Opinion: Canada’s university science innovation ecosystem needs a build-for-scale strategy

By Elicia Maine

Elicia Maine is the W.J. VanDusen Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship and Special Advisor on Innovation to the VP Research at Simon Fraser University.

The central role of university science in responding to the global pandemic has been clear. We have seen that university science — such as the lipid nanoparticle drug delivery system out of the Cullis Lab and the microfluidics technology out of the Hansen Lab at the University of British Columbia — can create scalable ventures with the potential to solve significant global challenges and create economic growth.

What may be less evident is the long pathway of translation that those technologies have undergone, and the supports that could enable similar mobilization of university invention in response to the climate crisis. Our current science innovation ecosystem asks our scientist-entrepreneurs to swim upstream for far too long.

Canada currently has the technology solutions to meet the global 2030 emissions reduction goals; these need to be adopted at scale and can be accomplished through well-crafted climate regulations and incentives. However, a recent International Energy Agency report states that 50 percent of the technologies we need to meet the 2050 targets are currently undeveloped or languishing in our research labs. Despite pockets of world-leading invention, far too little science innovation is finding its way through our innovation ecosystem to create social and economic value.

The current innovation system does a good job of supporting the success of software and business innovations that can typically reach market success in three to five years. However, it is not currently structured to support complex, slower-developing concepts and process advances that could both be an essential part of our climate solution and create a thriving Canadian clean tech economy.

The trouble in translating leading scientific inventions into impactful innovation is due to three main barriers: 1) the time-money-uncertainty challenge; 2) the different incentives and timelines of academia and industry; and 3) the typically narrow education our science and engineering researchers receive.

Time-money-uncertainty challenge

Science commercialization takes on average 10 to 15 years and tens of millions of dollars of investment while the outcome is still uncertain. With these long timelines and expenditures of science innovation, in particular “deep tech” innovation, what happens within a university after invention and before the venture is formed is crucial.

We need to acknowledge the critical role played by researchers and universities not only in inventing but also in creating the endowment for high-potential science-based ventures to scale into anchor companies. We should think of universities as systems supporting science innovation from ideation through to commercialization, taking better advantage of the university lab facilities and translational capabilities, interdisciplinary educational programs and international linkages of researchers and industry partners.

Different incentives and timelines

The reward mechanism and funding opportunities of university scientists are not well-aligned with either investors or industry. Good innovation policy seeks to align incentives and timelines of key actors — in this case academic scientist-entrepreneurs, their investors and the Canadian industries — with problems to solve.

Our current innovation grants do not sufficiently support de-risking and scale-up experiments, nor give post-docs the time to dedicate to translational and commercialization activities. Most do not even allow patents to be an eligible expense.

Narrow education

We are currently underserving and underutilizing our STEM graduate students and post-docs in Canada. In the recently released Council of Canadian Academies report Degrees of Success, the scale of this problem was revealed.

Canada’s science and engineering graduate students are well-educated and trained to be research scientists, but the 80 percent that don’t go on to tenure track academic positions are far too often inadequately prepared for other careers. They generally lack the ability to articulate their differentiated value proposition, and have little or no knowledge of IP strategy, regulatory challenges, market prioritization or financing. What’s most lacking is an entrepreneurial mindset, innovation skills and an awareness of unmet market needs.

Build-for-Scale strategy for our science innovation ecosystem

Universities and the leading researchers within them can be powerful originators of value-creating companies — supplying high quality jobs and unique products and processes which can be exported around the world.

For example, Ionomr Innovations Inc — a science-based spinoff from the Holdcroft Chemistry Lab at Simon Fraser University (SFU) — was purposefully supported across the entire SFU Innovates ecosystem. First, the principal investigator was supported in preparing a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council I2I translational grant; then the founding CEO developed commercialization strategy and entrepreneurial mindset in SFU’s Beedie School of Business Invention to Innovation program; materials fabrication and testing facilities were accessed at 4D Labs; patenting support through the Technology Licensing Office; and mentoring, team development and marketing through Venture Connection and Ventures Labs.

Ionomr successfully scaled up their breakthrough electrolysis membrane (with support from Sustainable Development Technology Canada and the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program), are now enabling low-cost industrial scale water electrolysis and could become an international leader in green hydrogen production. Recently, they were recognized by the World Economic Forum as a top global technology pioneer.

As this example illustrates, science innovation needs to be supported at the earliest stages while nascent ventures are still incubated within the university. Cost-effective innovation strategy would purposefully resource universities to create systems supporting science innovation from ideation through to commercialization.

Developing an entrepreneurial mindset is the first step to creating commercialization strategy for university science. Matching technologies to unmet market needs is an iterative process which can be facilitated by early interactions with industry and translational research grants.

Next, a de-risking and technology scale-up voucher would enable scientist innovators to strategically utilize university and government research facilities and expertise, both pre-and-post venture formation. This, along with support for intellectual property, and continuing support from relevant incubators and accelerators, would help align incentives and timelines of key actors, in this case academic scientist-entrepreneurs, their investors and Canadian industries.

Building entrepreneurial capabilities for our science innovation ecosystem

At the front end of a Build-for-Scale strategy is better serving and better utilizing the world class talent generated by Canadian universities, in particular our STEM graduate students and post-docs. To address this gap, Simon Fraser University created a graduate entrepreneurship program, Invention to Innovation (i2I), which has so far graduated five cohorts who are contributing to regional and national science innovation ecosystems. SFU has partnered with Mitacs to expand this program across Canada, this year involving graduate students and post-doctoral fellows from 11 Canadian universities.

Developing an entrepreneurial mindset in our researchers serves our STEM talent and our science innovation ecosystem well in a variety of ways. Canada develops much-needed industry receptor capacity by enabling these highly trained scientists and engineers to be innovation leaders in industry and creating bridges back to universities. This entrepreneurial mindset, innovation skills and commercialization strategy are also the foundation of creating scalable science-based spinoff ventures.

In order to play a leadership role in the clean energy transition, Canada needs to focus on its international research strengths and purposefully create a Build-for-Scale strategy starting within university research labs and classrooms. Leveraging Canadian research innovation will not only facilitate the vital transition but will also aid in post-pandemic economic recovery.

Elicia Maine is the W.J. VanDusen Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship and Special Advisor on Innovation to the VP Research at Simon Fraser University.