Initiatives aimed at unleashing more innovation at universities

A recently released Council of Canadian Academies report takes a critical look at our country’s record in invention, technological innovation and value creation.

Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada concludes that Canada’s biggest problems lie in the translation of innovation into value creation – mainly in the scaling up of Canadian technology companies to create knowledge-economy jobs.

Although it’s clear we have difficulty scaling technology companies and retaining them in Canada, trying to fix this problem by focusing solely on scaling companies post-innovation would be misguided.

Instead, it’s crucial that we consider the latent innovation potential of our universities. With corporate research labs moving away from basic research, universities are increasingly becoming the initiators of the breakthrough inventions that can address pressing global challenges such as mitigating climate change, curing disease, providing clean and abundant water and improving the lives of those with chronic illness.

At Simon Fraser University (SFU), for example, academic researchers and engineers conduct basic and applied research tackling all of these challenges, and are world-leading inventors in some. One notable example is the invention of Aemion – a next-generation ion-exchange membrane that dramatically improves the cost and performance of clean energy generation, energy storage, and water treatment. Such radical innovation, when strategically commercialized, is of precisely the type that can create value through job creation, benefits to society and global exports.

Great opportunities, however, also come with significant risk and uncertainty. Part of the risk surrounding radical innovation is connected to the notoriously long timelines from invention to practical application, starting with academic publication and lasting until the first product has entered the market. Canadian CEOs have consistently identified risk and uncertainty as their predominant barrier to innovation.

Another challenge relates to the misalignment of incentives for academic scientists to commercialize their lab inventions. For example, if you are a biology professor at a Canadian university with a breakthrough invention, especially where the university owns the intellectual property, the incentives for patenting and for starting a company are too small. This can be exacerbated when university intellectual property and commercialization policies do not align with the provincial or federal goals in fostering our knowledge-based economy.

Even when willing, our academic scientists have typically had very little guidance on how to give their inventions the best chance of successful commercialization.

The good news is that initiatives are underway to look more holistically at our innovation ecosystems, including consideration of the idea of making patent costs eligible for government grants, and better aligning innovation policy incentives at the university, regional and national levels.

Meanwhile, a few Canadian universities are experimenting with teaching graduate scientists and engineers how to match their breakthrough inventions to unmet market needs, how to prioritize target applications, what they can do to increase chances of successful new product development, how to manage under conditions of uncertainty and how to scale their venture. Monitoring such natural experiments will provide us with an excellent opportunity to assess and adopt the best ways to unleash the potential for radical innovation in Canadian universities.

At SFU, we’re particularly proud of our Invention to Innovation (i2I) entrepreneurship program. It is designed to provide research scientists and engineers with the theory, frameworks and skills with which to commercialize their inventions and to contribute to new product development in established firms. The school’s i2I graduates are taking on influential business development and product development roles for incumbent firms such as Stemcell Technologies and Avalon Battery, or are founding their own ventures to commercialize their breakthrough inventions. An exemplar is the SFU chemistry spinoff venture Ionomr, which recently won a prestigious global energy competition for ventures addressing climate change through innovation.

The latent innovation potential represented by our university inventors is substantial. Aligning incentives for radical innovation at the levels of the scientist-entrepreneur, the university and regional and national governments will position more science-based university spinoffs for scalable growth. Giving potential scientist-entrepreneurs the tools to commercialize breakthrough inventions will transform our innovation ecosystem, driving job growth in the knowledge economy. 

Elicia Maine is a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business.