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Our home and innovative land

By Dr. Gilles Patry
The Hill Times - February 24, 2014

You’ve heard this story before: a great idea emerges from a research lab, is developed into something that can be commercialized, and a spin-off company is launched. This familiar pathway in which research knowledge is “pushed” from a university or college into the marketplace can sometimes be very successful. Take for example Winnipeg-based IMRIS, a company spun out of a University of Calgary invention that makes surgeries safer and more effective by creating MRI images during an operation. Sales of the device generated $52.4 million (U.S.) in 2012 and today the company employs around 140 people globally.

Go to any university or college campus in this country and you will likely find similar successful ventures. But this is not the only way Canadian commercialization is getting a leg up on our campuses. For one thing, spin-off attempts don’t always succeed, partly because researchers, though brilliant in the lab, are not always skilled business people. On the other hand, private industry regularly accesses the cutting-edge equipment and the talented professors and graduate students at our research institutions. They come seeking an edge in the marketplace through an inventive solution to a problem, be it in product-development, testing, computer modelling, prototyping or pre-competitive research.

This “pull” model of commercialization, in which companies turn to universities and colleges to answer their research questions, makes good business sense for enterprises. And this same kind of public-private partnership is also behind many of Canada’s foundational industries. Think, for example, of how our highways, railways, hydroelectric dams and telecommunications systems were built: each depended on a collaboration between the public and private sectors that mitigates the risk to private companies by sharing the long-term expenditures and liabilities.

And in the case of businesses seeking out university research expertise, it’s not just private industry that comes out ahead. According to Statistics Canada, our universities bring in around $1 billion a year in research services contracted by private industry. According to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, calculated as a share of GDP, Canadian businesses invest proportionally more than twice as much on university R&D as businesses in the United States; only Germany and China generate more income to their university laboratories from private business.

One difficulty that we’ve heard repeatedly from businesses is knowing where to go to find the research services they need to answer their particular research questions. They are either not aware that they can access these research resources or they don’t know what kind of labs or expertise are available.

Addressing this problem to help ensure this kind knowledge commercialization flourishes in Canada is the reason we launched the CFI Research Facilities Navigator (Innovation.ca/navigator). This is a searchable directory of research labs and facilities in universities, colleges and research hospitals across Canada that are open to working with business. It includes over 300 labs from virtually every discipline, and the number is growing. For research facilities, the Navigator is a way to promote their research capabilities to the private and public sectors and for companies, it is a tool for finding the research facilities that can help their business grow, stay competitive, design new or better products or processes, and foster relationships with highly skilled people. Bringing research and business together in this way also sparks new ideas that can be commercialized through the “push” model as researchers gain new insights into the needs of the marketplace.

There’s more than one way to bring research and industry together, and finding new models for making this happen will help boost commercialization in this country. Helping make sure this continues to happen is what the Navigator is all about.

Dr. Gilles Patry is President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Visit the CFI Research Facilities Navigator at Innovation.ca/navigator