Straddling academia and entrepreneurship

Jenna Marynowski, BAA Communications Committee Volunteer - 17 May 2023

Dr. Hollis Lai, ‘13 PhD(Education), ’18 MBA, is CEO of MGHL Partners and director of Innovation and Quality Improvement and associate professor in the University of Alberta’s School of Dentistry . He’s also a 2022 Edify Magazine Top 40 Under 40 alumni – and for good reason. Hollis’ career path has crossed many industries and roles, and today he straddles both academic and entrepreneurial worlds, driven by a desire for the great ideas found in academia to be applied in the real world.

BAA: What is your current role and how has your career evolved to where it is today?


My role is facilitating change and innovation through the use of systems and processes. My training was originally in psychometrics, but I gravitated toward the development of a process for generating test items. Ever since, I have been developing systems and processes across my workplace in hopes that it facilitates and improves learning.

My career evolved from applying my expertise in psychometrics to facilitating change in learning practices. It’s a skill I am ever learning and refining. My current roles in the university are associate professor and director of Innovation and Quality Improvement at the School of Dentistry. I also serve as the director of Learning Sciences in the MD program. I develop and maintain new systems and processes needed to enhance our learning and clinical environment in Medicine and Dentistry.

Outside of the university, I lead MGHL Partners, a company dedicated to bringing automatic item generation, a method and technology I developed with Dr. Mark Gierl in the Faculty of Education , to market. For the past 10 years, we worked with testing organizations worldwide to bring this technology into practice. I have also recently joined the board at Habitat for Humanity Edmonton.


You are both an academic and an entrepreneur. What is that like, and what synergies are there between these two worlds that some may not expect?

My focus in research has always been to apply what we know to improve how we operate. What I quickly realized during my graduate studies is that there are lots of great ideas in the literature, but whether they get adopted and how it gets adopted is an entirely different consideration. I find entrepreneurship exciting because I get to translate research into practice. But also, I find that

entrepreneurship provides a very hard proving ground for theories and concepts to meet practice. The challenges facing research are very much different than taking an idea and implementing it at scale.

However, they both require a lot of patience and planning.


BAA: You’ve had quite an interdisciplinary path — was that always your intention for your career path, or did you capitalize on it as your work experience started to expand?

I was always passionate and optimistic about seeing how something can be done differently and trying something new even if it will fail. To me, innovation is not about the greatness of an idea but how flexibly an idea can be applied and how quickly mistakes can be remedied. As a graduate student, I always gravitated toward internships in large companies to see how the ideas I learned in the classroom could be applied in real life. I was fortunate enough to have many who mentored and guided me. The path for interdisciplinary was difficult as few have walked the path, but I have always enjoyed learning new things and applying them in different contexts.


BAA: What led to your decision to pursue an MBA at the Alberta School of Business?

I have always wanted to know more about business and critical skills in the workplace, and the more I delved into the working environment both at the University and in other organizations, the more I felt I

needed more skills in this area. The Alberta School of Business offered a flexible part-time program that allowed me to pursue more training while I was doing other things. It really was an easy decision.


BAA: What was your time at the Alberta School of Business like, and what are some of your favourite memories?

As my program mostly took place at night, it was the diversity of experiences from the students that excited me. There was a wide array of talents when I went to class and I tried to learn as much as I could from them. From consultants and engineers, to leaders who run towns and family businesses, and even a scout for the Oilers. It was always fun to learn from the many perspectives throughout the course interactions.


BAA: Your work today is focused on translating new methods into practice — what tips do you have for others attempting to bring research into practice?

I was very fortunate to have many role models and mentors for me to emulate, ask them for advice, and learn from their approaches. This helped me in understanding the different skill sets needed when bringing research into practice. It’s always important to learn as much from many areas as you can, that way you have more techniques to adapt when you face challenges in bringing research to practice.

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