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Canada is placing bets on ‘open science’ to drive innovation

No one invented the mountain bike. It just happened.

Back in the 1970s, riders in California and Colorado desperately wanted to take their road bikes into the nearby mountains. So they stripped parts from other two-wheelers, and adapted their bikes for off-road use. The result was a bike with a rugged frame, fat tires, wider gear ratios and heavy-duty brakes.

The mountain bike came about from tinkering and sharing. Manufacturers came along later, creating a lucrative new product category.

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Canada could use a little more of the mountain-bike approach to innovation – open, user-driven science – and perhaps a little less of the closed-door model of patents and licensing that prevails now.

Earlier this month, the federal and Ontario governments joined the private sector to make a modest bet on an ongoing open-science experiment at the University of Toronto. Genome Canada – a federal funding agency – along with the Ontario government and a clutch of pharmaceutical companies are investing $33-million in the Structural Genomics Consortium, a Canadian-led public-private partnership doing research into protein structures used in treatments for diseases such as cancer, ALS and Huntington's. The consortium, which also gets funding from private foundations and works with several leading U.S. and European universities, stands out because it refuses to patent anything. And it puts no restrictions on the use of its research.

Aled Edwards, a University of Toronto biochemist and chief executive of Structural Genomics, describes the research network as an "open playground," where know-how, collaboration and industry connections have taken the place of traditional intellectual property.

"The old way is not working," Prof. Edwards lamented. "If we were inventing medicines left, right and centre, that would be great. But that's not the reality for neurological diseases."

Researchers are still troubled by basic questions, such as how Alzheimer's works and what causes Parkinson's disease, he lamented.

The Montreal Neurological Institute, part of McGill University, is also embracing the open-science model – one of the first medical research organizations in the world to do so. Instead of capturing potentially lucrative intellectual property, the institute is essentially giving away its research. Rather than patent their work, researchers and clinicians have committed to sharing it with outsiders, between disciplines and with business.

The "Neuro", as the institute is known, hopes its six-month-old open-science experiment will attract more private venture capital, create jobs and lure companies back to the city's shrunken medical-research sector. The institute is in the midst of drawing up "measurable indicators" to track whether its groundbreaking approach to research and development is delivering on the promise, said Richard Gold, a professor of law and human genetics at McGill, who is leading the evaluation.

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"Being open allows the translation of ideas and makes things happen faster," said Prof. Edwards, who also holds an adjunct post at the Neuro. "If it's right for society, it should be good for business. And if it's good for patients, it should be good for science and discovery."

Prof. Edwards is right about the status quo. Canadian universities collectively spend tens of millions of dollars a year on technology transfer, trying to monetize research and spawn companies, even when their work is a long way from being market-ready. Most are barely recovering their administrative costs, or worse. Even in the United States, few schools have found the magic formula. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology reportedly makes more money selling T-shirts than licensing intellectual property.

Canadian companies continue to be R&D laggards compared to rivals in other developed countries – in spite of substantial publicly funded research labs and postsecondary resources available to them.

This suggests we have to start thinking differently about how to foster innovation. The traditional model is that creativity starts with special people at elite universities, R&D labs, or in vast corporate R&D centres with game rooms, yoga studios and bring-your-pet-to-work privileges – places built to inspire people to be more creative.

That's great if it works. But governments, companies and institutions are doing many things, and spending substantial sums, in the name of driving innovation, and then crossing their fingers that good things will happen. Too often, nothing happens.

"We can't protect assets and then do nothing with them," Prof. Edwards said. "It's an open world. We need to out-compete [other countries]. But if you compete by being protectionist we are acknowledging that we suck and that the only way to compete is to keep [intellectual property] secret."

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