Commercialization forum seeks best models, practices for exploiting publicly funded research

Guest Contributor
April 18, 2011

Canadian-led initiative

A new Canadian-based organization dedicated to improving the outcomes of publicly funded research by drawing on models from around the world, held its inaugural meeting in Ottawa in late March attracted nearly 50 founding members from 18 countries — a number that's expected to double within a year. The International Commercialization Alliance's (ICA) founding members — about half of which are Canadian — signed a formal declaration of intent and selected the first of several proposed "global community projects" to promote the exemplary practices of intermediary organizations situated between research and the marketplace.

The drive to establish the ICA was led by Mario Thomas, senior VP of the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) and managing director for the Centre for the Commercialization of Research (CCR), an OCE-led organization funded through the Networks of Centres of Excellence's Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research (CECR) program.

"Since we created CCR, we have had visitors nearly every other month to learn about the model we use and how we measure outcomes. About a year and a half ago, I became interested in looking at what other organizations do for the commercialization of research outcomes," says Thomas. "Countries are spending billions of dollars on public research with little trickling out in terms of prosperity."

Prior to the inaugural meeting, the CCR identified 140 organizations globally that are active commercializing publicly funded research and carried out a survey to determine what they do best. That led to an explosion in interest in Canada and abroad, prompting a decision to organize a forum to share best practices and models. CEO and VPs from about 85 organizations attended in what Thomas describes a world-first. He and his staff conducted an environmental scan and could not find any instances of an international gathering involving commercialization experts.

The forum had a dual objective of determining which commercialization methods work and which don't and gathering empirical evidence to learn why certain models are successful beyond single case studies. Participants discussed such issues as identifying regional practices that can be applied universally, the role of intermediary organizations in assisting start-ups in securing their first customers, building seed funds and examining so-called "out of the box" models that may provide breakthroughs in current practice. Proceedings of the two-day event are currently being generated and will be released publicly in mid-May.

"The term innovation intermediary was widely used at the forum and this is the first time I've attended a forum where this was the focus and dominated its thought processes," says forum participant Dr Brian Barge, president and CEO of The Evidence Network (TEN) and former head of both the Alberta Research Council and CMC Microsystems. "By virtue of this forum, Canada has the potential to get a leg up in this area."

Barge, whose company assesses organizations in the innovation intermediary space, says the recognition of this class of innovation organization is a welcome development after years in which universities have been the dominant focus.

"There's been much effort to make universities commercially relevant often at the expense of its core missions. We need to be cautious as there's a limited pool of money that gets spent at universities. If it's directed towards the commercialization space, that money comes from research and then we won't have the knowledge assets we need to move forward," he says. "I'm delighted that, with the ICA, we can shift some focus from universities to important innovation intermediary organizations whose job it is to facilitate the success of companies."

Following the signing of the declaration of intent, a board was established (headed by Thomas) that met for the first time via teleconference to discuss governance structure, legal status (ICA will be a not-for-profit organization) and procedures for recruiting more members. Further down the road, the ICA will determine how it can generate revenue either by setting fees or seeking grant funding to conduct global projects and undertake further meetings, which will be held on an annual basis.

"There's great satisfaction for me that maybe we are filling a vacuum," says Thomas. "It's exciting because when you have a hint or insight, this alliance allows you to discovery whether those insights are accurate or not."

ICA's global projects are intended to zero in on which models and practices are most effective in successful commercialization. The first project will focus on the Commercialisation BluePrint, a free, open source, on-line tool used as a guide through the commercialization process. Created by the Australian Institute for Commercialisation (AIC), Thomas says the AIC is doing things very differently and is creating tools "that we have not seen elsewhere. They're taking a different focus and being very creative".

In addition to AIC, Thomas points to Exploit Technologies, the marketing and commercialization arm of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) Singapore, as a model worth examining. Singapore was second in a recently released ranking of technologically prepared nations, following top-ranked Sweden and followed by Finland, Switzerland and the US. The report was prepared by the World Economic Forum.

While the dates for the next forum are still being nailed down, it was agreed that Ontario will once again host the event, underscoring the leadership role OCE and CCR are playing in its formation and future growth. By 2012, it's expected the membership will swell to more than 150, with new members coming primarily from outside Canada.

"We want to keep a close eye on our baby until it can walk to school alone. By the third or fourth meeting we'll probably hold it in another country," says Thomas.

Thomas says that while CCR is developing a robust methodology for commercializing research, it is willing to learn from others as well as organizations like TEN which has conducted two assessments of CCR in the past two years.

"CCR was created two years ago with a blank page and leveraged OCE expertise and provincial ecosystems to create a model we believe is efficient," says Thomas. "The first TEN survey established a baseline in which we stack up quite well. CCR is continuously improving upon its model and we're now preparing a revised business plan."

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