The federal government on Thursday delivered one of the last items of its innovation agenda before this fall’s election by launching several initiatives to help Canadian technology firms increase their use and understanding of intellectual property (IP).
Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said at a news conference in Waterloo, Ont., that the government had chosen a new non-profit entity called Innovation Asset Collective (IAC) to run a four-year pilot project known as a “patent collective.” The project, financed with $30-million in federal money, will help small and medium enterprises (SMEs) with their IP needs, in part by buying and holding patents related to data and clean technology. Members of the collective can then license these patents on a perpetual basis, which will protect themselves against IP infringement lawsuits – a common hazard in the sector. Members will not have to share ownership of their own patents to join.
Mr. Bains also launched an online marketplace geared toward Canadian businesses looking to buy or license patents from Canadian universities. In addition, he announced that four law schools, at University of Ottawa, University of Windsor, York University and Université de Montréal, would share $200,000 annually to develop or expand resources to provide inexpensive IP legal services to Canadian innovators. The government first promised the measures as part of its $85.3-million IP strategy in April, 2018.
That strategy is one of a string of measures introduced by the Trudeau government to address many long-term deficiencies in the Canadian economy by providing domestic innovators with greater access to capital, talent and global markets. “This was something that was long overdue,” Mr. Bains told The Globe and Mail. “It has a lot of potential to grow and create opportunities for Canadian businesses.”
Some of the government’s innovation measures have been warmly received by industry, including funding for venture capitalists, female entrepreneurs and AI researchers and changes to speed up immigration for foreign technology workers. By contrast, the government’s flagship $950-million “supercluster” program to stimulate five industry sectors has met with skepticism and has yet to demonstrate meaningful results, while its long-promised data strategy has also fallen short of expectations.
Meanwhile, Canadian IP experts warned the renegotiated North American free-trade agreement could hurt this country’s tech sector by broadening protections in a way that gives advantages to IP-rich U.S. tech giants.
However, many of those same critics also championed Ottawa’s IP strategy. Central to Thursday’s announcement was the patent collective, whose winning bidder, IAC, includes many of the top names in Canada’s IP landscape. IAC directors include: Waterloo patent lawyer Jim Hinton; Victoria-based IP consultant Peter Cowan; former BlackBerry executives Chris Wormald and Karima Bawa; McGill University law professor Richard Gold; Myra Tawfik, founder of the Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship Clinic at the University of Windsor; and Leah Lawrence, CEO of federal cleantech funding agency Sustainable Development Technology Canada.
“We’re taking models that have been proven in other jurisdictions, making it Canadian and applying it to our specific needs,” Mr. Wormald said.
Ottawa IP lawyer Natalie Raffoul said the patent collective “could be a game-changer for Canadian startups” by addressing "a myriad of [IP-related] issues that have plagued Canadian SMEs.”
IP has increasingly become a cornerstone of the global economy and contributor to economic growth, but Canada has not kept up, experts say. Patent filings from Canada shrank by more than 22 per cent between 2014 and 2017 while global filings grew by 14 per cent. Canada – home to several pioneering AI researchers – was the only jurisdiction to see a decline in AI patent filings from 2016 to 2018, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization.
A general lack of sophistication by Canadian companies in the IP realm has left them vulnerable to actions by savvy, often predatory foreign tech giants and patent trolls that have proved to be costly and time-consuming distractions or worse, Ms. Tawfik said. She said the measures from Ottawa represent “a transformation in the way the Canadian government has addressed IP. It’s the first time government has looked at the business of IP and helped Canadians gain expertise, and by focusing attention on where it really matters … on the strategic uses of IP, skills development and services the enterprises need.”
The IP strategy also represents a victory for former BlackBerry chairman and co-CEO Jim Balsillie, who is a long-time proponent for better IP awareness and policy action to help Canadian innovators.
“IP and data are essential capital assets for today’s economy,” said Mr. Balsillie, now chairman of the Council of Canadian of Innovators, a lobby group for Canadian-based technology companies. "I am optimistic [the patent collective] initiative will make a real difference.”
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