From intangible assets to concrete results

Tim Lougheed
May 17, 2023

As the W.J. VanDusen Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship and Associate Vice-President, Knowledge Mobilization and Innovation at Simon Fraser University, Elicia Maine has had a front-row seat for that institution’s ambitious efforts to bridge the gaps that often separate promising research from effective commercial applications. After speaking on this topic at this year’s Research Money conference, she answered some questions about how to address this ongoing challenge.

Research-intensive university campuses are the spawning grounds for all kinds of talent and knowledge, which should add momentum to Canada’s innovation aspirations. What needs to happen on those campuses to turn those aspirations into the competitive enterprises Canadians want to see?

We have this incredible bounty of intangible assets. They take the form of people — scholars who are recognized around the world. They also take the form of patents, which are not yet linked to a company. We need to focus them. We need grants and programs, as well as entrepreneurship and innovation training, that focus those intangible assets, to allow them to become the building blocks of innovation, for new companies and for existing companies.

More of this STEM research talent needs to be trained in innovation skills and entrepreneurial capabilities. They need to be supported with innovation internships or commercialization postdocs, IP strategy support, and access to facilities for technical de-risking new ideas and technologies. Together, these supports and training bring more of our breakthrough research inventions and our talented researchers across not just the familiar “Valley of Death” —separating promising discoveries from successful enterprises — but also across what my colleague Sarah Lubik dubbed the “Valley of Never Having Lived” — where those initial ideas do not even find the resources to start that journey — so that they can make their way toward scalable, science-based ventures and anchor companies.  

We hear a lot of evidence around Canada’s prospects in the global innovation ecosystem, yet you have some strong cases studies demonstrating homegrown global success in the complex green energy sector. Tell us what worked and what program interventions and partnerships made a difference?

The SFU Innovates ecosystem has supported researchers and nascent science-based ventures with a "Build-for-Scale" set of supports, including the Invention to Innovation (i2I) educational program, prototyping, technical de-risking through 4D Labs and other core facilities, patenting support and IP Strategy through the Technology Licensing Office, customized mentoring and founding team support through Venture Connection, and marketing mentoring and scale-up support through Venture Labs.  Currently, SFU is supporting the mobilization of breakthrough inventions in the clean energy ecosystem even further, with a co-creation approach to de-risking the systems level scale-up, and adoption of globally significant advances in clean hydrogen production and utilization.  

Are there things we can learn from the way other countries have approached the challenges around innovation? Are there things we are doing that those countries can learn from us? How do we nurture success and overcome that uniquely Canadian challenge of being a large federation with competing provincial/federal mandates, while also having a very small domestic market?

The recently released Report of the Advisory Panel on the Federal Research Support System had a list of recommendations that identify what we could be doing. It showed that we impose these rules for funding — to try to be transparent and to try to be fair — but which are hindering our key actors  from translating breakthrough research into innovation. Recommendation 18 in that report would move us away from this one-size-fits-all approach and specifically tackles the challenge of training researchers with the skills they need to have an impact, in Canada and abroad. In other words, you’ve got to bet on the people, and you’ve got to have a specific bucket of funding that allows them to de-risk research and develop it further. This kind of national strategy would be transformational, and open up the potential for global exports of knowledge-based goods and services.

You are quoted as saying the vast majority of graduate students will need to find jobs outside of academia and need to be trained to be industry-ready. You undoubtedly interact with a lot of scientists/students and graduate students, with potential aspirations for entrepreneurship and industry careers. What advice do you have for them?

Think early on in your research journey about the ways in which you can mobilize your research to create greater impact. Be on the lookout for training programs and supports that enable you to shape the commercialization strategy for your research. You can see what this looks like in the examples on our own i2I site. All of these steps will benefit you, regardless of which path you take on your academic, industrial, or entrepreneurial career, and will make it far more likely that your research will create positive impact in the world. All of this can be part of an industrial policy that makes the most of our intangible assets — the people, technologies, research, and invention leadership we have in this great country of ours.



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