Given our obsession with weather, it is fitting that the first Canadian instrument ever to land on another planet is a weather station. On May 26, 2008, a suite of highly sophisticated meteorological tools aboard the Phoenix spacecraft started keeping tabs on the atmosphere of Mars. The design and construction of this station was led by a team of scientists and engineers from York University who collaborated with the Canadian Space Agency, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, a Canadian laser-based surveying company called Optech, and the Finnish Meteorological Institute, to name a few.
It is perhaps the single most dramatic example of what can be achieved when the barriers between universities, the private sector, and government agencies are broken down.
Deconstructing those barriers is the job of "technology transfer" offices at universities across the country. Technology transfer is the process of taking the intellectual property that is generated on campus and finding ways of getting that out into the real world. It can involve patenting and licensing inventions, doing research for hire, fostering the growth of spinoff companies emanating from campus research, or building and operating research parks where private companies can set up shop in an atmosphere that is tightly integrated with campus life. For some, this represents a real step forward in the role that universities play in our society: They are no longer isolated "ivory towers" but centres of innovation where inventors and scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs can come together.
The creeping influence of the private sector on campus, however, has a number of critics. Universities have been accused of selling off their most noble mission, the pursuit of truth, to the highest bidder. Even worse, there is a perception that universities that once shared their research openly and widely have become secret enclaves, hording knowledge
until the day they can find a way to profit from it. Jennifer Washburn, author of University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education, writes, "The openness and sharing that once characterized university life has given way to a new proprietary culture more akin to the business world."
Arthur Schafer, a biomedical ethicist and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba , has called for a ban on universities accepting corporate funding for research. Speaking to a conference on academic integrity last year, Prof. Shafer told the crowd, "If we want public science in the public interest, it's got to be paid through public tax dollars, it's got to be free of corporate interests."
At York, however, Stan Shapson, vice-president of Research and Innovation, does not see any conflict. "The word 'commercialization' gets certain people's backs up, and there's really no reason," he says. "Universities do a lot of basic research. In most cases these are things that are years or decades away from having an impact on society, but when faculty members are working on things that can have an impact today, then why not develop closer relationships with industry and the private sector? Researchers might have a great idea, but they don't necessarily know where to take that idea, or how to prototype it. Working with industry should be part of the natural cycle of doing research."
According to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, private sector funding for research at Canadian universities has grown dramatically, from $910 million ten years ago to over $1.7 billion today. For Dr. Shapson though, the most exciting thing about the Phoenix project wasn't the millions of dollars in research funds that came to York because of it, but the experience gained by the students and researchers. "The most important type of technology transfer that occurs," he says, "is the experience we provide to our students, most of whom are also going to wind up in private industry. We don't look at this as a money maker. In fact, if you look carefully at the business case you'll see that it's very difficult to make money this way, unless you're the University of Florida and you hit on Gatorade."
When discussing how universities might turn their research efforts into moneymakers, the subject of Gatorade always seems to come up. A mixture of water, sugar, lemon juice, sodium, potassium, and phosphate, it is one of the simplest, yet most successful products ever to come out of a university. Since the University of Florida started collecting royalties on the sports drink in 1973, it has made over $80 million (U.S.). This is the dream that keeps technology transfer officers wandering the halls of universities and asking researchers what they are working on. Everyone's chasing the next Gatorade.
One of the people who knows how hard it is to find another Gatorade-type invention is Angus Livingstone. He's been managing the University-Industry Liaison Office at the University of British Columbia for twenty years now, making him the "dean of technology transfer" in Canada. During that time, he estimates that they've looked seriously at perhaps 2,500 different technologies. UBC holds hundreds of patents, and in the last year or so, it has surpassed the $100-million mark in total revenue earned from license agreements, making it easily the top school in Canada in intellectual property earnings.
However, Mr. Livingstone emphasizes that the vast majority of inventions they work on never wind up making any money. Of all the revenue UBC has earned, he estimates that 98% of it comes from just 20 different license agreements. The university's biggest money maker has been QLT, a spin-off company started by a group of UBC biologists in the early '80s that is now one of Canada's biggest biopharmaceutical companies.
Mr. Livingston says it's possible for universities to be too vigilant when it comes to protecting intellectual property. "There are certain technologies," he says, "which do have great value, that may turn into large companies or even entire industries, and those should be protected, but there are very few of them. In the '90s there was a lot of concern about the potential value of intellectual property, and there was a very strong desire to try to protect everything and extract as much value as possible. That was often at odds with industry though. They wanted easy access to whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it. It cost us some relationships.
"Eventually, we started to understand each other better. Now, we understand the needs of industry and industry understands the needs of the university. The benefits flow in both directions and that includes training and educational opportunities for our students."
At the University of Western Ontario , Mr. Paul Paolatto agrees that managing the relationship between the university and industry is an essential part of the process. Paolatto is the Acting Executive Director of WORLDiscoveries, Western's main technology-transfer office, and the former president of a company that started as a technology spinoff at UWO. Since he comes from the industry side, rather than the academic side, he feels he brings a unique perspective on how the two can work together best. Mr. Paolatto sees the mission of technology transfer as one of expanding upon the work that researchers are already doing, not directing them toward his notion of what a money-making idea might be. "Researchers tend to focus on publication and leave it at that, but if we can take some of that intelligence and commercialize it, then there can be benefits to the environment, to health care and to the country as a whole. It's not just about monetary gain; though that is a consideration, this can also be about social gain.
