, where she became an instant star.
Fun fact: Venkova recorded her first original song at the age of 15 while working with vocal coach Tamara Beatty, now employed on The Voice. Could the lack of stage fright have something to do with all the performing and singing she has done (and continues to do) since she began taking voice lessons at the age of 10?
“I think so,” says the fan of Shania Twain, Whitney Houston, Chelsea Wolfe and PJ Harvey. “I find pitching and performing very similar . . . you’re given a short period of time to connect with as many people as possible with your voice, with your body language and with your message. Once you have that confidence down, you can focus on delivering an authentic message and share an intimate moment with your audience.
“Whether it’s performing songs about life and heartbreak, or delivering a strong message about our business to investors, people ended up in my audience for a reason, and I believe that reason is to try to find a real human connection.”
It’s this natural ability to perform and connect with an audience that propelled Venkova into the competitive arena of UCalgary’s Creative Destruction Lab Rockies (CDL-Rockies is an accelerator for technology startups) where she excelled as an enthusiastic, fledgling entrepreneur. As well as impressing investors at CDL-Rockies, Venkova’s orbit kept expanding as she went on to win other pitch competitions, including a five-week entrepreneurship-training program at Draper University in Silicon Valley.
It was during this globally recognized crash course on entrepreneurship, points out nominator/adjunct professor Dr. Fred Jacques, PhD’02, that this high-tech superstar landed third place in a pitch competition, attracting a whopping US$100,000 investment offer from the Draper University Ventures Fund.
“Whether it’s meeting potential investors, strategic partners, industry experts or customers, Daria knows how to find a common ground by being well-prepared to develop a long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationship,” adds CPS founder and Faculty of Veterinary Medicine professor Dr. Jeroen De Buck, PhD. “Her personable attitude has contributed to CPS’s trusted reputation in the biotech and startup communities across Alberta and beyond.”
Venkova is quick to point out that her career path has been anything but linear. As a bioscience undergrad, Venkova’s aspirations were to become a plastic surgeon. “In fact, every day on the train from home from the university, I would watch live streams of surgeries on my phone,” she admits. “That’s how I learned about the new methods and technologies that has helped surgeons evolve their practices.”
Not abandoning that dream, Venkova reckoned a one-year Master of Biomedical Technology degree would be a brief detour, grounding her with a stronger foundation in biotechnological advancements.
“I had no idea that this master’s program would set me up for an entirely different career path,” she laughs, adding that, “despite the obstacles and curveballs, the more I am in this position at CPS, the more I feel that this is exactly what I was meant to do.”
Swerving from original career plans is common for entrepreneurial heavyweights, even those as young as Venkova, a fan of Three Comrades by Erich Maria Remarque, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and O. Henry’s short stories, who maintains she has learned many life lessons due to that directional shift.
When asked for three top lessons she gleaned while being a student, Venkova says lesson No. 1 was, “Teamwork makes the dream work. As students, we often despise in-class team assignments, but those skills are critical in the real world.” The second critical lesson was,
Make time for what matters . . . the vision may not be clear when you’re stuck in the routine of it all, but I am now grateful for the hours I spent studying as the hard work does pay off.
(She admits one vice that got her through so many all-night study blitzes was Diet Coke, “My guilty ‘guilt-free’ pleasure.”)
As for her third lesson, Venkova says, “Don’t give up on your hobbies. Today, my singing is something that sets me apart and has grown into a talent that I am pursuing professionally. It has also taught me a lot about people in general, and public speaking — both of which are highly transferrable skills to all other aspects of my life today.”
Listen to Venkova’s lyrics and you’ll discover characters that are dying of longing for some sort of payoff. Some of her lyrics may put a lump in your throat, but lean in and you’ll hear a theme of infectious optimism, of never surrendering, that keeps on being repeated. It’s Venkova’s motto, one that she lives by, that, no matter the stage she finds herself on, “Every day is a new opportunity to do better.”
Mention the word “stage” and one of her MBT instructors, Fred Jacques, grins as he recalls the only master’s student who, “amongst the competing pressures of studying, research and life,” ever invited him to view her music video on YouTube.
“For the record,” he says, “it was a stunning performance!”