Building Bridges and Filling Gaps: My Technology Commercialization Experience


"Innovation is everyone's business."

    --Michel Vennat, President & CEO, Business Development Bank of Canada

There's no doubt that people who have aptitude and skills in both science and business are in demand. The evidence for this is that more and more opportunities are arising in the emerging field of technology transfer and commercialization, which is perfect for those like me who want to make the transition from the research lab to the business world. Innovative programs such as WestLink's Technology Commercialization Internship Program ( TCIP) help make it happen.

The Canadian government's Innovation Strategy urges new measures to strengthen our R&D capacity and to create a more welcoming environment for industry receptors, companies that are willing to gamble on bringing the results of R&D to market. Sounds good, but the Innovation Strategy doesn't really address the crucial steps in taking a product from lab bench to market, such as protecting the intellectual property from competition, jumping over regulatory hurdles, or scale-up to economically viable production levels. This lengthy process of transforming new knowledge or innovations into commercial value and public benefit, known as technology commercialization, therefore remains a challenge. In order to realise its goal of ramping up Canada's innovation capacity, the government must inject more resources into areas such as technology commercialization for the purpose of doing the job right.

The numerous people and resources needed to take a successful innovation to market mean that many holes still exist in the process, particularly in expertise, money, facilities, and time. With that said, Canada is still a really great place to innovate, as we have an abundance of most of these things. But where we are most weak is in the different expectations of all of the people involved in the process--from inventors to research institutions, to tech-transfer professionals, to industry receptors, and of course, investors. Understanding these gaps in expectations and building bridges between all of the parties involved will help pave the road to successful technology commercialization and is what makes technology transfer and commercialization one of the most exciting and important growth sectors emerging in Canada today.

WestLink's fledgling TCIP is an outstanding and unique way to help train people to understand these gaps, and to become part of a more successful and efficient pathway from lab bench to market-ready product. WestLink is a not-for-profit western Canadian organisation designed to facilitate communication and collaboration in technology commercialization, and the internship program is one way that the organisation is promoting more and better links among the different parts of the tech-transfer process.

WestLink's TCIP has given me hands-on experience through three 8-month stints at the technology-transfer offices of a research institution, a smallish technology company, and a venture capital firm. With each subsequent internship placement, I have discovered that people really want to understand how the other side works and thinks. And through WestLink, I've had the rare chance to experience the different perspectives of all three areas of commercialization.

The smooth operation of WestLink's TCIP program is due to the great folks running it--and the support it gets from many federal and provincial agencies. The program would be incomplete without the great network of internship program colleagues and the internship placement hosts who have taken me onboard (all based in Edmonton, Alberta):

  • Foundation Equity Corp.--an early-stage technology-focused venture capital fund

  • Alberta Research Council--a technology-transfer office in a provincially sponsored not-for-profit research institution

  • EquiTech Corp.--a start-up pharmaceutical company with home-grown technology from the University of Alberta

You don't need to be a business whiz or even a business student to get into tech transfer, although a little bit of aptitude and a lot of interest help a bunch. Take my background, for example. I began with an undergraduate mechanical engineering degree at the University of Waterloo, after which I went to the United States and completed a master's degree in biomedical engineering. But I wasn't terribly sure of what I wanted to do next, so I got another master's degree, in mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan. And I was well down the road toward a Ph.D. in biomechanical engineering at the University of Calgary before I finally realized that research wasn't what I wanted to do in the long-term. I wanted to try something different--a career in which I didn't have to play the academic game of "publish or perish." Moreover, I wanted a career that wouldn't require going through much more schooling ... I'd had enough by then!

To be honest, finding technology commercialization was serendipitous, and finding WestLink's TCIP even more so (I saw the advert in the newspaper and thought that it might be fun). But it's turned out to be an exciting career transition that has allowed me to make use of my background in mechanical and biomedical engineering in a fast-moving, fun business environment. I've found that the technical background helps immensely, especially in understanding novel and innovative technologies that come across my desk. The ball really gets rolling faster when you can speak the same language as the inventor. Being flexible and a fast learner are also essential--without a business background, you need to have the ability to pick up the knowledge rapidly and be able to apply it in very dynamic situations.

Useful Links

Some Web resources that have been incredibly useful during the Internship Program are:

The old adage of "it's not what you know, but who you know" also holds true in technology commercialization. What you know is important after getting started, but to get your foot in the door, it's often who you know. Therefore, the abilities to network and to communicate clearly, and to generally be a good conversationalist, are essential skills in the tech commercialization business and do not always come naturally to scientists and engineers! And some sage advice for newcomers to the tech-transfer field: find and take advantage of those willing to be your mentors. Good mentors are few and far between--make sure that you listen and learn while you can.

WestLink's Internship Program has provided me with a fantastic basis for a career in technology commercialization. It has not only given me the opportunity to develop the necessary skills and begin constructing a personal network of colleagues and mentors, it has also provided the opportunity to experience what the expectations are on each side of the tech-transfer process. And as my internships draw to a close, I hope that these hands-on experiences will form the foundation for a fun and fruitful career in technology commercialization, whichever side I end up on.

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