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vivek goel

Vivek Goel is vice-president, research and innovation, at the University of Toronto.

It has been a century since John Gerald FitzGerald combined his passion for medicine, his scientific knowledge and the resources of a major Canadian university to make history.

Dr. FitzGerald's initial work in a barn on Barton Street in Toronto (the 1913 equivalent of a garage!) led to the development of the Connaught Antitoxin Laboratories and University Farm on the northern outskirts of the city. This facility played a leading role in providing accessible vaccines to fight diphtheria and later polio, as well as insulin production.

At the time, there was no road map to guide such a university-based endeavour that included teaching, research and manufacturing. There were no tech-transfer offices and no debates on how best to share intellectual property rights or which tax incentives could best support startups. There was a shared desire to put research know-how to work to save lives. A hundred years later, universities and governments are continuously searching for the best route to encourage innovation and translate today's research into the next medical breakthrough, successful startup or game-changing technology.

The stakes are high. Making the most of our country's intellectual resources is essential to building a strong economy and developing our next generation of talent.

The federal government pledged in this year's budget to invest $800-million over the next four years in innovation networks and clusters. That means that in the coming months, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains will be deciding how best to target that funding. How he does that will have ramifications for years, possibly decades, to come.

Our experience at the University of Toronto leads to one common conclusion: While there is a natural tendency to search for a "magic bullet" or simple formula to encourage innovation, the fact is there is no single path, no one-size-fits-all solution. The supports that work for a small technology startup creating a new app won't work for a biotech firm that faces years of testing and regulatory approvals before its product can come to market.

What is needed is a diversity of approaches, where researchers can select the model that works best for them, based on their personal circumstances and their stage of development. We need to present options, not dictate terms. Over the past decade, we've applied that philosophy and witnessed the results. We've established different entrepreneurship programs spread over our three campuses and various faculties, creating several pathways to encourage innovation. During that time, we have seen the number of patents and startups increase dramatically.

We have also seen tremendous growth in student interest in entrepreneurship. In the past year alone, we supported more than 200 student-led teams and startups that went on to raise $19-million in investments and generated $2.5-million in sales.

Critics might say such an approach is overly complex, but this diversity means that more people are likely to find the supports they need when and where they need them. It allows inventors to go in different directions. Such as Dan Drucker, who successfully developed and commercialized novel treatments for diabetes; the team of university researchers behind ChipCare, which has as its mission to increase access to diagnostic blood tests particularly in developing countries with the use of hand-held technology; the students who developed Nymi, a company developing a wristband used for biometric authentication; or the researchers at the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs who created software that allows people to access the Internet in countries with repressive regimes.

In order to offer such diversity, it is important to have a critical mass, not only within the university but in the broader community, in neighbouring universities and hospitals. As Silicon Valley and other regions have shown, success breeds more success and creating an environment where innovation flourishes requires more than a single policy change or a targeted grant program. Toronto and its surrounding regions hold great promise to continue to support and foster innovations, with the strengths at a range of universities and colleges and flourishing ecosystem of supports for entrepreneurs.

Finally, while profits and intellectual property ownership can influence innovation, so too can factors that are far harder to quantify such as culture and passion. Counting patents, companies created or licensing revenue is only a rough guide of success. As we move forward and invest more in innovation, we must also get better at measuring results and defining our desired outcomes.

One hundred years ago, Dr. FitzGerald was moved to action as he witnessed diphtheria claim the lives of children. He saw a need and mobilized his scientific knowledge and university resources to make it right. He did so not to make money or create jobs, but in focusing on what was right, he achieved both of those in spades. That's the model that we need to emulate – combining passion, knowledge and institutional support in new ways to make a difference that benefits us all.

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