Universities in Canada are becoming increasingly aware that technologies originating from the academic institutions are not making it into the commercial realm, despite the fact that the actual research is world class.
In the latest effort to buck that trend the first cohort from the University of Manitoba showed off its work in a program that is in the process of going national, called Lab2Market.
The U of M joins Dalhousie, Memorial and Ryerson universities in this 16-week "boot camp" for graduate students who believe the research they are engaged in has commercial potential.
Darren Fast, director of the U of M’s partnerships and innovation office (formerly called the technology transfer office) said the program has been in the works since 2016 and recently received funding from PrairiesCan (formerly Western Economic Diversification).
Of the 13 teams that presented — the teams include a full-time graduate student involved in tech-based university research and an associated faculty member — 10 were connected to the U of M.
The team members received $15,000 — they have to step away from their current course of studies to participate — and receive close guidance from mentors/advisers specially trained for the Lab2Market program.
Among other things, to develop the business concept pitches the proponents must attempt to conduct about 100 interviews with a range of stakeholders in the respective markets or specialized technology sectors in which they are trying to develop.
The extent of interviewing required is designed to ensure the researchers understand the market they are trying to address.
On several occasions during the online presentations this week, program advisers made reference to the phenomenon that negatively impacts many startups — developing a technology that is looking for a problem as opposed to a technology that addressed an existing need.
That is exactly the kind of pitfall that the program is trying to address with university-based researchers interested in commercializing their technology.
"If you think about why startup companies fail, the biggest reason is that they don’t understand their market," Fast said. "We simply have not been teaching people how to assess the market at the front end."
One team which wanted to deploy drone technology to undertake crop analysis said originally it was conceived that farmers would be the target market. But after some investigation it was determined that would not be commercially viable, but a subsequent pivot brought them back to farmers as the likely paying customers.
Whether or not that enterprise gets off the ground, the exercise of undertaking market research without holding on to preconceived notions is seen as an important shift in thinking for university researchers looking to build companies around that work.
Fast believes the program will help instil a culture change at Canadian universities.
"We are going to see an increase in technologies that come out of the university, it will create that culture of entrepreneurship which, at the U of M, we are pretty intentionally focused on creating going forward," said Fast.
He said the goal is to increasingly build those skills into the student population as well as faculty and staff.
"We realize the world is changing," he said, "For instance everyone rapidly pivoted to online learning. The very act of that pivot is an entrepreneurial activity."
The potential business concepts presented included robotics technologies for limb rehabilitation, 3D printing for medical use, a new chemotherapy drug, digital sensors, a science as a service concept and artificial intelligence service that could predict problems before they occur for manufacturers.
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Not counting the U of M cohort, the program has "graduated" 120 researchers so far and participants have raised on average about $150,000 each.
Many will not go on to develop actual companies from the technology but Fast estimates that four or five of the 13 who presented on Tuesday will do so.
While efforts are being made to standardize the delivery to create a true national program, the impact may be different in every community relative to the startup support systems that currently exist.
In Winnipeg, Fast hopes that the on-going program — recruiting is going on now for the next cohort for next spring — will mean more clients for the business incubators and accelerators like North Forge and Manitoba Technology Accelerator.
"We think it will boost the whole ecosystem," he said.