You really can achieve great things when industry, academia work together

Work with us

As part of our ongoing series examining the ecosystem necessary to bring technology to market, we asked serial entrepreneur Jason Flick to share some of his insights. This is his next commentary and we welcome your feedback

By Jason Flick

According to Statistics Canada, expenditures by Canadian universities on research and development totaled $11 billion in 2009-2010, up about 0.8 percent from the year before. Spending by Canada’s top 100 R&D companies, meanwhile, fell 9.4 percent in 2010 to $9.4 billion. Compare that university R&D figure to total VC funding for Canadian companies in 2010, which was less than $1 billion.

If these numbers are a surprise to you then I hope I have your interest. What I will talk about here are the successful adventures I have had with my companies levering this vast pool of IP and perhaps suggest a way for you to see some alternate funding options for your venture.

In my last post, “Breaching academia’s ivory towers,” I spoke of the challenges a startup faces if it wants to work with universities. I was very pleased with the discussions that it started. My hope for that article was to help the two sides understand each other a bit better. And I say two sides as there is very little overlap of these two silos of $9 billion plus. Canadian schools have one of the highest rates of paper publishing as a percentage of GDP but relatively low monetization. So we know we are researching technically interesting and valuable stuff, we just need to do a better job of commercializing it.

Enabling informed consent

My first story is about a vision we had many years ago at Flick Software to put relevant multimedia content into peoples’ hands when and where they needed it. Our first customer back in 2003 was the Canadian Museum of Civilization, which helped us define and test a very early prototype.

Our challenge was that we had lots of technology but we lacked the ability to create the content and put it into a compelling interface. We also knew that a big part of this was usability – it had to be intuitive for every age group. Remember, this is way before the iPhone turned smartphones into something fun and easy to use.

Enter the University of Memphis and its Center for Multimedia Arts (CMA), led by Michael Schmidt. This match was made through one of our partners, Arius3D. Arius3D had also been working with the CMA on scanning objects in 3D, something it had acquired from the NRC, another large pool of IP in Canada where fantastic things are being created. (How one gets access to that pool is another blog post, one I couldn’t write but would love to read.)

Michael had a very appealing medical project that needed multimedia content enabling informed consent to be delivered to families when one of their children was undergoing cancer treatment. Flick Software saw an opportunity to give something back to a great cause as the project was linked to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. It also provided us with the opportunity to have a great user interface designed by an amazing team at the university. The CMA had some funding from The Greenwall Foundation, while we had a bit of IRAP and SR&ED funding. Together we built an amazing prototype. This project, in turn, led to two others that we worked on for museums and the aboriginal community.

The success factors here were of course the introduction from our partner, Arius3D, which shared board members with the university, and our patience in working through the complex timing and process of both their and our funding vehicles. Both sides had to move ahead with the project in hopes the funding would arrive – that leap of faith on both sides was key. In the end we had a world-class customer (St. Jude), and a much deeper knowledge of, and even templates for, what an innovative UI for a multimedia education system on a mobile device would look like.

The simple pleasure of surfing the Web

A little closer to home is a very cool project that we completed in 2009 with the University of Toronto and Tom Chau, associate professor in the field of biomedical engineering and senior researcher for the Bloorview Research Institute at the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital.

Tom had a vision that we believed in and the project allowed us to dig deeper into Bluetooth and the more radical uses of it. In this case, Tom called us and he was fortunate to have the MaRS Centre help him with many of the details. There was no funding in it for us but there was lots of flexibility on the IP and go-to-market, so we jumped.

As with the first story, we were found before the funding was secured and in this case before the fundraising had even started. This means that, from our perspective, nothing was happening for months at a time. Patience was key. One advantage of MaRS’ involvement was that it covered Tom’s costs, so we were sheltered from much of the funding work. As a benefit to Tom’s role at the hospital, we again had a great first customer.

Our project was to replace a large computer on a cart that was very expensive and hard to setup with a simple mobile device for surfing the Web; the initial audience was disabled children who might be bedridden for months. Tom brought the hardware skills to build a custom Bluetooth device for the child and we brought the communications and UI development.

One piece we lacked was a user interface that would allow a patient to surf the Web with a single wireless device. For this project it was assumed the patient had very limited use of their limbs, perhaps only able to make an elbow or chin movement. We already knew the great team over in Memphis at the CMA, so we contracted them to build a user interface for this device. They did a great job and in the end we saw four organizations rally to solve a very large technical challenge.

In hindsight

One failure of both projects was the lack of marketing and funding to bring the product to fruition – this is something I would like to hear from others about. Do you have any examples of projects you saw continue on?

These small, low-risk but tangible projects, where each party brings contacts, expertise and funding, is a critical first step to building this bridge between academia and business. I don’t believe enough of this is happening and that puts Canada (and the $9 billion plus silo) at a disadvantage to other countries where this is more common. Once we have more of this collaboration, the second challenge arises, and I look forward to having that problem – where we have so many companies doing so many working prototypes that the government sees enough of a need to step in with some kind of supporting program.

For example, I applaud CATA for the initiative it is taking to address Canada’s so-called “commercialization gap” and lobby the federal government to take action.

Here is what I have learned through these and other projects that were not so successful:

  • You need a third-party dating and funding assistance organization. The exception for this is large companies like IBM or Siemens, but, ironically, they do get lots of help and I can’t blame the universities for chasing the short-term money.
  • Both sides need patience and understanding. Be frank and open about why and how this project is being done and why each of you is participating in it. As you saw from my stories above, each organization had a different objective, but we were able to meet them all in harmony.
  • Work out what success looks like short-term and long-term early on in the project, discuss the potential for failure as well and how you determine that.
  • Ideally, you share the same vision and understand what committing to the project means. If you are doing this purely for money it can be hard to measure short-term success. Mix in marketing goals, community benefits and the learning your will gain.

Jason Flick is co-founder and president of YOUi Labs and Flick Software, a successful serial entrepreneur and product visionary. Jason has founded half a dozen companies in the past 18 years and is advisor and executive to nearly a dozen software companies. He is passionate about the disruption mobility has created and how businesses can lever it.


One Comment »
  • Andrew podgorski

    February 10, 2012 9:18 am

    Jason, I like your statements and summaries. I wonder if by mentioning Siemens, where I worked in 60 and 70’s, the requirement for; need, insiders vision, courage and planning therefore focused management is not mandatory for long term projects needed for flourishing science.

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