Innovation isn’t always enough.
In 1979, Xerox PARC, a Silicon Valley research and development centre, invited Steve Jobs over for a visit. Jobs was the rambunctious 24-year-old CEO of Apple, one of the hottest startups in the Valley, and PARC was one of the most innovative R&D centres in the world. The encounter augured well.
The path from turning research into a product is quite long. What we’d really like to ask is: can this go any faster? We would like to see interesting new products in our lifetime.”
professor of chemistry at U of T and founder of TechnoLABS
Jobs heard Xerox was doing truly groundbreaking work at PARC, and, intrigued, offered to sell Xerox a hundred thousand shares of Apple stock at a low price merely for the chance to tour the research centre. What he saw there astounded him: Graphical user interfaces. Word-processing programs. An early version of e-mail, sent along the first ever ethernet cable. A computer mouse, then still a novelty. At a time when most personal computers had clunky, monochromatic, text-based displays, this was like getting a glimpse into the future.
Jobs’ reaction was characteristic: “Why aren’t you doing anything with this? This is the greatest thing. This is revolutionary!”
The rest is future history. Apple released the Macintosh personal computer in 1984, and one famous Superbowl advertisement later, the Mac became the first commercially successful computer with a mouse and windowed programs. From that moment on, every computer had to to be commercially viable, transforming the personal computer industry.
Xerox, meanwhile, developed an expensive, barely-marketed personal computer with graphics, and when it under-performed, decided to get out of the personal computing market entirely. Though they invented many of the now-standard parts of a modern computer, Xerox ultimately failed to profit by its research and innovations alone.
Xerox’s failure to capitalize on its computer inventions is a cautionary tale for anyone hoping to commercialize basic research. The path that turns research into a saleable product can be a treacherous one, even for a company as large and experienced as Xerox. The challenges faced by entrepreneurs are even greater.
The University of Toronto has launched several initiatives in recent years to help student entrepreneurs in the sciences commercialize their research and avoid pitfalls along the way, as part of the university’s wider plan to increase the application of research to real world problems.
TechnoLABS and the University of Toronto Early Stage Technology (UTEST) are new programs providing startup companies with funding, work space, and business support. Both programs bill themselves as “part of a growing ecosystem” of institutions and programs helping students build and lead companies.
“The path from turning research into a product is quite long,” said Cynthia Goh, professor of chemistry at U of T and founder of TechnoLABS, at its launch in November. “What we’d really like to ask is: can this go any faster? We would like to see interesting new products in our lifetime.”
“That’s our goal: to capture how knowledge can be turned into a product to benefit society, and quickly.”
TechnoLABS is just one of Goh’s many startup-related activities. A successful entrepreneur herself, Goh also pioneered Entrepreneurship 101, a free weekly lecture series on the finer points of starting and running a business.
In the summer of 2010 Goh invited 10 hopeful companies to Techno, an intensive four-week program for entrepreneurs in the sciences. The company founders attended lectures from Goh and her colleagues, met with prospective investors, and worked furiously to develop and refine their products.
Since then, two new batches of companies have passed through Techno, and there are now over twenty companies associated with it, spanning a range of industries from digital pathology to designing new LED materials. A number of companies also ‘graduated’ from the program, having raised external capital or partnered with established companies.
“Starting a company can be terrifying without experience,” says Rich McAloney, director of technology development at TechnoLABS. “TechnoLABS aims to offer complimentary services and space for companies to work in. The result of that is to lower barriers.”
TechnoLABS’ official launch coincided with a truly landmark event: it now has office space. TechnoLABS is located on the fourth floor of the Best Institute, a stolid brick building that betrays no sign of the developments in its interior.
Inside, the floor hums with the day’s work: BreqLabs is building specialized computer modules to augment off-the-shelf models, Vive Crop Protection is designing new ways to use nanoscale particles in agriculture. A poster on the bulletin board advertises discounted lab supplies; nearby, a door warns visitors that potentially hazardous biochemical research is being done in the lab.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Scott McAuley says of his experiences with TechnoLABS. “It’s also unique, from what I’ve heard, in its focus on science.”
McAuley is also the co-founder of Lunanos, a company researching ways of reducing infection rates in healthcare environments like hospitals and nursing homes. McAuley completed his master’s degree in chemistry under Cynthia Goh, and credits her for inspiring him to found his company.
“Being in her lab and seeing the companies her other graduate students founded opened up the idea that this was possible,” McAuley said, noting there isn’t a developed culture of entrepreneurship in chemistry.
“Few chemists say ‘I want to be the next DuPont or Dow’; mostly, it’s just ‘I want to work for DuPont or Dow.’”
Founded in 2010, Lunanos has developed two technologies for cleaning and disinfecting surfaces in healthcare environments. Leo Mui, other co-founder of Lunanos, credits TechnoLABS’ ‘ecosystem’ approach for the opportunities it’s offered startups.
“Lunanos does much of its development work in a wet lab, which would have been prohibitively expensive to rent if not for the space provided,” Mui said. “Besides the physical space, we have also been able to tap into the experience and expertise of mentors when we need help.”
Along with UTEST and the newly launched Banting and Best Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, TechnoLABS is part of the university’s long-term plan to increase the rate of knowledge transfer from universities to the world at large.
The university’s recently released 2012–2017 Strategic Research Plan outlines future goals for U of T’s research. Along with the usual suspects — striving for global leadership, facilitating collaborations between different disciplines — one goal stands out: “Maximize the application of research and the innovation of creative concepts.”
Research themes throughout the plan were chosen with this goal in mind, from developing more efficient forms of sustainable energy to studying the causes and nature of war and peace. Interestingly, and unlike all the other goals, a moral angle is used to justify this one:
“Institutions of higher learning have an obligation to help translate their discovering to the benefit of the public good,” the plan states. “A goal of the University of Toronto is to maximize its positive impact on society and the Canadian economy.”
In taking this bird’s eye view of its research efforts the university may be reaching farther than its grasp — Scott McAuloney says that while benefiting the global good is definitely on his agenda, his current preoccupations are more prosaic: signing up local hospitals for Lunanos’ products and redoubling efforts to break into the Indian healthcare sector.
Nevertheless, the university’s efforts to commercialize its research proceeds apace. Having grown every year since its inception, TechnoLABS shows no signs of slowing down. Over the summer a new crop of companies will participate in Techno 2013, and a new batch of entrepreneurs will be born.