Ushering breakthrough inventions out of the lab and into the market
When the Canadian team Ionomr recently won the Start Up Energy Transition (SET) award in Berlin, the competition’s congratulatory tweet noted that Ionomr’s “disruptive and revolutionary membrane technology offers to turn the energy world itself upside down.”
With the world’s most durable, high-performance, anion-exchange membrane, which can be applied in cost-effective clean energy generation, energy storage and industrial wastewater treatment, Ionomr won the low-carbon energy production category in this prestigious competition, which attracted 400 international competitors.
The startup, which was founded by a Simon Fraser University (SFU) chemistry professor and three SFU graduates, is an example of the calibre of breakthrough research happening at Canadian universities. What sets it apart is its transition into the market, says Elicia Maine, Innovation & Entrepreneurship professor at SFU’s Beedie School of Business.
Ionomr, a company with 16 employees, was launched out of SFU’s department of chemistry and the Invention to Innovation (i2I) commercialization program at the Beedie School of Business, which is led by Dr. Maine. “Getting science inventions, and particularly breakthrough inventions, into the market is something even the best and most innovative universities in the world struggle with,” she says. “It’s counterintuitive. You would think these kinds of ideas would easily come out of the lab, but that’s not the case.”
Industry partners are typically more open to adopting or collaborating on incremental innovation, such as improvements to existing products, processes and services. Breakthrough inventions are more commonly commercialized by small startups – and the path from idea to impact can be long, complex and highly uncertain, according to Dr. Maine. Currently, many of these new ideas are either published but don’t move to the startup stage due to lack of funding or are licensed to large companies who may delay their entry into the market.
“Canada punches above its weight in invention, but is lagging behind on capitalizing on its world-leading science,” she says. With 0.5 per cent of the world’s population, the country produces almost five per cent of top-cited papers, yet the number of new firms to file for patents is much less impressive.
A survey of 5,000 leaders of technology-related companies with more than 20 employees identified the top barrier to innovation as “risk and uncertainty,” says Dr. Maine. She believes that this is where a business school has something unique to offer: to help innovators be comfortable managing under conditions of risk and uncertainty so that they can maximize upside opportunities while mitigating downside exposure.
“SFU Innovates, the university’s innovation strategy, has a very broad and progressive innovation and entrepreneurship education portfolio with programming at every level,” she says. “At the graduate level, we engage scientists and engineers in the part-time, 11-month
i2I program. The assignments and presentations are customized around their innovation idea, but the pedagogy is meant to give them lifelong skills in new product development, creating and testing value propositions, managing under uncertainty and championing innovation.
“We are engaging people who are already highly qualified in their own fields and who often already have patented technology or tangible technology they could patent, but most of whom have never founded a company,” adds Dr. Maine.
For science-based innovations, which can take five to 15 years to commercialize, “it is important to think early on about IP strategy and patent protection, initial target markets and customers, the direction of R&D efforts and how to structure a company, especially if the innovation can be applied in multiple industries,” she says. “Ideally, the best place for considering these questions is in the head of the inventor, who knows what may be technically possible.”
i2I graduates are comfortable in business development roles in addition to pure science or engineering roles. Dr. Maine reports a lot of “career transitions as well as new ventures coming out of every cohort,” she says. “We have alumni in business development roles in the biomedical, clean tech and agricultural biotechnology sectors.”
Ionomr was founded by an i2I graduate from the initial 2015 cohort, who developed a business that designs, adapts and manufactures advanced ion-exchange membranes. The startup already has production and export capabilities and an innovation with both near-term and long-term market opportunities, she says. “They have done their strategic thinking and have a technology that can do a great deal of good for the world.”
It’s a perfect example of how the program gives inventions with the potential for a substantial economic and social impact a better chance for finding commercial success, says Dr. Maine. “We impart the perspective, framework and skills that enable these scientists and engineers to take their inventions forward – at the same time, we’re helping the innovation ecosystem in B.C. and across the country.”
She adds that events like the #BCTECH Summit, the largest technology conference in Western Canada held in Vancouver from May 14 to 16, bring together inventors, industry and government to support innovation.
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