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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

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Holy Trinity: Research, Innovation, and Commercialization

–by T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning and Communications

We worked last week to finalize and submit a position paper to the Government of Canada as part of their “Expert Review Panel on Federal Support to Research & Development.”  Our thesis was that national laboratories, especially those that span the spectrum from basic research to applied technology, are a natural environment for the academic scientists to mingle with hard-nosed business people…the result — better understanding, more-aligned expectations, and ultimately, easier partnerships for identifying the good ideas and taking them to market.

So, for fun, here are some excerpts from our contentions.

One of the compelling drivers for public investment in research and development is the hoped-for outcome of economic growth through innovation, knowledge transfer, and commercialization of new products or technologies. The natural timescales for these benefits are often much longer than individual businesses can afford. In the modern world of the 21st century, nations are increasingly concerned about optimizing these economic benefits of R&D for their own citizens as well as competing successfully with other countries around the world.

A national laboratory with good networks and open-access policies provides a fertile environment for business innovation to get started.  That is, when businesses frequently and informally intersect with academic research, the likelihood of a firm choosing innovation as a business strategy greatly improves.  Most businesses get started with one or two ideas—tunnel vision is then required to get them from the garage to full-market penetration.  By interacting with a laboratory, businesses are exposed to the broader spectrum of technologies and skills ancillary to their original product.

For instance, with TRIUMF’s long history of medical-isotope production with Nordion and strong academic connections to the UBC Department of Chemistry, it was natural for Nordion to return to TRIUMF and its research partners to develop new radiochemical products in a cost-shared approach that took advantage of a Government of Canada program that matches a public dollar with each private-sector dollar to support joint research.  A preliminary patent on a new product has just been filed.

Businesses need to perform some of their own R&D.  We are not in the golden age of the last century where monolithic corporations could afford elite research labs that drove breakthrough after breakthrough from the lab bench to the marketplace.  More and more, the model for big-business innovation and product development is to partner with the best teams around the world.  For instance, General Electric’s medical-cyclotron division based in northern Europe came to TRIUMF in Canada in 2009 to discuss options for partnering on the development of a third-generation cyclotron that would be unit-sized and operate at the push of a button on a table-top.

Today’s world separates “pre-competitive R&D” and “competitive R&D” where the “R” in the latter is much less than the “D.”  Pre-competitive R&D takes place before high-value intellectual property is developed and is typically performed in a collaborative partnership.  Because pre-competitive R&D has shared benefits, it typically uses shared resources and shared talents with regular participation of public funds.  Businesses regularly seek competitive leveraging of their funds with public monies on their topics of interest.

The next two steps after precompetitive R&D are tricky:  (1) Determining when the research is moving into competitive technology development and (2) Performing the competitive R&D.  The first person to say that a technology is ready for field testing and commercialization is likely the academic; the last person to say that a technology is ready for market analysis and commercialization is likely the business partner.  In between these extremes is the so-called “valley of death.”  Pitched in these terms, however, the challenge is not just technological—it is one of communication and understanding.  The second tricky part, performing the R&D in an IP-protecting fashion that respects the proprietary nature of the work, is more feasible and usually requires a high degree of focus.  Experience is the best teacher here and thus businesses engaged in R&D need to mix with each other as well academia.

Businesses need to be involved in performing their own proprietary R&D and in partnering with selected teams on it.  This capability allows them (a) to stay abreast of the market and even develop their own forecasting abilities, and (b) to more quickly deploy new technologies and products.  Today’s globalized world doesn’t allow much time for “catch up.”  If the competition releases a new product or feature, depending on the industry, you have six months or even just six days to respond.

In Canada, the national laboratories and several public-sector programs (e.g., CECRs) are becoming more effective at lowering this initial barrier to relatedness and understanding.  Laboratories are in regular communication and contact with businesses as vendors, customers, and sponsors.  Businesses work with engineers and technical staff at laboratories to build and deliver one-of-a-kind equipment and often have informal consultations with key laboratory staff about new product ideas or performance constraints.  Academic researchers relate to laboratories as meeting grounds and expert resources for technical projects.  Driven by budgets and promised milestones, laboratories deliver progress and performance on a schedule.  Taken together, these attributes can make national laboratories a natural nexus for businesses and universities to get to know each other and to work alongside one another.

What do YOU think?  Do national laboratories play a unique or critical role in the national “ecosystem” for imagination, invention, or innovation?


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  • David

    Hi Tim, I have a couple of questions for you.

