Opinion: The banality of Canadian discourse on research commercialization

By Jim Balsillie

Entrepreneur and philanthropist

*** Editor’s note: This column by Jim Balsillie, who chaired the Expert Panel on Intellectual Property for the Government of Ontario, is responding to an article by senior correspondent Mark Lowey that was published on September 2, 2020. While we welcome dialogue around this important and complex issue, RE$EARCH MONEY stands by the quality of Mark’s journalism and the credibility of the sources cited in that article. We invite others to weigh in with their views and experiences.

The article by Mark Lowey titled “Experts are questioning the focus and merits of Ontario’s new IP plan” marks a new level of amateurism in Canadian debates over university research commercialization.

Despite the headline, the article quotes individuals who are not commenting on the Expert IP Panel report but instead bringing institutional taboos, scaremongering, and personal agendas to the evidently befuddled topic of research commercialization. For instance, Mr. [Creso Sá] publicly dismissed the Ontario IP Panel the day its formation was announced and before any of its work had even begun. This bias should have been made clear to the reader, since relevant work of all other individuals mentioned in the article was also included. Not only does Mr. Sá lack expertise on the subject matter covered by our Panel, based on a review of his work, his contribution to the debate is limited to frequent complaining that the government does not engage with him.

Contrary to Mr. Sá’s interpretation of our report, our prepared document neither begins with nor ends with the conclusion that “academic institutions pumping out patents can somehow be a solution to the problem of weak generation of IP in industry.” Rather, after extensive consultation with stakeholders, including officials from university tech transfer offices, we have recommended that:

All commercialization entities within research organizations that receive public funds should have a clearly defined mandate regarding their roles and responsibilities and ensure that there is a plan to address any issues of institutional alignment and capacity to fulfill this mandate. The Government of Ontario should create a mechanism for commercialization entities to identify their comprehensive IP policies where they exist, their intention to create them where they do not, and to articulate perceived gaps inhibiting commercialization outcomes.

This recommendation gives universities the freedom to create a pathway to commercialization that fits their own goals so that they can succeed in their innovation ventures. The remaining recommendations suggest the government provide adequate resources across the province, taking the pressure off individual institutions from having to build expert capacity on their own.

For his part, Mr. [Michael] Geist wades into the discussion on the report by commenting on the public good value of university research and making unsubstantiated claims about foreign direct investments in IP-intensive fields – two topics that the Panel was not asked to review and consequently did not comment on. More importantly, the writer never mentions that Mr. Geist has no expertise on innovation economics, patenting, university commercialization or technology transfers.

Much to the chagrin of Messrs. Sá and Geist, Canadian universities are demonstrably good at producing research that can be commercialized and turned into valuable products and services that yield economic returns. McGill University and the University of Toronto have been publicly thanked by Google for creating and transferring AI IP that was commercialized by Google to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. Dalhousie University recently transferred battery IP to Tesla which contributed to their 1,000% rise in market capitalization over the past year. This economic value could have been captured for the benefit of Canada’s economy, including directly or indirectly by our publicly funded institutions. Many of the stakeholders we interviewed during our research expressed a desire to improve their institutions’ commercialization outcomes, pointing to the potential and ambition of their students and instructors.

Our panel believes that talented individuals with potential to create valuable IP should be helped rather than badgered because many of those interviewed told us that the pursuit of economic rewards does not have to come at the expense of discovery or pursuit of knowledge.

Governments in Canada have made enormous investments in research in large part because our universities have repeatedly made outsized or misleading claims of their current or prospective commercialization success. As The Logic reported, in 2002 universities and colleges promised to “triple their commercialization efforts” by 2010 in exchange for more federal investments under a new Framework of Agreed Principles on Federally Funded University Research. These goals were set neither by our Panel nor by the current Ontario government, but by university leadership alone.

In 2015 the University of Toronto asserted on its website that its commercialization success is “in a class with the likes of MIT and Stanford.” When I publicly pointed out that U of T’s performance was orders of magnitude behind those institutions, the web page was promptly removed.

It is incumbent on any responsible government to review taxpayer-funded research programs and to hold recipients of public funds accountable for the commercialization promises they make.  If the critics want to lay blame for Canadian universities pursuing commercialization in the first place, they should take that argument to the administrators who create the funding agreements, promises and misleading statements about their institutions’ commercialization capacity, intention, and success. Instead of having an informed debate about the role of our higher education institutions in the economy, we are stuck in a uniquely Canadian approach to innovation – amateur whataboutism.

Finally, the writer fails to distinguish between stakeholder input provided to the Expert Panel on IP and the Panel’s own conclusions. He also misnamed both the member of the Panel he interviewed and the name of her company no less than seven times. A proper reading of the report would have avoided these sloppy mistakes.

It has often been said that Canada has by far the world’s worst public discourse on innovation. Mr. Lowey’s article offers a banalized contribution to cement that reputation.


*** Note: The misspelling of Natalie Raffoul’s name was corrected shortly after the publication of Mark Lowey’s article.