When Gail Murphy and her team launched Tasktop Technologies in 2007, they were involved in one of the things UBC does best: turning creativity, new knowledge, problem solving and innovation into a commercial enterprise.
Murphy, along with then-PhD student Mik Kersten and research engineer Robert Elves, saw opportunities in the world of open source software and, with help from UBC’s University/Industry Liaison Office (UILO), they transformed their ideas into a viable startup.
Tasktop Technologies works with large corporations and organizations that have developed diverse software tools to meet the needs of the various aspects of their business: information gathering, coding, product testing. Such tools are typically developed independently of each other, producing huge headaches when it comes to sharing information across different levels of the organization. Murphy’s team solved that problem by devising a way to synchronize data among these tools, speeding up the process of change and improvement across the board. Ten years later, the company is thriving.
Last August, Murphy was named Vice President Research & Innovation (VPRI) at UBC, and is working to help other researchers replicate her experience.
“UBC’s research mission has always been about understanding the world around us,” she says, “and to solve difficult problems in every field from astronomy and medicine to engineering and the arts. It’s also about getting results on the ground: not just doing high quality research, but getting that research out into the world where it can make a difference.”
Not that pure research – research for the sake of it – isn’t still a high priority at UBC: it is. Research whose sole aim is the creation of new knowledge is the lifeblood of any university, and the target of most research-funding grants at UBC. Some of the key roles of the VP Research & Innovation portfolio are to help researchers attract and manage funding through grants and industry partners, establish research relationships with other organizations and comply with various grant-related regulations.
“UBC’s research mission has always been about understanding the world around us, and to solve difficult problems in every field from astronomy and medicine to engineering and the arts. It’s also about getting results on the ground: not just doing high quality research, but getting that research out into the world where it can make a difference.” ~ Gail Murphy
That this research sometimes results in commercialization is icing on the cake. The portfolio is also the driving force behind Innovation UBC, an overarching institutional initiative that focuses on entrepreneurial opportunities, partnerships with industry, knowledge exchange and developing commercial ventures based on research conducted at the university.
Innovation has long been at the heart of UBC’s mission. The UILO has been operating for more than three decades, and is a North American leader in patent registration, licensing, technology transfer and the commercialization of academic research, helping in the establishment of 200 spin-off companies that feature UBC-developed technologies. Products incorporating UBC research discoveries have resulted in an estimated $11.5 billion in sales.
One of Murphy’s goals as VPRI is to dramatically expand UBC’s role as a steward of the innovation spirit, and to that end she established Innovation UBC as a centralizing function for the VPRI’s outreach. Her initiative focuses on drawing out research projects that have commercialization and/or social impact potential, and providing training, mentorship, seed funding, office space and general expertise to fledgling entrepreneurs. The initiative offers four different pathways “to help scholars and researchers translate their innovations into viable socio‑economic ventures, lobbying government or developing real-world impacts for their research,” says Murphy. Typically, academics aren’t naturals when it comes to business savvy, and they need all the support they can get.
- The first pathway builds on the model established by the UILO: provide researchers with help in patent registration, product and concept licensing, finding sponsors for promising research and general liaison with various industries to link researchers with potential business opportunities.
- The second pathway uses entrepreneurship@UBC (e@UBC), a precursor to the Innovation UBC initiative, to help faculty, staff, students and alumni understand and put into practice the steps needed to prepare themselves and their product for commercial ventures. e@UBC is focused on the practicalities of setting up an enterprise, including seed funding for startups, entrepreneurial training and a large mentoring network, including mentors-in-residence.
- The third pathway develops relationships between UBC people and outside organizations including NGOs, private sector organizations and government. Part of the Innovation UBC thrust is to hire staff who know who these potential partners are and how to connect with them.
- The fourth pathway helps researchers understand how their new knowledge might be adapted and organized in such a way that it can develop its socio-economic impact through a new government policy, new clinical practice or social enterprise.
Not all research projects at UBC have (or should have) socio-economic potential. But by using the four pathways, interested researchers can investigate that potential and reach realistic decisions about the process.
e@UBC is headquartered at the Graham Lee Innovation Centre (located in the Robert E. Lee Alumni Centre). Using workshops for business model development, market investigation and entrepreneurial training, e@UBC, is intended as a clearing house for delivering UBC‑developed ventures to the commercial world.