    Was the TRIUMF position paper submitted in cooperation with, or independently of the other Canadian National labs? (ie Snolab, CLS…). Cooperation takes more time and work, but the impact is usually greater.

    Second question, what is a CECR? Centre-of-Excellence of something?

    cheers – David A.

  • David,

    Good questions! We did NOT end up submitting a joint paper with the the major national labs (e.g., Canadian Light Source, Ocean Networks Canada, Canadian Neutron Beam Centre, and so on). The timing for our internal approval processes and then cooperation across labs and their federal sponsors turned out to need more time than we had. All the papers will be made public in early March on the federal website and you’ll notice then that all of us spent a lot of time TALKING together about the issues although we didn’t WRITE together about them.

    Second, CECR is a program from the National Centres of Excellence program — Centre of Excellence for Commercialization and Research. A CECR combines federal public dolalrs with private-sector and other flavours of money to specifically target knowledge transfer and commercialization. TRIUMF successfully competed for one of these centres and Advanced Applied Physics Solutions, Inc., was the result. AAPS is a stand-alone commercialization partner now.

    Thanks, Isaac

  • I believe that the true aim is not to try to force scientists and business partners to co-operate because their goals, as rightly pointed out, occupy different time frames and aim at different objectives. I find it more relevant to try to find people who can bridge those gaps in a professional sense – someone with an eye for business but who understands the constraints that scientists work under. What do you think of training people to fulfill this role? What would you need them to be skilled at?

    Another point I always like to mention (because I have these discussions for fun) is that being able to identify opportunities for commercialisation is something that most people are unable to do without a deep understanding of the sci\tech involved *and* a good grasp of business. You basically need a person who has both a MSc and an MBA 🙂 Obviously after working several years in either field, experience gained is invaluable, but I can’t think of many people who specialise in both at a high level of their careers.

    In-house R&D is a definite option – although in-house R&D is relatively isolated from the wider acadmic community what with NDAs and all sorts of business restrictions.

    What is the governmental reaction to this paper? Have you had any feedback from any major corporations? I don’t think there is a question that research is valuable, but I think it takes a special eye to be able to do so.

  • Josh


    As someone who lives and breathes science, there is nothing more inspiring to me than a new scientific discovery (often in the area of physics) that helps broaden my understanding of the natural world, and beyond. The scientific process, its delivery of knowledge, and the new quests fueled by past findings contain an unmatched beauty. However, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    My passion for science is not shared with my mother, or sister or most of my friends. Their definition of beauty, of inspiration, is different than mine (My sister, for example, sees beauty in the confluence of two pop culture phenoms to create a symphony of pure greatness (her words, not mine) – I think they’re called the New Kids on the Blockstreet Boys or something in that ballpark, in case you’re interested….I would have chosen a shorter name).

    What I’m leading to is that although this divide exists at the granular level, I believe it can be bridged at a higher level. This bridge that unites the science enthusiasts with the rest of society is formed by ‘tangible scientific impact’, and I think it can be as compelling to non-enthusiasts as scientific progress and understanding is to the science world. For this reason, I think what you’ve writtin above, and the work you are doing in this area, is hugely important – because it supports the foundation of a common playing field (a marriage of science and general society), not to mention the socio-economic benefits.

    I sometimes think about what everyday life would be like without our past advancements in physics research. The obvious examples cross my mind, like electricity, computers, GPS. And I know I will find many, many more examples if I keep thinking. In fact, I realize that I may never stop thinking if I insist on continuing down this path. I’m lazy, and I want these answers handed to me, or at least sold to me at an affordable price.

    So, my question is this: Do you know of a book/dvd/website/whatever that provides a good historical summary of the tangible scientific impact derived from physics research? So I have something to give my mom, sister and most of my friends on their respective b-days that they will enjoy and at the same time bring them closer to my world of warped space and quantum absurdities…..



  • @Josh – Thoughtful post! (And I confess that my nieces are big fans of the music group you mentioned.) You’ve nailed the issue that I wasn’t able to articulate…science is cultural “with benefits,” and it is these benefits that make public support a really powerful formula for economic & societal progress. In terms of a good analysis that shows the impacts & “deliverables” from scientific progress, I have only seen a few talks on the subject — no definitive treatises. I would try some of the following: CERN’s page; an American Physical Society paper ; a special session at AAAS 2010 in San Diego. I have seen some others but don’t have them handy…let’s collect good links here! — Thanks, Isaac.