Supporting Canadian innovation through postgraduate Innovation Fellowships

September 21, 2016
M. Cynthia Goh, Scott McAuley, David McMillen

M. Cynthia Goh, PhD
Director, Impact Centre, University of Toronto
Professor, Departments of Chemistry, Material Science and Engineering, Institute of Medical Sciences and the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto

Scott McAuley
Communications Coordinator, Impact Centre, University of Toronto
PhD Candidate, Department of Biochemistry, University of Toronto

David McMillen, PhD
Associate Professor, Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences, University of Toronto Mississauga

Canada’s global leadership role in scientific research has not been successfully translated into blockbusters in the marketplace. While decades’ worth of ink has been spilled in reports and column inches debating the root causes and possible solutions for this lack of commercial success from science, the announcement of the federal government’s Innovation Agenda and subsequent consultations has thrust this issue back into the spotlight and provides an excellent opportunity to review past experience and possibilities for new high-impact policies.

Taking a broad look at innovation activities across Canada reveals a patchwork of research funding, commercialization organizations, incubators, accelerators and economic development programs. Our focus at the Impact Centre, an institute within the University of Toronto, is to translate groundbreaking scientific discoveries into benefits to society. One way we accomplish this is through developing and nurturing scientist-entrepreneurs. Our question, and current proposal, focuses on one essential commercialization step all scientist-entrepreneurs face: translating a promising breakthrough into a new and useful product.

The pace of new discoveries and emerging technologies can be dizzying. Developments in quantum physics, genetics and material science are leading to new technologies that can potentially improve energy storage, computation, medicine and even the way we light our world. This fundamental work is being led by universities and research institutions across the world, including top-ranked institutions across Canada – and they have the potential to change our lives. However, the product of research is knowledge, which is important in its own right but nevertheless is not what creates direct benefits to the world. A scientific advance needs to be turned into a working technology, and then into a product (or service), before it can improve our quality of life. How can we hasten this path from research results to societal benefits?

At the Impact Centre we believe that postgraduate students are the key. These students have been selected from the best programs across the world, received years of high impact training, and contributed significantly to their field (a requirement for an acceptable dissertation). At this crucial time a PhD student is the expert in her area and, with appropriate guidance, is best suited to discover potential applications of her work. But there is no opportunity to do so. Following their Ph.D. defense students can receive fellowships to carry out additional research at other institutions, get snapped up by R&D intensive industries (mostly south of the border), follow careers that rely on their scientific expertise (such as intellectual property law or regulatory affairs) or completely leave science altogether. Very rarely do they have the chance to pursue the applications of their work. This is a wasted opportunity!

The Impact Centre works with graduate students and postdocs to help them create startup companies based on products created from their scientific expertise. Products result when a need is identified and a technology (based on research results) is brought to bear in order to solve that need. Steering this process along from research to technology to product requires skilled mentorship combining expertise in the underlying science, technological and product development, and the market. Creating a team that can understand both the technology and the needs of end users has been a key goal at the Impact Centre, and our years of successful guidance of young scientist-entrepreneurs suggests that we have assembled many of the right ingredients. The final ingredient is time. New physical products have longer development times than the rapid cycles seen, for example, in the software industry. How are our young entrepreneurs, with their student-level finances, going to reach even the prototyping stage?

In 2011 we started offering Innovation Fellowships to address this challenge. An Innovation Fellowship is a graduate or post-graduate award that is provided to individuals who are in the early stages of developing a startup based on a new technology. It is usually a year-long award and provides both financial support and intensive coaching to entrepreneurs. A few other similar programs are currently available in Ontario: the Ontario Brain Institute’s Entrepreneurs Program, the Ontario Centres of Excellence’s Martin Walmsley Award, as well as the newly announced RBC Innovation Fellowships at the University of Toronto. In total, there have been fewer than ten awards per year, but their impact is already being felt, crucial to the formation and growth of companies like CastConnex, Atomwise, Sense Intelligent, Kinetica, and Pathcore.

We are calling for the creation of more Innovation Fellowships from government and other organizations who support science. Research is supported because we do need to advance our fundamental understanding of the world. But it should not end there. We should strongly encourage our students to engage in exploring the application of their work (and the faculty to participate in this endeavor, though that is a topic for another time!). Innovation Fellowships allow students to become the vector for transforming new knowledge into products and should be an essential part of Canada’s Innovation Agenda.