Tohid Didar is an associate professor of engineering at McMaster University.
On a recent Uber ride, the driver asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a professor.
“What do you teach?” he asked.
I explained that while I teach engineering, I actually spend more time doing research in my field, which mainly involves developing biomedical devices and materials that can be used for diagnostics and preventing the spread of pathogens.
“Oh, so you’re a scientist!” the driver said with some surprise.
That conversation and many others like it make me wonder how we can open up the perceptions and definitions of what professors do.
Some profs prefer to teach above all else, and schools such as McMaster, where I work, have introduced a new form of tenure we call “teaching track,” so those academics can excel in their areas of strength. I respect that.
But I think universities everywhere should also think about introducing another new form of professorship: the professor-entrepreneur, a role that would help businesses, universities and society benefit more directly and efficiently from practical research.
Canada and its provinces, territories and municipalities are eager to foster a culture of innovation and create more opportunities through advanced manufacturing, but it has been challenging. Creating this new form of professorship could help to close the sometimes frustrating gap between ideas and implementation.
A few years ago, I led a research team that developed a test that can be incorporated into food packaging to generate a warning when food is contaminated with E. coli, listeria or other harmful bacteria.
It was an exciting innovation for us, but we only learned later how challenging it would be for the industry to adopt, because it would require amending highly evolved, tightly controlled manufacturing processes and add a few cents to the cost of each package.
Had we known sooner about those barriers to implementation, we might have directed our research differently from the beginning.
Similarly, we have developed a technology to treat surfaces so they repel everything they come in contact with: water, soil and, most importantly, viruses and bacteria. To us, it seems like a very promising way to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.
We created a method that takes about 24 hours, only to learn the industry needs something much, much faster – a process that can be measured in seconds.
Again, had we known, we might have approached our original work differently. Instead, we are adapting both products so they can move forward.
This overall branch of research – applied research – is aimed at solving specific practical problems.
For those of us involved with applied research, I strongly believe it would help to have the option of restructuring our work to move our findings into the practical world.
Compared with a generation ago, manufacturers are less able to support in-house research and development and are increasingly turning to universities to help them meet the future.
As professor-entrepreneurs, we could participate in industry-based sabbaticals at the kinds of companies we are targeting in our work, and learn more about their processes and needs while retaining our independence, academic freedom and public accountability.
Instead of participating only in academic conferences, for example, professor-entrepreneurs could take part in trade shows and other industry expos.
Such experiences would help us understand the emerging practicalities and processes of businesses, and see how our university research work can fit more readily into the changing landscape.
Spending time in the industrial sector would enrich the teaching of professor-entrepreneurs and provide better experiential learning opportunities for our students.
Professor-entrepreneurs could also benefit from specific funding and legal help similar to what’s available through initiatives such as the Canada Research Chairs Program.
The more directly we can put applied research into play, the more our universities can benefit from revenue-sharing agreements, which are typically part of the intellectual property arrangements faculty members have with their schools.
As researchers, the more we know about the way things work on the other side of the street, the more likely it is our innovations will reach the marketplace, where they can serve to improve the way we all live.
We in the academic world need to make sure that what we do is as useful as it can be, and this would be a helpful step. It’s time to add a new model.