This is the 28th article in a continuing series that examines the state of the ecosystem necessary to successfully bring technology to market. Based on dozens of interviews with entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, angel investors, business leaders, academics, tech-transfer experts and policy makers, this series looks at what is working and what can be improved in the go-to-market ecosystem in the United States, Canada and Britain. We invite your feedback.
Last week we aired a laundry list of challenges that hinder the commercialization of university IP in Canada. Several of our readers weighed in with their thoughts on Canada’s challenge to fully exploit its global reputation for cutting edge innovation.
How does Canada fall short? Let’s recap the ways:
- The lack of a Canadian equivalent to the U.S. Bayh–Dole, or Patent and Trademark Law Amendments, Act, to ensure researchers maintain control of intellectual property they create in a university lab.
- A lack of will at the federal level to create such an act.
- Poor coordination and engagement between innovators of technology and those with the entrepreneurial chops to validate its commercial potential and get it to market.
- A shortage of experienced entrepreneurs who are willing to play this role of tech transfer champion.
- A lack of access to seed capital from investors with a healthy appetite for risk without having to pull up stakes and head south of the border.
- A reliance on government-led initiatives where bureaucratic influence often breeds a reluctance to pick winners.
So who needs to step up and how?
Entrepreneurs must provide leadership to government
“(Federal politicians) just don’t understand the tech community, how can we look to them?” he said. “That policy needs to be there, but we don’t get there by lobbying the government.”
Instead, what interests him is looking at what initiatives are being undertaken at a more local level by municipal governments and other regional stakeholders. It’s about a community pulling together and going out to find what it needs. He applauded Windsor’s efforts to revitalize its idle auto plants by taking advantage of Ontario’s lucrative green energy program to attract green manufacturers (notwithstanding how pre-election rhetoric between Ontario’s ruling Liberals and rival Progressive Conservatives has put a few bumps in that road).
Waterloo is another great example, as readers of this blog will be well aware from our recent profile of the region’s Accelerator Centre. For Valentine, it all boils down to creating success stories that will provide inspiration for other regions and provide government decision makers with insight into how they can best play a supportive role.
“You have to forcibly will the community into existence,” he said, adding that “serial entrepreneurship is key … it is an entrepreneurial problem that has to be solved by entrepreneurs.” People who have been successful need to stay in their community, reinvest in the community and provide the leadership, the focal point, that will bring together all stakeholders, from post-secondary schools, the private sector and various levels of government, and get them pulling in the same direction.
Mario Kasapi, director at UBC Research Enterprises and associate director of the University of British Columbia’s University-Industry Liaison Office, is quick to credit the federal government for reacting to the needs of the market and providing more support for commercialization. Examples include NSERC’s Idea to Innovation program and the Canadian Institute of Health Research’s Proof of Principle program. Both are multi-phase grant programs intended to help commercialize university research and establish industry partnerships that came as a result of a collective cry for help from university tech transfer offices.
“These filled in a very crucial gap created when the angel investors pulled out,” Kasapi said.
British Columbia’s example
But it takes much more than a tactical government grant program that’s only around for a few years to get tech to market. It takes a community of stakeholders who are willing to collaborate rather than compete and create those linkages between the lab and the marketplace.
entrepreneurship@UBC is one such effort, led by UBC’s Sauder School of Business, its faculties of science and applied science and the University Industry Liaison Office. It’s also supported by the Faculty of Arts and all the student entrepreneurship clubs on campus. To address the funding gap, it includes a $10 million venture fund created through donations from alumni and the BC Innovation Council. The initiative is also relying on its alumni network and relationships with the business communities in Vancouver and the Okanagan, as well as area technology incubators, to provide a strong roster of mentors.
“It’s a deliberate strategy to try and create value in B.C.,” said David Mayes, a local entrepreneur and founding partner of international business development firm Global Internet Group in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The initiative is the result of various stakeholders in the region coming together and asking some hard questions about why B.C. hasn’t done a better job of creating value, Mayes said.
But with such a mix of public and private sector stakeholders, the challenge will be to maintain an entrepreneurial, rather than bureaucratic, vision where the emphasis is on choosing winners rather than serving all comers. As we quoted Mayes last week, the goal must be on creating success stories because “success breeds success.”
For Kasapi, who has seen the process of commercialization delayed for up two years by the search for the business talent who can get a great idea to market, dogged persistence is key.
“We have to be much better than our U.S. counterparts in our jobs,” he said. “We have to be a lot smarter and work a lot harder.”
Where do the students fit into all of this? Next week, we take a look at the Institute for Optical Sciences at the University of Toronto.