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Dr. Cal Stiller poses in his offices in a converted historic home in London, Ontario, Thursday, April 1, 2010 (Dave Chidley)
Dr. Cal Stiller poses in his offices in a converted historic home in London, Ontario, Thursday, April 1, 2010 (Dave Chidley)

Innovation Q&A

Physician melds research and entrepreneurship Add to ...

When he started his career as a physician in London, Ont., Cal Stiller probably didn't expect one of his lasting marks on the field of medical science to be his vision of entrepreneurial innovation.

But that's exactly what happened after Dr. Stiller, who this week was named a recipient of a prestigious Canada Gairdner Award, saw a dire need to fix the imbalance of research and commercial development in the country's life sciences. He says he has always had an entrepreneurial spirit, which inspired him to work with colleagues to create centres such as the Toronto-based MaRS Discovery District, which brings researchers and budding entrepreneurs together.

Dr. Stiller spoke to The Globe and Mail about the challenges of entrepreneurship, how to recognize a failing project, and the keys to being a success, whether or not you're in the field of biotechnology.

Q: We see that so much of the research and development that is done has traditionally involved big industries, big institutions, big companies. What was it that made you think it was really worth tapping into small start-ups, fostering very small businesses almost before they were even businesses?

A: Well first of all big oaks from small acorns grow. It was apparent to me that every great company had its small start. ... The fact is you have to have a combination of good science, good technology and good business. What I saw happening was that there was very good Canadian science, and I was involved a lot on the international level, that was competitive with international science, but never made its way into commercial interests. Ultimately I would see some of the best, but not all of the best, pop up south of the border and I coined the phrase: ‘We discover, they exploit and we buy back the products.' And so I decided that it was worthwhile trying to foster good science, leading to good business, and finding the entrepreneurs that could do that. Besides, I love entrepreneurship. It's like saying to somebody, ‘So why do you golf?' Well, I love it.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges or problems that have been standing in the way of the entrepreneurial spirit in Canada, whether it's science-related or not?

A: Well historically of course it wasn't the thing to do. Academic institutions look down on people who were involved in business. ... You couldn't really admit that you were in business and be a scholar at the same time. That of course began to change and it changed gradually and then universities began to actually foster it ... But in spite of that change in attitude, success didn't really follow and it comes down to the fact that you need good business ... and good business people as well as good technology. As a matter of fact, I have said that if I had my choice and I had to make an investment between a good technology and bad management or bad technology and good management, I'd choose the latter because you can always discard the technology and find something else that's going to work, whereas you're stuck with the management. It comes down to those things. That's one of the reasons we helped in the formation of MaRS, because that was a centre where we could teach Entrepreneurship 101 and begin to bring the skills of business together with the skills and excellence of science.

Q: You talked about good management. When you're looking at something, what makes a particular person or product or venture something that you want to get involved with?

A: First of all, the technology has to be the best in the world. It's not the best in Ingersoll, it's not the best in Canada, it's the best in the world because ultimately you'll come up against competition and if you don't have the best product, then you're going to die. The technology has to meet a human need. Certainly technology can create human need. I remember giving an address once where I said: ‘If necessity is the mother of invention, then invention is the grandmother of necessity.' If you take, let's say, the mobile phone, nobody knew that they needed a mobile phone until it was possible and it took two decades before the big block Motorola phone became refined enough that people left their stationary phone and went to the mobile phone. In that instance, one was creating something for which there wasn't a known need. Ultimately though, you need to fill a need. The third issue is having the financing to take you through what are really difficult times where you develop the technology, you get proof of concepts in the human, as an example, in life sciences and then you enter the long regulatory pathway that allows you ultimately to get it approved for sale. And that's where most companies fail. ... It is the lack of risk capital that is the primary issue in terms of the current failure of Canadian life sciences.

Q: Was there ever a time when you had to just walk away from a particular project, or one that would make you say ‘I can't continue with this any more'?

A: Oh yeah, there were several. I can divide it I guess into two categories. One where the management was just abysmal and the control was in the hands of management and parties related to management, and so you simply couldn't make the changes that you needed to. The second is where one has made a fundamental error in assessing the technology and it's not the best technology and it gets leapfrogged by something else or where in some instances one was misled ... Not deliberately misled, but misled by a combination of management and experts as to whether the technology could meet the human need that you were purporting it to meet. Fundamental flaws in technology.

Q: What would be some advice that you could give to would-be entrepreneurs?

A: My advice, first of all, is if you are the inventor, to make sure that you associate yourself with investors who are there for the right reasons. I don't want to cast aspersions, but not all people are noble and not all people are honest and so scientists or inventors will get involved with individuals who simply want to exploit them on the short term and are very smart with respect to how they can invest and flip their interest. That's the greatest source of, I would say, disappointment that happens with respect to inventors. Make sure that people who sit at the table share your risk and are honest. The second thing is this takes sacrifice. You have to be prepared to commit yourself to commercialization. ... I'm not saying it's a greater commitment than it took initially to make the discovery, but it's equal in its intensity and so it's nights and weekends and travel to raise money and giving up sharing some of your interests in the company with other people who you need as part of your team. Rarely does one have a penicillin or an insulin where one individual essentially discovers that it can go, it's so apparent, it's so obvious in its benefit that it can go straight commercially and you can make it and still continue on with your science. ... Then as I say, you're going to have to give up a fair amount of your freedom, and I think secondly the likelihood that you will be able to be the head of the company is remote, I think less than 10 per cent, because the skills necessary to bring an invention from the bench to the bank is very different than from the bank to the bedside.

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