President’s Column – Innovation Goggles

What does innovation look like to you? Is it a computer processor that runs 1,000 times faster than the best money can buy? Or a pair of ski goggles that feeds you performance metrics, web data and phone calls all from the middle of a black diamond run? What about an ultrasound‑guided robot conducting perfectly accurate surgeries, while the surgeon’s hands remain outside the patient? Fertilizer pellets made out of waste water? Mine waste that fixes atmospheric CO2? What about groundbreaking treatments for Alzheimer’s? Cancer? AIDS?

Everything I’ve just described is a real discovery made by a team of UBC researchers. Research universities are innovation powerhouses, and UBC is one of best in Canada: Highest income from licensed IP. Highest number of patents applied for per year. Highest number of US patents issued per year. Second-highest number of licenses executed, of discoveries and inventions, and of start-ups per year. Over 150 spin‑off companies so far and a partner in over 1,000 industry‑sponsored projects. Generator of 94 per cent of all industry‑sponsored research in BC, with an annual contribution to BC’s economy of $12.7 billion.

So what’s the catch? For starters, BC ranks ninth among 10 provinces in productivity gains since 1985. Add to that the fact that our top 25 companies saw revenues drop last year, particularly in the resource and energy sectors, and you begin to see that something’s wrong with this picture.

The tech-transfer process – by which university research contributes to technological progress and economic growth – is weak, and it’s keeping our regional and national economies from thriving as they could. Every stakeholder in the process, from industry to government to granting agencies to UBC, bears a share of the responsibility for that. Here’s what we’re doing about it at UBC:

  1. We’re opening a Corporate Relations office to better nurture and build our relationships with industry;
  2. We’re opening a faculty consulting agency to handle administration so our experts can focus on delivering innovative solutions to their clients;
  3. We’ve become a living laboratory for sustainability, and the solutions we devise are exportable and scalable to the wider community – civic to global;
  4. We’ve redesigned our “entrepreneurship@UBC” program to include education, workshopping, venture creation, and seed funding, with all content available online; and
  5. We’re reengineering our University Industry Liaison Office (UILO) to facilitate not only the commercialization of medical discoveries but all elements of this strategy.

Perhaps most importantly, we recently brought together key industry leaders and organizations to discuss how business, academia and government can cooperate to accelerate our innovation ecosystem. We all have our work cut out for us between now and next year’s roundtable, but collaborating in such a partnership at last gives us the potential to create our own version of San Diego’s CONNECT or London’s Tech City. And that’s what innovation looks like to me.

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