Technology innovation is driven more by applied curiosity than the almighty dollar.
So says Derek Gratz, president and CEO of the Westlink Innovation Network. Gratz’s organization is devoted to matching academic inquiry in
Western Canada universities and colleges with private sector finance and resources. It’s important to recognize that the former is more vital to the process than the latter when it comes to technical discovery, he says. But helping to develop a symbiotic relationship between the two is mutually beneficial.
It’s a matter that’s received some attention recently, with the Prime Minister’s technology adviser and private sector interest groups helping to grease the wheels of commercialization in Canada.
As such, Westlink will host the fifth version of its Innovation and New Ventures conference on Jan 21-25 in Vancouver, along with partner the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance. The event will bring together members of the academic community, the private sector and government in order to foster relationships and accelerate innovation.
Gratz spoke to ITBusiness.ca recently about the aims of his upcoming conference, the role of the SME and what helps to maintain the sanctity of university research when business interests get involved.
ITBusiness.ca: How does your organization work?
Derek Gratz: (We represent) 25 different institutions — publicly-funded education and research groups. Essentially, we connect the capacity within them that’s trying to take new innovations and ventures and connect with industry. When you look at the parameters of this conference, this is one of several ways in which we try to increase that connectivity for Canadian industry and businesses to access research technology excellence out of public institutions. So it’s new resources — they’ll be the ones that are going to take it to market. We have a split function: we connect tech transfer as well as getting them together, having them work together more effectively as well as building their skills and trying to be a portal for industry to get access to what they’re doing. Sometimes it can be intimidating for a small company who thinks, “”Well, I want to find a new piece of technology.”” Are they going to talk to every institution? Probably not. But we know them really well, we can be a broker to connect them to the right pieces of information within that constituency.
ITB: Your interest is largely in the SME market?
DG: Yes, but not to the exclusion of larger industries — some of those channels are open or better developed. The SMEs don’t have a forum to make those connections.
Let’s describe a scenario: a research lab develops a piece of technology, a particular company has the skills to take that to the next level and develop it. That can be as simple as a straight licence to the technology and the company runs with it and puts it on the market. That’s a very simplistic description of what is a whole lot more of added value that can come into that environment. It may be that as well as the company taking the technology to the next level, they can develop it with their own systems. There can be collaboration stretching the research capacity of the SME to do things leveraged by additional federal dollars.
ITB: To what extent would you encourage universities to start up their own companies to promote their technology research?
DG: Our members do it to various different degrees. We do a variety of programs that are aimed at raising the awareness of what’s involved in doing that. When somebody does make a decision to that, it’s a little bit better informed. We and our members sort of work at that interface. We understand the difference between academic culture and the need for some translation in there. Maybe the right partnerships that need to happen. A research prof is not always necessarily the best CEO but could be a great technical resource matched with an entrepreneurial business leader. That’s the awareness we’re trying to build: those connections and making sure everybody is armed with the right information and the right expectations when they jump into something like this.
ITB: Would you try to bring a venture capital firm into the picture as well or just restrict it to an SME partner?
DG: It really depends on the opportunity. It certainly could be either one. We do a variety of other training programs and have pretty strong linkages with the Western Canada venture capital community. Our individual members are more likely to propose a technology program that would need VC investment. It really depends on what the appropriate channel is for the technology.
ITB: Do what extent do you have to be careful of bringing the influence of the private sector into universities?
DG: It’s an issue that always gets discussed. The reality is that the research programs are very well established within the academic environment. It really is driven by the appetite and interests of individual researchers. Some run programs where they have a lot of industry sponsorship and have industry right there at the table all the way along. Others just have more curiosity and come up with a eureka that might have industrial applications but wasn’t necessarily driven by that. It’s something that everybody has to be aware of. Occasionally there’s conflict of interest stuff that needs to be managed, but most institutions are pretty well developed and pretty sophisticated in that. I would say, particularly younger researchers are well attuned to how they can access industrial partners as well as leveraging that with public dollars. The rigour of the academic process keeps it from the horror story of a private shingle hung on an academic lab.
It’s a concern that people need to be aware of, but it’s really not so earth-shattering or threatening, because the cultures on both sides are very well-established. The bigger issue is the communication in between that can allow the translation to happen.
ITB: What are you hoping to accomplish at the conference?
DG: Connectivity between all three types of stakeholders — between industry, between research and between government — around each of their own versions of how you support new venture development. For a company, there’s the benefits of seeing examples of those who have been there, done that. For the government and academic side, seeing the same thing: what does industry need to see and how can we be better preparing for that environment.
ITB: What is CATA’s involvement?
DG: We’ve collaborated with CATA on this particular event, because we saw it as a good balance. We have good connections with the publicly-funded research side and CATA brings in the strong connection with the SME community, so it was a really ideal collaboration that way.
ITB: Over the five years that you’ve held this conference, what sort have changes have you seen in the relationship between academia and the private sector?
DG: I think we’ve seen a stronger connection and interest from industry — sort of a recognition of the culture change that we’ve been trying to encourage. Industry is recognizing additional opportunities within the public sector that they may not have focused on before. I think we’re seeing a much more sophisticated approach within the tech transfer community in terms of knowing how much and how far they have to go in terms of developing opportunities to pique the interest of industrial partners.
From the government and finance side, a lot more focus on what are the tools and platforms needed to really enable this to go forward. I think there’s a lot of discussion out there about how we more effectively do this. Everybody wants this to happen.