Turning University Research Into Riches

This post is an excerpt from an article published May 17, 2010 in the Ottawa Business Journal.

Every year, billions of dollars are spent in this country on university based R&D. How do we get more societal value from this investment? We must continue to support academic freedom but we also have to do a better job of achieving commercial benefits. Here are some things to consider.

Most inventions take a surprisingly long time to get broadly deployed. For example, many of the core technologies differentiating the iPhone were originally invented in the 1980s. The time from discovery to commercial success is frequently measured in decades. So, we shouldn’t demand commercial output today from the dollars we’ve just invested (which we tend to do). We should instead measure the commercial success of university research relative to the funds we invested twenty-five or so years ago.

One of the valuable outputs of university research activity is the highly qualified people who are trained in the process. While many remain in university to continue their work and teach the next generation, most of these highly qualified individuals find their way into industry. It isn’t easy to measure the value that these people bring to our economy but there is no doubt that this is one of the significant benefits we get from funding university research.

Intellectual Property
One barrier to commercialization of research is the varied intellectual property (IP) policies among universities. Most claim some right to all inventions made at the institution. Yet most Canadian university Industry Liaison Offices (ILOs) don’t actually make any money. The model isn’t working.

It sounds radical, but why not allow the inventor to own the IP outright? This has been shown to accelerate commercialization. It benefits Canada through the jobs and taxes generated. The university also benefits indirectly from the bounty of these successful ventures. Think about how the University of Waterloo (one of the few Canadian universities that have adopted this enlightened approach to IP) benefits from RIM, Open Text, DALSA and others.

To successfully commercialize university research, we must bridge the worlds of academia and industry through closer interaction. Recently, one of Canada’s leading research funders, NSERC, instituted a program that funds small industry-university collaboration projects with a view to closing the divide. This is especially valuable to innovative small and medium companies that don’t have the infrastructure to support formal university partnerships. Programs like this reduce the cultural barriers to successful commercialization.

Most business people would agree that studying the marketplace is essential before launching a new product. Of course, at the earliest stages of university-based discovery research, there actually is no market. As we get closer to the coal face of commercialization, rather than just pushing a new technology out the door, we need to study the market and listen to potential customers. Closer interaction with industry at this stage of research would help tremendously. So too would closer ties with business schools in the same universities.

We should be proud that Canada is among the world’s leaders in per capita investments in scientific research. Without impinging on academic freedom or constraining discovery-based research, we can take actions to ensure the fruits of this investment have a bigger impact on our economy.

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