Inspiring Entrepreneurship

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Emre Toker likes to talk about the “idea-to-reality funnel.” It’s a pleasant term for what often turns out to be an arduous process.

Toker, the CALES Mentor in Residence for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, said many people have big ideas—a plan to solve climate change, an invention to make them rich—but may lack the willingness to undertake the hard work and personal sacrifices to see the process all the way from scratch pad to reality.

“Ideas are a dime a dozen,” Toker said. “We all know people who started with ‘I have an idea’ and make it all the way to ‘I have become successful’, but the conversion from idea to success is actually about one in 1,000. The marketplace doesn’t care how nice a person you are; instead, it presents you with a relentless filtration process.”

Toker’s role with CALES is to help students, faculty and staff figure out how to navigate that process, to learn from and overcome inevitable setbacks along the way, and ultimately to turn their ideas into successes.

Anyone in CALES — or across the university — is free to work with Toker on taking an innovative idea from the lab to the marketplace. He can be reached at

Toker, founder of three successful biomedical start-ups and co-founder of several other software and environmental start-ups, was appointed to his current role by UArizona Vice President for the Division of Agriculture, Life and Veterinary Sciences, and Cooperative Extension and CALES Dean Dr. Shane Burgess. The position, based in CALES Research Administration, is funded by Burgess’ Charles-Sander Dean’s Chair Endowed Fund.

“Emre’s experience as a successful entrepreneur combined with his academic credentials make him an exceptional asset to CALES,” Burgess said. “Our primary goal is to provide students with the knowledge and skills to perform jobs that don’t yet exist: to be innovators and entrepreneurs. What better role model could our students have than Emre?”

Since joining CALES at the start of the 2018-19 academic year, Toker has partnered with Matt Mars, Associate Professor of Leadership and Innovation in the Department of Agricultural Education, Technology and Innovation, and Director of Faculty Engagement in the CALES Career Center to design and offer innovation and entrepreneurship courses, built online tools including a StartUp game and a Virtual Incubator, and collaborated with CALES faculty on grants to accelerate commercialization of their technology, and with Extension on rural economic development programs.

“Emre provides a unique opportunity for our students to gain a deeper understanding of how an entrepreneurial mindset can enhance their capacities to innovate and have impact regardless of what academic and professional paths they are on,” Mars said. “His guidance and mentorship is a powerful representation of CALES’ strategic pillar of preparing students who can do jobs that do not yet exist and create new jobs.”

Entrepreneurship a ‘way of life’

Toker, who grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, learned entrepreneurship principles at an early age. His father raised chickens and grew peaches and apples, and Emre and his older brother were expected to contribute to the family business. Toker’s first job was in sales.

“My dad used to send me out to sell eggs, to sell peaches, and you had to quickly learn to understand what people respond to when you’re selling something, because there were many others in that market selling essentially the same products,” Toker said. “The joke I tell students is that when I when I was 11, my dad sent me out to negotiate the price of eggs with our distributor. Luckily, the distributor sent his 9-year-old son, so I crushed him in the negotiations. But it was a way of life, this entrepreneurship, and standing on your own and doing the maximum that you could with what you had, because there were no excuses.”

Toker’s hard-earned experience in the Istanbul marketplace gave him street smarts—what are now called “soft skills”—such as knowing how to read a customer and sell to them accordingly, or simply to recognize a bad deal. “That’s the type of thing you can learn on the ground about entrepreneurship,” he said. “There’s a lot of gray areas, a lot of subtext.”

But Toker knew if he wanted to be a successful entrepreneur, his street smarts would be only part of the equation. He knew he’d also need expertise. He moved to the United States on a scholarship to continue his formal education, earning bachelor’s degrees from Reed College, Oregon (physics) and the California Institute of Technology (electrical engineering) before finishing his master’s in electrical engineering at the University of Arizona.

Toker began his professional entrepreneurial career—one that didn’t involve selling eggs and produce in the Istanbul market—in the 1990s. His first startup, based on his UA master’s thesis, was a Tucson-based biomedical device company that used first generation digital x-ray sensors for mammographic imaging. That original startup was bought seven years later by a large company, enabling Toker to start two other biomedical companies. One of those, Bioptics, eventually reached a valuation of $85 million, after several mergers and acquisitions.

“My master’s thesis really changed my life completely,” Toker said. “To go from scratch paper and models to a start-up, and to eventually build $85 million in value at the tail end, that was my experience converting everything I learned.”

Toker has also worked at Washington University (Missouri), Arizona State University, and UArizona’s McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship in teaching, entrepreneurship mentoring and management roles.

Guiding students, faculty toward innovation

His experience and education help him connect with UA students who may not fully understand how entrepreneurship and innovation will play a role in their careers, and faculty who are developing a product or idea and need guidance before stepping into the marketplace.

Toker’s first task often is to explain that entrepreneurship rarely, if ever, resembles the television show “Shark Tank,” where you simply show up with a product and hope a one-time pitch attracts a major investor. Instead, it is the “relentless filtration process” that involves time and setbacks before a breakthrough.

“You need enough self-confidence to keep going, and overcoming fear of failure,” Toker said. “Typically, 99 percent of entrepreneurial ideas are going to fail, but the idea is to fail fast, fail cheap, fail smart. The bottom line of what I teach is tenacity—what I learned when I had my idea but no money.”

Angus Donaldson, who is pursuing his master’s degree in agricultural education, said Toker’s classes have helped him develop a deeper understanding of entrepreneurship and problem-solving.

“Emre helped us see that an entrepreneurial mindset allows individuals to think innovatively to find solutions to problems in many different settings,” Donaldson said. “He also helped us understand that it is not so much about being perfect the first time, but being ready to learn from each attempt or failure, and then you can try again to create a solution that better addresses the issue. His teaching methods were challenging in the best way.”

Joel Badzinski
CALES Administration