Professor Vivek Goel is vice-president, research and innovation at the University of Toronto.
When was the last time you travelled outside Canada? Can you remember the last time you had a conversation with someone born elsewhere or felt a personal link to international events?
Canadians pride themselves on our global connections, diversity and openness. We are a small but significant player on the world stage and our ability to work across borders is a key part of our influence. As we all benefit from such global connections, so does research. If you want to be at the leading edge globally, you have to build global partnerships. Prosperity-generating breakthroughs in Canada depend on knowledge that is produced here, as well as in many other research centres around the world.
Unfortunately, there are some people who raise concerns about working with foreign partners. Something has to be done, the argument goes, to stop academics from handing over our national know-how to foreign players with little in return.
It’s a seductive narrative – the appropriation of Canada’s intellectual crown jewels by external actors – and it often comes with a call for the government to prevent it from happening. Indeed, these same voices may also criticize universities for being out of touch with market forces in one breath, and in the next, raise the alarm that our graduates and researchers are leaving Canada to take jobs with multinationals.
Last week, such nationalistic arguments rose to a new level in the pages of this newspaper, with the additional criticism that foreign partnerships can lead to national-security concerns.
A reality check is needed.
Moving research from basic discovery to the marketplace is a long and arduous journey. It takes money, patience and skill to bridge what some describe as the “valley of death” – the seemingly vast chasm between ideation and commercialization. For every idea that makes the leap, there are many more that fail. Most university discoveries are very early stage fundamental science – turning these discoveries into commercial assets requires far more research and development work.
To bridge this gap, universities across Canada have forged successful partnerships with industry that often span decades. Many such industrial partnerships are with global corporations headquartered outside of Canada. Over the past decade, the University of Toronto has entered into partnership with roughly 250 multinationals, including their Canadian-based subsidiaries. We have signed even more partnership agreements with Canadian companies. In these collaborations, we negotiate intellectual property rights that allow us to continue our research and educational work, and benefit from its potential commercialization.
Each company will have their own reasons for working with us, but an underlying theme is a desire to tap into our research capacity, access highly qualified people and adopt new ideas and innovations, which can be developed and taken to market.
Critics of such partnerships tend to overlook the tremendous training and educational opportunities these partnerships create for students, especially at the graduate level. We structure our industry partnerships so they enrich the training and experiential education of our students, provide access to data, equipment and resources that augment our research programs, and provide a direct mechanism for our early stage discoveries to be moved into market with a range of benefits for society. Our students gain the kind of experience and knowledge this country needs to build a globally competitive work force. Some go on to create their own ventures, often with the help of campus-based supports. It is through building ecosystems that include a critical mass of such highly skilled personnel that we will ultimately be able to create global companies of our own. But without partnerships with existing global companies, we will continue to fall behind as a nation.
Do we wish there were more homegrown companies looking to partner on research development? Absolutely. But the sad fact is that there are few sizable Canadian firms with the risk tolerance, deep pockets, patience and corporate culture required to partner on research. We go out of our way to work with those who approach us. In the end, building walls around our research won’t lead to made-in-Canada innovation. Such a move would leave publicly funded research not in the hands of Canadian companies, but sitting on the shelf.
There is no doubt that national-security concerns cannot be ignored. We must, and do, think carefully about sharing intellectual property with those who could misuse it. Universities and researchers look to national-security experts in our government to advise us. In the absence of such advice, we will continue to work with corporations operating legally within our borders.
Far from selling out, collaborating with foreign partners, guided by appropriate oversight, helps ensure that society benefits from academic research and that this work is translated into valuable commercial activity. This will help Canada to build its influence and connections and enlarge its role as a significant global player.