Canadian technology transfer activity is experiencing a rapid period of evolution as it adapts to the challenging shifts in technology financing and global competition. The virtual shutdown of the venture capital industry and the current financial meltdown are helping to accelerate the introduction of an ever expanding range of novel approaches and collaborations for taking university-based discovery into the marketplace.
Last week's conference of the Alliance for Commercialization of Canadian Technology (ACCT Canada) provided a prime opportunity to witness the growing diversity and maturation of tech transfer, ranging from the adoption of new metrics to better capture its impact to the consortium approach of the aerospace sector in Quebec or new federal programs aimed at bolstering university commercialization capacity.
Aptly titled Where's the Beef, the 4th annual ACCT Canada conference drew several hundred participants to workshops featuring spin-off companies, technology transfer practitioners and heads of specialized entities designed to transfer knowledge into the marketplace and society in general. Typically, there was also considerable discussion about expanding the ways in which tech transfer operations are measured, with a move beyond the traditional commercialization indicators of licencing revenue and spin-offs. Some participants even questioned the description of what industry liaison offices do as tech transfer.
"One could call it private sector engagement. We need to refine the understanding of the private sector and its needs" says Dr Mona Nemer, VP research at the Univ of Ottawa. "Universities have always been about the future and the economy through our graduates."
The growing sophistication of tech transfer offices across Canada are being seen as an increasingly important conduit between academia and the marketplace. Not surprisingly, the importance of university tech transfer offices was agreed upon by most in attendance, with many making eloquent or impassioned arguments on their continuation and expansion.
"This profession needs deep domain technical and industry experience. We have a serious gap problem in terms of people," says John Molloy, CEO of PARTEQ Innovations at Queen's Univ. "Do not under estimate the value of pushing technology, especially disruptive technologies. You can convert push into market pull."
An increasingly popular method for addressing or stimulating market pull is through collaborative mechanisms such as consortia. Perhaps the most successful recent example is the Consortium for Research and Innovation in Aerospace in Quebec (CRIAQ), which has been in operation for six years. CRIAQ president and CEO Dr Andre Bazergui says that 44 projects worth more than $36 million have been undertaken this year, with funding provided by federal and provincial sources.
CRIAQ is also moving into the international realm with six projects with companies and research institutes in India and more in the planning stages with France and Germany. The consortium's attempts to go national have yet to be realized, however, despite efforts since 2005.
"We were dealing with Industry Canada and we almost got it. We even registered the new name but then industry came up with a platform proposal (SADI — the Strategic Aerospace and Defence Initiative), says Bazergui. "Then there was the Business-led NCEs and the government put CRIAQ on the back burner."
CRIAQ is popular with the Quebec government, however, which has used the model to establish consortia for drug development (Quebec Consortium for Drug Discovery) and information and communications technologies (PROMPT Inc).
The Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program has also seen its profile rise significantly with the introduction of two new programs — Business-Led NCEs and Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research (CECR).
While the inaugural competition for Business-led NCEs has yet to be completed, a suite of CECRs have been established across the country. In Vancouver, the Centre for Drug Research and Development (CDRD is using the $15 million in one-time funding to bridge the so-called valley of death between drug discovery and development.
Kamram Alam, CDRD's director of business development, says his organization's hybrid model (part not-for-profit, part for-profit) is proving effective.
"CDRD builds a business case and then hands off to DDI (Drug Development Inc, CDRD's for-profit arm) and it completes the proof-of-concept dossier," says Kamram. "CDRD mimics the drug development process."
The consortium model also works for smaller institutions and regions where receptor capacity is lacking. Atlantic Canada has benefitted from the emergence of Springboard, Atlantic Inc, which was recently refunded through the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency's Atlantic Innovation Fund (R$, April 30/08). Armed with a stronger mandate to refine and build commercialization capacity throughout the region, it is also linked to other regions of Canada through ACCT Canada.
In Newfoundland, Genesis Group — the tech transfer arm of Memorial Univ — is evolving its mandate to include far more than revenue generation through licensing. Genesis president and CEO David King says his organization is playing a central role in changing the culture within Memorial and will soon be tackling the investment culture in the province.
"When Genesis started out it was all about money. Now it's not. It's also placing emphasis on social good," says King. "There's no take-up for technology in Newfoundland so we created an incubator which has been successful. Companies started by graduate students have also been successful."
The granting councils are also increasing their involvement in commercialization and tech transfer with the introduction of several programs designed to add value to university discovery. Each council has its own suite of funding programs and some are managed jointly such as the tri-council Intellectual Property Mobilization (IPM) program. Yet IPM's future in doubt, raising concerns that the government's broad level of support for commercialization may be narrowing.
"Unless something is identified as important by the community at large and is shown to be working, it might not get funded," says Dr David Shindler, executive director of BioDiscovery Toronto. "IPM is an example and I think it's important. We need to get together to support it, otherwise one more piece of infrastructure will disappear and others might disappear along with it.