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University of Alberta President Indira Samarasekera. (John Ulan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
University of Alberta President Indira Samarasekera. (John Ulan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Canada Competes

U of A’s Indira Samarasekera: Canada’s R&D lag costs us Add to ...

So how do you commercialize basic research coming out of universities like U of A?

I think we need to allow the people who have come up with the ideas to commercialize them, if they have the capability. That’s where the University of Waterloo has been successful – they have allowed the inventors to own the intellectual property. That has worked very well for the information technology area, because you can start with a single discovery and create a software program or an app. In the biomedical field, it’s a lot more difficult. At U of A, we own the IP [intellectual property] but will license it to a company – either one started by the inventor or by others – because there is no way a university can develop a drug. You have to recognize the difficulties inherent in different technologies and create the kind of vehicles that are appropriate for that particular business.

What do the inventors get out of it, if U of A owns the intellectual property?

The ownership is really not the issue, it’s about the revenue. So you share royalties or equity stake. I think it’s a third/a third/a third kind of arrangement: a third to the university, a third to the faculty, a third to the inventor.

How do we get larger companies to do more R&D?

Many countries – the U.S. and Israel, for example – give direct grants or credits for R&D. So they can write off their R&D expenses against the total cost, which means they get the benefit upfront. The problem with tax credits is that it’s after-the-fact. It would cost Canada several billion dollars to do this, but one of the ways we can become more competitive is to attract multinational companies to do R&D here. And we are more likely to attract more R&D if we give them direct recognition for the R&D performed in this country. If you create a cluster anchored by larger R&D companies, you can create a vibrant ecosystem that would be enormously competitive.

What else could the federal government be doing to promote R&D in the private sector?

If you look at major clusters in the U.S. or Singapore or Israel, they are built around their leading universities. We need many more of our universities to be among the Top 50 in the world in terms of knowledge creation, in terms of having the top 1 or 2 per cent of researchers, in terms of having Nobel laureates, the kind of people whose research is so frontier that companies want to relocate around these knowledge clusters. The second step is to create incentives for businesses and universities to work more closely together to get that knowledge out. And we have to look at how we license patents and inventions in universities to these companies and help them grow. Very often, start-ups can’t attract enough capital in that critical early stage to improve new inventions so they have market potential.

How do we fix that?

Early-stage tech companies can work with universities to improve that commercial potential, because the universities have the research infrastructure. The National Institute of Nanotechnology is a wonderful example of a hybrid model. We have a researcher who’s doing some work in hybrid molecular electronics, and he’s working with Hitachi in Japan to look at transferring some of his discoveries to build better microscopes.

Give me some examples of organizations doing great things in terms of R&D.

The Perimeter Institute in Waterloo is an enormous success, because it created a completely new model of building an independent research institute adjacent to a university. I think Mike Lazaridis should be commended for doing something in the area of theoretical physics, which is really a blue-sky frontier that ultimately will lead to discoveries that we can’t even imagine.

If you could make a pitch to larger companies that are skimping on R&D, what would you say?

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