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Commercialization of R&D – Researchers

It is not secret that Canada has good research and researchers, and yet has a very low rate of commercialization of this R&D. Compared to what happens in countries like the United States, UK, Israel, and Sweden, little of our R&D makes it from the lab bench to the field.

The usual Canadian approach to solving this ‘problem’ is to look for a government-led solution. The tools available to government, such as grants, tax refunds (SR&ED), funding of tech-transfer, etc. have almost all been tried, and yet the problem persists. I believe that government is not the problem, and government alone will never be the solution.

Innovation and commercialization is risky and hard work. It requires determination and commitment. Throwing government resources at the problem will not solve it if individuals do not have the determination and commitment to persist and overcome the many obstacles that will certainly be encountered along the way.

My sense is that, in broad terms (ie. on a country-basis, rather than specific individuals), the problem is cultural, and it is this: neither the researchers, nor industry, have either the determination and commitment – the passion and desire – required to succeed.

Why is this? On the researcher side, there is no imperative to commercialization. Researchers may be in a ‘publish or perish’ environment, but very few are in a ‘commercialize or perish’ environment, and without that level of ‘fear and greed’, commercialization will not happen.

Almost by definition, a skilled academic, mid career, with tenure and a vested pension, is a terrible candidate for entrepreneurship. Only a fool would quit a tenure professorship at a major Canadian university to launch a start up. Tenure, and vested pensions may be great things – they certainly must make for a much higher quality of life for the average academic than a world without either. But there can be no dispute that tenure and vested pensions make for ‘fat and happy researchers’ who are extremely unlikely to have any of the need, passion, determination or commitment necessary to commercialize R&D.


This Post Has 3 Comments
  1. I couldn’t agree more. That is why at Spark Financing we have decided to work with professionals that still have a zest for entrepreneurship. I haven’t met with you yet, but in due course I believe we will.

    Mark Gallant

  2. You make some good points Neil. They make me think of “Affirmative Action” programs intended to equalize the number of minorities in various job sectors. These programs are based on the assumption that everyone equally desires the jobs in question – which is an unproven hypothesis at best, and more likely just plain wrong for the most part.

    Similarly, you make the point that not all researchers are desirous of commercializing their ideas. As you say, that’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but I think it’s a more interesting and larger world when people do “get their idea out there” for us all to enjoy and build on.

    Some serious psychology is required to figure out how to motivate people who have the ideas to share them in a practical way. Or maybe what’s missing is another “agent”, who acts as a catalyst or activator, or like a bridge, between the inventor and the market place.

    Maybe it’s not that we have fat and happy researchers, but that our agents are too thin on the ground – not enough of those kind of people around. It would be interesting to test your hypothesis by comparing the income and/or living conditions of inventors in various countries.

    If you are right in your rant, we should be able to measure it. What an excellent PhD thesis topic that would be. Imagine the field work. Fascinating.

  3. We have the same issue in private industry in that most executives of well established companies are near retirement and are very risk-adverse. Its a Canadian mindset that looks for reasons not to invest in new technology, instead of looking for ways to make things happen. It’s easier to ‘let things happen’ then ‘make things happen’. If you want to be a true entrepreneur, get rid of your pension and/or rrsp’s and make your business work.

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