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Why business should do more to commercialize university research

Researcher Lian Leng at the University of Toronto demonstrates a prototype for printing tissue. A new report from the C.D. Howe Institute says that Canadian universities spend lots on R&D, but fall behind in bringing their ideas to market.

Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

Businesses aren't doing their part to help commercialize university research in Canada, according to a new C.D. Howe Institute report .

Canadian universities spend more than $11-billion a year on research and development – more per capita than U.S. universities – but they are laggards when it comes to "technology transfer," concludes social scientist Peter Howitt, professor emeritus at Brown University and a C.D. Howe resident fellow.

The report puts a large part of the blame on the business community.

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"It is doubtful that Canada will be able to close the productivity gap with the U.S. in technology transfer until businesses start to play their part, instead of relying on universities to do more than their share," the report said.

A major problem – highlighted in numerous recent reports on innovation in Canada – is the failure of businesses to invest enough in R&D. Canadian businesses invest half as much per capita as U.S. companies, and overall spending has been falling as a share of gross domestic product since 2000.

University research, on the other hand, has been climbing steadily over the past three decades.

"Technology transfer requires university expertise to provide research, and business expertise to do the development," the report said. "If Canadian businesses continue to rely on universities to do the kind of development activities for which universities do not have a comparative advantage, the quality of Canadian universities will be compromised and the process of technology transfer will suffer."

The report also argues that the solution doesn't lie in directing academics to do more business-related research.

"The overarching priority for Canada should be to attract the best researchers in the world," Prof. Howitt said. "The best way to attract such scientists to Canada is to redirect research support towards the problems that are most challenging from a scientific point of view, not towards those that bureaucrats view as most likely to lead to commercial success."

Among the key findings of the report, U.S. universities are better at technology transfer because the best U.S. universities are higher ranked than Canada's best and therefore attract more research dollars. Canada has just three in the top 50 World University Rankings, compared to a dozen U.S. schools.

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The top U.S. universities spend more than three times on R&D what top Canadian schools do and are more productive at generating outcomes. U.S. universities also are more experienced at patenting and technology transfer, are more entrepreneurial and often tap into the highly developed U.S. venture capital market.

The report's key recommendations include:

– Businesses should spend more on R&D

– Make all federally funded research papers freely available to the public online;

– Reorient the focus of federal granting agencies to academic excellence over quick payoffs;

– Get university technology transfer offices to foster interactions between businesses and faculty;

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– Convert the National Research Council institutes into agencies devoted to fostering university-industry cooperation;

– Develop a set of standard protocols for sharing intellectual property between universities, researchers and business partners.

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