The sure-fire ways to succeed (or fail) at technology commercialization

Commercialization challenges

Getting technology from the lab into the marketplace can be a daunting process, fraught with potential problems – and yet it could be one of the contributing factors to an ongoing innovation gap. The Conference Board of Canada’s report, Canada’s Competitiveness and Innovation Doldrums, says that Canada was 25th on the global innovation charts last year – down from 21st the year before.

The problems range from the financial to the legal. Joel Liederman, vice-president of MaRS Innovation, recalls one professor who came to his organization with a technology that could have been a potential market hit. Sixteen universities and research institutes collaborate within Liederman’s organization to negotiate technology deals between research groups and commercial entities. He should have been the perfect conduit. “We would have people that publish the paper, come to us 11 months later and then say ‘here’s my invention disclosure’. We would then say ‘you realise that we only have one month to secure patent protection?’”

Solutions looking for a problem

One of the most prevalent issues around commercialization is a misunderstanding of business goals when forming commercial partnerships, warns Tom Corr, President of the Ontario Centres of Excellence, which helps to commercialize projects from publicly-funded research organizations.

“Often when researchers are developing IP to commercialize, they do it in a void without any help from industry,” says Corr. “Sometimes they are disappointed to learn when they try to commercialize it that, in fact, there may not be a market for it or the market may be so small that nobody’s going to invest in it to move it forward.”

In short, innovations within a university may end up being a solution in search of a problem. A failure to understand this can leave good research sitting on the shelf, explains Corr, which can be frustrating for researchers who were convinced that their projects should be the Next Big Thing.

If they’re lucky, a commercial partner may be willing to try and retool their technology for the market. But this may involve them trying to tweak or ‘pivot’ the technology in a new direction, warns Liederman.

MaRS Innovation tries to streamline this process using the Framework Funding Agreement, in partnership with commercial companies. It works in two ways, he says. The organization can present a portfolio of projects that companies can pick through, to try and find the most appropriate ones for them. Commercial partners can also stipulate their strategic priorities, which then prompts MaRS Innovation to field proposals from research teams in those areas.

When companies steer research

Liederman doesn’t deny that this financial “carrot” can sometimes steer the direction of research projects looking for funding.

“The lifeblood of the researchers in our member organizations are the dollars to fund their research. Those research dollars – the unfettered ones from NSERC where you could do whatever the hell you wanted – those are becoming harder to get,” he says.

But technology databases are overrated, argues Kevin Dunn, Director of Industry Liaison and Innovation at Dalhousie University, who says that he has operated them for a while but never commercialized a research project using that approach. He calls commercialization a “full contact sport.”

“Someone has to engage and discuss, sometimes even translate the science into the business applicability,” warns Dunn. “Someone needs to put some business speak in normally. Some researchers can do that, but it’s a rare researcher I’ve seen who can.”

This is both a question of education, and of personality. MaRS sometimes educates researchers in the commercialization process, teaching them to understand business needs. But sometimes, researchers will try to spend some time working for a company that is commercializing their own technology, and find themselves driven back into academia, points out Liederman. Others enjoy the process so much that they never look back.

In some cases, researchers can flit between the two worlds, working for several companies during the course of commercializing their research, taking a leave of absence to run companies or assist there. Those individuals, who understand the strategic priorities both in the lab and the boardroom, can truly thrive.

Focusing too narrowly on an industry sector

A Technology Transfer Office is one option for researchers who don’t understand the business needs of a potential partner. These university departments can grease the wheels and help bring businesses and researchers together, bridging any gaps in knowledge and terminology that may arise.

This engagement includes understanding how a technology can be repurposed for different sectors. A chemist may think about commercializing a product with a large chemical firm, but might not think about its applicability in aerospace and defence, for example.

“Their innovation may be of much higher value in an area that they may not have been exposed to,” Dunn suggests.

Problems letting go

If a partnership does grow, some scientists can have problems letting go, and adjusting to the realities of a business environment, warns Dunn. Those unrealistic expectations can go both ways.

“Sometimes the commercialization partner wants way too much control. They want to own the researcher and have complete control. Or the other side is that the inventor can’t appropriately disconnect from the technology. They want to become the CTO of the company, and that can be very limiting.”

Misaligned academic and business goals is just one potential hurdle for commercialization projects. In the second and third parts of this series on CommerceLab, we’ll explore how researchers struggle with intellectual property challenges, and the harsh, cold realities involved with spinning off their own companies.


Danny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury is a freelance writer with more than 20 years of experience. He writes for newspapers, magazines and Websites and has his own blog at