Microsoft recently opened in Vancouver with a 700-strong workforce just down the street from UBC Robson Square.
Murphy’s VPRI office is in the process of establishing new hubs under the banner of Innovation UBC, one each at Robson Square, Point Grey and UBC Okanagan. These hubs will provide an easier way to access the network of available support – such as mentorship, startup space and seed financing for e@UBC participants – and will help external collaborators find their way into the UBC system. The Robson Square Innovation UBC hub is ramping up towards an official launch this spring.
Ultimately, the purpose of these hubs is to gather together support from different faculties and outside organizations in a central area to facilitate relationships and interaction.
“UBC is a huge, complex institution,” says Murphy, “and is often seen as difficult to penetrate. These hubs will help gather both the knowledge and the people, and provide a front door to the university.”
Because access to Innovation UBC’s resources will be centralized and not hidden away in various faculties and offices, Murphy hopes the hubs will attract a wider range of the university’s talents, including more women entrepreneurs.
“We know that diverse teams produce better results in the workplace, but we have a lot of work to do to convince young women to get involved in high-tech research areas,” she says. “Part of our job is to work with industry to show how these diverse work groups are a huge benefit.”
Gail Murphy’s research – and passion – is in digital technology. British Columbia has some of the strongest programs in the country through our various post-secondary institutions, which is a huge advantage for companies seeking locations that have a ready workforce trained at top‑level schools. Microsoft, for example, recently opened in Vancouver with a 700-strong workforce just down the street from UBC Robson Square.
Murphy was also instrumental in establishing the Master of Data Science degree at UBC, which had its first intake in September 2016. This year, the program received nearly 800 applications for 80 places.
As well, UBC was a founding member of a consortium of predominantly BC businesses, high‑tech startups and post secondary schools that competed to be part of the federal government’s Innovation Superclusters Initiative. The program will share a $950 million dollar grant (matched dollar for dollar by industry partners), and was created to fund five high‑level, intensely focused research centres in areas of special expertise in various parts of the country. Quebec, for example, was awarded a Supercluster in artificial intelligence; Atlantic Canada was awarded the Ocean Supercluster to improve Canada’s competiveness in ocean‑based industries; Ontario was awarded an Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster; and the Prairies were awarded the Protein Industries Supercluster to develop plant proteins.
BC’s proposal, Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster, was also one of the successful ones. The Supercluster joins industrial partners such as Microsoft, TELUS, Providence Health Care, Canfor, The Terry Fox Research Initiative and more than 200 other organizations and schools, and will, says UBC president Santo Ono “accelerate Canada’s global advantage in digital technology using big data to create new economic opportunities and address the productivity, health and sustainability challenges facing the world today.”
But Innovation UBC doesn’t just mean high tech. It has cultivated or is cultivating ventures from virtually every faculty at the university, from the arts and pharmaceuticals to athletics and healthcare. Boost Environment, for example, uses a patented process to treat sewage sludge and agricultural wastes. It helps municipal wastewater plants reduce the amount of sludge produced, lowering costs and benefiting the local environment. Grain sources dry goods – freshly milled flour, legumes, grains – from local farms and offers home delivery of their products. Their motto is “Fresh Food for Fresh People.” AnandiaLabs uses genomics and metabolite analysis to create next-gen medical cannabis with optimized therapeutic properties. It also provides analytical testing and identification services to the emerging legal cannabis industry in Canada. Vesalius Cardiovascular is promoting a surgical implant that can repair mitral regurgitation, a major heart disease. The device is introduced through the skin, eliminating the need for open-heart surgery. Acuva, started by UBC alumnus Manoj Singh, MBA’10, uses ultra violet LEDs to develop a low power, zero maintenance drinking water purification system that can be used “at the sink,” or where the water comes out of the tap or storage container. It’s a particular boon to rural areas away from the grid or in areas of recent disasters, where access to power is the biggest obstacle to clean drinking water (see sidebar).
“It’s amazing what’s happening at UBC every day,” says Gail Murphy. “Our faculty, staff and students have so much to offer the world. We welcome alumni to come and get involved through mentorship, research collaborations and even for investment. We would love to hear from you.”