University technology transfer has evolved, but more industry engagement will create better opportunities for commercialization

By Joe Irvine

Director, Innovation Support Services at University of Ottawa

When I started my career in university technology transfer over three decades ago, the responsibility for industry interaction was the exclusive mandate of the technology licensing office. Since then, the most important change to the field has been the adoption of a strategic institutional approach at post-secondary institutions to external relations and economic development.

Technology transfer grew in North America following the passage of the US Bayh-Dole Act and changes in patent protection that launched the biotechnology industry in the 1980s. Simultaneously, many Canadian universities started to manage intellectual property and licensing as part of the research enterprise. In the 1990s, the federal government began to fund capacity development at technology transfer offices, which led to significant growth in external support for IP mobilization that lasted for two decades. Since then, there has been growth in business development and industry engagement from new players in the ecosystem, both university affiliated and non-university. Now there are many more players at the university-industry interface than ever before.

Managing expectations

Many stakeholders in the technology commercialization ecosystem have skewed expectations regarding the time and resources needed to bring academic research discoveries to market. This includes university researchers and inventors, nascent firms and, often, government programs that seek commercial outcomes within the life of a program.

Universities have also contributed to the confusion by stating that increased basic research funding will improve commercial outcomes.  While more research leads to more discovery, that doesn’t automatically mean those inventions are of commercial interest.

Often the time from a research discovery to market can exceed a decade. Many university research discoveries require several years of technology development to validate the commercial potential to the point a partner may license the technology. In the case of a life sciences discovery, this may take more than a decade.

Most companies aren’t seeking a multi-year technology partnership to develop a potential product. As a result, the technology development strategy for a research discovery may require many partners and programs, from both the public and the private sector, before reaching the market.

Industry engagement

Proximity is a great facilitator of industry partnerships. All else being equal, it is easier to create interactions with local firms than with those at a distance. Unfortunately, not every regional ecosystem has the diversity of companies to collaborate in all areas of university research expertise. Most institutions participate in more than one Canadian region and with partners in several countries to establish research and technology partnerships.

One of the tools that helped researchers to bridge beyond their regional ecosystems to national partners was the NCE program, which created a critical mass of domain-based research linked to partners from across the country supporting technology development and commercialization. We anticipate that the industry-led superclusters will do this as well.

What’s next?

By establishing an effective industry engagement strategy across the institution, there will be broader benefits than are likely to accrue from a single commercialization transaction. Active industry engagement provides market intelligence and problem identification from end-users that can create new opportunities for research and commercialization.

The future of technology transfer at universities in Canada is bright. New models for industry interaction – including co-location of industry and university research, and directed institutional community outreach programs (such as the uOttawa Kanata North initiative) — provide new opportunities for students, researchers and the technology transfer community to interact with industry and the community.

Expanded industry interaction can provide new experiential learning for students; professional development training for the community; employment opportunities for graduates; and other positive outcomes, like knowledge mobilization, social innovation, entrepreneurship support, collaborative research and technology commercialization. More importantly perhaps, the leadership at our institutions are deepening their commitment to innovation and economic development. This means more types of interaction, resulting in better outcomes, for both discoveries and for students.

We have to ensure that sufficient resources are available to facilitate innovation and promote the outcomes and impact of innovation. Do new priority areas of research at institutions, or those for economic development agencies, have adequate resources for innovation development, knowledge mobilization and/or commercialization?

There exists now a strong cadre of passionate professionals across the country that are committed to accelerating innovation in Canada. They promote industry engagement for their institutions and are committed to the acceleration of discovery-to-market for the benefit of our communities.

As we head into government budget season and pre-election cycles, it is worth noting that although we focus on near-term transactional metrics, the best form of university technology transfer remains our students. Promoting an innovation culture on campus will improve outcomes with students, with researchers, and in technology transfer and commercialization.

By providing more and better opportunities for students to work with all stakeholders in our ecosystem, there will be more opportunities for industry engagement, social innovation and community impact.  As I often say to my colleagues, technology transfer is about VIPs (our students and our researchers) not just about IP.