Universities finding new ways to help tech business

tech%20transfer%20illust200X200.jpgThe university technology transfer model is undergoing significant changes. The message is clear for resource-limited tech companies: take another look at what universities are doing.

By James Bowen
From SCAN's Print Edition

Entrepreneurs are experts at getting blood from a stone. With money tight, companies are still managing to find resources. Universities have long been a source of intellectual property (IP) for the tech industry but now they are a source of much more. Tech transfer from lab to corporate balance sheet is an evolving business model worth looking at.

At the root of tech transfer is the question of who owns the IP that a researcher generates: the researcher or the university? For 50 years, the University of Waterloo’s IP ownership policy has been simple, “you make it, you own it,” according to Dr. Tom Corr associate vice president, commercialization of the university’s Office of Research.

Dr. Corr believes that this policy “attracts researchers who are commercially oriented” to the university. Waterloo’s tech transfer office provides services to the scientists by chasing and defending patents, developing business plans and negotiating with potential licencees. But he emphasizes that it’s an “option” whether the inventor uses the tech transfer office. Once involved, the university expects to receive “25% of whatever comes.” No upfront fees, just a chunk of any success.

Getting tech to market takes more than developing business plans. “We can’t just push it out the door,” says Dr. Corr. So a corporate accelerator, located on campus, brings together entrepreneurs with mentors and investment.
Forming a network of connections and services around IP is common practice across the transfer landscape. Carleton University has a complex accelerator program called the Foundry. Along with other services, it provides ventures with 10K in ‘startup dollars’ – a relatively small part in cash, but multiplied by the in-kind support of the Foundry’s infrastructure and mentors. The Foundry also brings students and investors together for its annual $20,000 technology venture challenge.

Moving a piece of IP into the market is not a mass production job. Each piece of IP is different and requires a direct sales model, says Dr. Corr. Each new idea needs a product manager who has the contacts in industry to know where to take the IP. For Dr. Corr, this means that the tech transfer office needs to build a “reputation that gets industry looking to them for ideas.”

He says that moving IP to the market means getting industry involved as early as possible, identifying opportunities and shaping IP into something viable.

This understanding is shared by Luc Lalande, director of Carleton U’s Innovation Transfer Office. The Foundry program is about getting involved in the early stages of IP development. It’s a process of “researching companies in the market space, identifying the gap between commercial and research and getting consortiums to share risk,” he says, leading to a shaping of research results and long term relationships. It begins long before the research is ready to go out the door.

Joe Irvine, director of the Technology Transfer & Business Enterprise office at the University of Ottawa, has the office actively seeking out industry partnerships for collaborative research. This model brings in industry in the early stage and works with the researcher to make results happen.

Given such a model, it’s difficult to measure the success of tech transfer offices. “Don’t just look to patents or ready-baked IP,” says Mr. Lalande, “[nor a count of] companies started and patents obtained.”

Dr. Corr figures that about 50% of uWaterloo’s IP goes out to market without the involvement of his office. And some inventions aren’t unique or viable as a business, so measuring results is a slippery business. But the university’s goals are broader and include stimulating local economic activity by getting graduates to stay in the Waterloo region, creating wealth in the area.

According to Mr. Lalande, “soft” measures can also be used to gauge success. Rather than just counting a program’s IP inventory, it is important to also look at the number of students who find jobs with local companies and the knowledge transfer that takes place. Looking ahead, he sees an increased emphasis on students at the Foundry, and getting their ideas out to the market. “Students always have ideas and we need to use them too, even if the research isn’t done at the university. Not tech transfer but knowledge transfer. Focus on talent rather than issued patents … to create businesses. We need more focus on how to appropriate research.”

The major issue today for tech transfer offices is connecting to other institutions. The Ottawa Technology Transfer Network (OTTN) is part of a larger network involving Kingston. It looks to bring together opportunities and money with pan-regional possibilities. With an emphasis on student involvement, it links together nine IP generating institutes in Ottawa and five in Kingston, with uOttawa and Queen’s University as the network’s pillars. OTTN has a dual focus on tech transfer and seed funding. The latter comes through the Eastern Ontario Proof-of-Principle fund. EO-PoP funding from Queen’s Park is being used to accelerate research discoveries toward commercial applications and promote the engagement of the business community.

John Molloy, president & CEO of PARTEQ Innovations at Queen’s, has a clear goal for the centre: to “build the infrastructure into one of the largest in the country.” He says that PARTEQ “has the need to develop pipelines beyond Queens” and envisions the accelerator providing commercialization services to other universities and private companies in Canada and beyond, allowing outside organizations to outsource commercialization of technologies to PARTEQ. To do so, he says, PARTEQ is “evolving to (encompass) the whole area of commercialization … the tentacles have started to spread.” The tentacles at PARTEQ are spreading in China, where Mr. Molloy is looking to get the North American rights to commercialize Chinese IP. Simply, he wants to “source deal flow,” regardless of where it comes from. Within five years, “the business of tech transfer will evolve.” says Mr. Molloy, with centres such as PARTEQ providing infrastructure and other universities networking into it. “No one has the critical mass in research to do it all ... networking will be critical.” In the future, expect centres to become more specialized, like PARTEQ, which is already heading in the direction of “green” chemistry and has its own venture capital investment funds.

At York University, Dr. David Phipps, director, office of research services, has also wrestled with the “producer push model … linear process” approach to achieving commercialization. And while he still supports the model, Dr. Phipps also recognizes the need to get industry involved earlier in the process and is attacking the matter on two fronts: getting industry sponsored research into the university and getting personnel exchanges between industry and university scientists for “knowledge mobilization.” Dr. Phipps calls this initiative “Innovation York.” But he has not forgotten the role of getting students “working in a market-driven space to transfer knowledge.”

Dr. Tim McTiernan, executive director and assistant VP, research, at the University of Toronto’s The Innovations Group, says the centre is “in the middle of an evolution.” The first step towards a new direction was to “remove the impediments” for the researcher to use the commercialization office including reducing fees. The second step was teaming with the Toronto-based MaRS Discovery District. Recently MaRS received $15 million to fund research and commercialization of IP, particularly in life and physical sciences and IT. The centre is one of 11 new federally-funded Centres of Excellence across Canada. U of T’s alliance with the new MaRS centre promises a major alignment of the U of T’s capability within the broader network.

But Dr. McTiernan isn’t finished there. His next step is to bring students and their innovations into the system, to create a “more entrepreneurial culture within the university while not compromising academic integrity.”

The university technology transfer model is undergoing significant changes. The message is clear for resource-limited tech companies: take another look at what universities are doing.
James Bowen, PhD, PMP, CMC is an Ottawa technology entrepreneur and adjunct professor at uOttawa’s Telfer School of Management.

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