"We are seeing so many inventions that previously would have died on the lab bench and we're moving them to market. Canada's biggest asset today is our knowledge base. If we can tap into that a bit better it will help offset some of the decline we see in other areas of the economy. This is really an exciting place to be. I'm delighted to be a part of it."
On the opposite side, purists argue that even if corporate funds do not in fact compromise academic ethics, they can still give the impression that ethics are compromised, which is almost as worrying. One case often cited is that of Dr. David Healy.
A respected scholar from the University of Wales College of Medicine, Dr. Healy was offered the position in 2000 of heading up the Mood and Anxiety Disorder Program at the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health (CAHM), a hospital affiliated with the University of Toronto. Just before he took up his new position, Dr. Healy gave a talk during which he blamed Prozac and other SSRI antidepressants for triggering suicide in some patients.
Shortly after his talk, the offer from CAMH was suddenly rescinded. He was informed that it was apparent that his approach to psychiatry was not going to be compatible with CAMH. The appearance of a serious breach of Dr. Healy's academic freedom was exacerbated by the fact that Prozac's maker, Eli Lilly, was a major sponsor of U of T, CAMH, and the clinic that Dr. Healy was supposed to lead. Both the university and Eli Lilly insist that the sponsorship arrangements had nothing to do with the job offer being rescinded. The incident became known internationally as "The Toronto Affair" and Healy's $9.4-million lawsuit was settled out of court.
The pharmaceutical industry funds a large percentage of medical research in Canada today. Many medical schools would find it difficult to operate were it not for the dollars rolling in from these companies. Given those facts, it's not just academic purists who wonder how much confidence we can have in studies that are ultimately funded by someone who has a vested interest in the outcome. The potential moral problems associated with taking money from tobacco companies or arms manufacturers are also familiar topics of debate on campus, and many have rules concerning just what kind of money it is alright for the university to accept, and what kind is not.
It's not desirable to return to a time when universities were completely cut off from corporations. But they also need to maintain their ideals. Jennifer Washburn puts it well in the final pages of University Inc. "Universities should be places that are engaged with the outside world, encourage creative problem solving, and support entrepreneurial thinking. They should have mechanisms in place to facilitate the transfer of new knowledge and inventions to industry and provide students with the tools and training they need to start up new companies and pursue new careers without sacrificing their autonomy or compromising the values and ideals they have long pledged to uphold."
THE NEW CENTRES OF EXCELLENCE
Some recently-established projects that combine campus brainpower with corporate cash:
Advanced Applied Physics Solutions, VANCOUVER
Located on UBC 's south campus, AAPS is a subsidiary of TRIUMF, Canada's world-class subatomic physics research lab and the world's largest cyclotron. AAPS will be responsible for commercializing particle accelerator technology, including applications in medical imaging and the production of medical isotopes.
Pan-Provincial Vaccine Enterprise, SASKATOON
Joins together Canada's vaccine industry and disease control organizations in order to accelerate the testing and development of new vaccines.
MaRS Innovation, TORONTO
MaRS is Canada's largest concentration of scientific and medical researchers. It brings together in one place all the resources of the University of Toronto , the city's major hospitals, and more than two dozen other affiliated research institutes. The mission is to turn that research power into economic opportunities.
Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer CECR in Therapeutics Discovery, MONTREAL
The Unit for the Discovery of Medicines at Université de Montreal has an extensive portfolio of targeted therapies to fight cancer. IRICoR will build relationships with new partners in the biopharmaceutical industry to make the most of these new therapies.
Centre for the Commercialization of Research, OTTAWA
Building on the success of the Ontario Centres of Excellence, CCR will find markets for new technologies from across Canada in fields as diverse as heath sciences, energy and digital media technology.
Centre of Excellence in Personalized Medicine, MONTREAL
Working with the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, and researchers from the Montreal Heart Institute and Génome Québec, CEPM will conduct clinical trials and help commercialize genome therapies and other genomic technologies.
CECR in the Prevention of Epidemic Organ Failure, VANCOUVER
It's estimated that vital organ failure costs the Canadian health care system more than $35 billion each year. Working with scientists from across Canada PROOF will seek solutions to this epidemic by moving away from drug-only strategies and toward improved methods of early detection.
The Prostate Centre's Translational Research Initiative for Accelerated Discovery and Development, VANCOUVER
Vancouver General Hospital houses one of the world's most respected prostate cancer facilities. PC-TRIADD will work to coordinate research from The Prostate Centre with other research facilities, national trials and private industry.
Centre for Probe Development and Commercialization, HAMILTON
McMaster University is at the forefront of research into molecular imaging probes. These are special compounds which, when injected into patients, help produce a very precise picture of what is going on in the body. CPDC will validate the safety of these probes, conduct clinical trials, and help bring the technology to market.
Bioindustrial Innovation Centre, SARNIA
Housed at UWO 's Sarnia-Lambton Research Park, BIC will focus on helping petrochemical companies develop alternative fuels from renewable sources of energy such as agricultural waste and forestry by-products.
Follow us on Twitter: