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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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