Canadian university ‘innovation gap’ more illusory than real: Kurman

By Francis Moran

I was invited a couple of weeks ago to facilitate a group discussion on the marketing of university technology transfer offices at a forum organised by the Technology Transfer Partnerships. The forum was held in conjunction with the Ontario Centres of Excellence Discovery 2012 conference in Toronto. It was my first time at the OCE Discovery conference, and I was hugely impressed by the calibre of the presentations, the far-larger-than-expected scope of the exhibition and the superb opportunity for networking. It was a very busy two days.

The keynote speaker at the TTF forum, though, gave one of the more interesting and provocative sessions. Melba Kurman is a consultant, author and speaker who spends most of her time thinking about how universities can better commercialise their technology. I loved her presentation because it challenged and ultimately rejected the notion that Canadian universities are doing a much poorer job at commercialisation than their counterparts in the United States. As I have written before, I am utterly tired of the hackneyed tropes that Canadians don’t innovate as well as Americans, don’t take risks like Americans, and aren’t as successful as Americans. Kurman had me hooked at the very outset of her presentation when she suggested that an American lens is the wrong perspective through which to view what’s happening on Canadian campuses. Canada is doing its own thing, Kurman said, and doing it rather well.

“There are so many different approaches in Canada that I think are really interesting and valuable examples of different (technology transfer) models in action,” Kurman told me in a follow-on interview this week. American universities “would love to experiment with” some of these approaches but can’t because of a more hidebound model that puts undue emphasis on the number of patents a university technology transfer office produces and the revenue they derive from the licensing of their patent portfolios. “Canadian universities are free of this U.S. tendency,” Kurman said.

“Patents have never been equated to (innovation),” Kurman said. “They’re a rough gauge. You can get a patent if you have the money (to pursue the application process). The real value of university research is making it easy to get to, letting it flow between the university and people out in the world who want to build stuff off of it.”

So, how well are Canadian universities doing? Well, since the traditional lens wasn’t working well for her, Kurman had to develop a few new ones, something she calls measuring applied university innovation. She looked at numbers of publications, numbers of disclosed inventions and the share of university research funding that came from industry, all good indicators of how well the lab work inside a university was getting out. Her numbers correct for the relative size of universities and by these yardsticks, Canadian universities perform very well indeed.

Take, for example, the number of disclosed inventions per dollar of research funding. Six Canadian universities rank among the top 20 in North America with three — the University of Guelph in first place, Queen’s University in third and the University of Manitoba in fourth — accounting for three of the top four.

Canadian universities dominate when ranked according to the number of publications per total dollars of funding, accounting for 13 of the top 20 and all but one of the top 10.

And finally, in one of the metrics I found most interesting, Canadian universities are more than holding their own when it comes to attracting industry research funding, with 12 Canadian schools among the top 20 in terms of industry funding as a share of total research dollars.

“These numbers suggest that Canadian universities … are not necessarily disconnected from industry in the way that seems to be a popular assumption,” Kurman said. “Industry funding is a strong vote and a strong predictor of a university that companies like to work with … like to tap into and partner with. It flies in the face of this simplistic notion that we have an innovation gap (in Canada).”

This success at attracting industry funding could, admittedly, be a double-edged sword. It could represent a shift from basic research, something Kurman and I both agree is a critical role of universities, to more applied or even contract research that sees industry turn to academia for little more than low-cost access to sophisticated lab and measurement tools. “I see that as a core question,” Kurman said, but she has not yet dug deeply enough into the data to answer it. “The deeper question is, ‘Is it the attraction of the basic research or is it the attraction that maybe Canadian universities are easier to work with?’”

Bottom line: Those who read here regularly will know that I am not terribly interested in comparing Canada to the U.S. on almost any yardstick. When it comes to innovation, I am far more interested in asking what do we really need to do as a nation in terms of research, innovation and commercialisation? What will work best for us? And how do we measure how well we are doing against that set of objectives?

What do you think is critical for Canadian innovators? What yardsticks would you use?

Francis Moran
Francis Moran
Francis Moran is principal of Francis Moran & Associates, a consultancy that provides business-to-business technology ventures with the strategic counsel required to make their innovations successful in a highly competitive marketplace. Francis can be reached at [email protected].

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