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Former BlackBerry co-CEO Jim Balsillie.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Former BlackBerry Ltd. co-CEO Jim Balsillie warns that the country needs to dramatically sharpen its approach to intellectual property rights as it looks to reduce the environmental footprint of its vital resource-based economy.

In a speech to be delivered Wednesday night in Toronto to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, Mr. Balsillie said Canada's economy and environmental goals are incompatible unless new technology is brought to bear – and that the required innovation will stall unless the country protects the intellectual property of its innovators.

Mr. Balsillie's interest in the matter stems from his chairmanship of the federal government's clean-tech venture fund, Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC), since last summer.

In an interview Wednesday, he said intellectual property rights are as critical to the environmental technology sector as they are in the information and communications technologies business, where patent battles have billion-dollar consequences.

"This is a very predatory, very complex, very global capacity game. And we're AWOL on it in Canada." It's about more than the success of individual companies or specific sectors, he said.

National economies need homegrown innovation to succeed in a fiercely competitive, rapidly changing global market, Mr. Balsillie said, adding that Canada currently is losing that battle despite the urgent need for transformation in the country's resource sector, which remains the backbone of the economy.

"I am suggesting that sustainability and economic growth are currently incompatible here in Canada," he said in his speech. "So the challenge for us … is clear: We must collectively aspire to resolve this dichotomy – and resolve it fast in a manner that responsibly preserves our natural, economic and social order."

The United States and European Union are already moving to update their intellectual property rights regimes in order to ensure that their companies remain competitive and to protect them from both global rivals and patent "trolls" that would steal the value they create through innovation.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama urged Congress to pass patent reform legislation "that allows our businesses to stay focused on innovation, not costly and needless litigation."

Mr. Balsillie is urging Ottawa to establish a program to advise small companies – such as those funded by SDTC – on patent issues and how to protect their intellectual property as they expand into national and global markets. And he wants the federal government to address shortcomings in its own intellectual property laws.

The threat of losing their intellectual property is a major obstacle for Canadian technology firms as they move from startup to fully commercial operations.

"Once you actually begin to scale up, only then does the game really begin. That's when people say, 'Yikes, there's money.' Because everybody is nice until there is money to be gained," he said.

"They don't go global because they know they're going to get killed. It's a suicide march if the terrain is not well prepared."

Canada's oil sands industry is a major case in point. Companies are being pressured to improve their environmental performance in terms of water usage, land disturbance and greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, companies have established the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), with the aim of sharing innovation that would normally be closely guarded intellectual property.

But COSIA is still struggling with implementation, as companies continue to protect their competitive advantage and are reluctant to adopt technology developed by startup firms.

Mr. Balsillie said the oil industry will have to seize on technology to survive in a world increasingly concerned about climate change – but that the challenge can be a global opportunity if companies can commercialize and market their innovations. And that will require aggressive protection of their intellectual property, he added.

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