GreenCentre: a home-grown model for unlocking the value of Canadian basic research

The following was published in the February 27, 2012 issue of The Hill Times:

Canada faces an urgent challenge to increase the productivity of its workforce in the face of demographic shifts, budgetary pressures, and international competition.

One weak link is our poor track record in bringing successes in the laboratory to the marketplace. Canada has invested well in discovery research and produces a stream of innovation, but these innovations often fail to be incorporated into commercial products and services. In this article, I would like to introduce a pilot program for commercializing discoveries called GreenCentre Canada, (www.greencentrecanada.com). This is a strategy in green chemistry that should be seriously considered as a model for other sectors.

Canada has tax-incentive-based programs such as flow-through shares and SR&ED credits, and grant programs such as NRC-IRAP. Government support for R&D and innovation has been generous.

Yet, there is an innovation/commercialization gap, as evidenced by business expenditure on research and development (BERD), which stands at one per cent of GDP, as compared to an OECD average of 1.6 per cent. BERD has been falling since 2006.

What else can government do?

From the industry point of view, time horizons are short. There is a business plan to execute. Managers are acutely aware of customer demands and the competitive landscape, and  constantly adjusting to meet these challenges with resources at hand. From personal experience, I know that in industry, you rarely have time to follow the latest basic research and recognize its implications, while at the same time, you often wonder what innovations the competition may be preparing to employ.

In a university or government research laboratory, time horizons are relatively long, work is curiosity driven, research needs to be systematic and thorough, and there is a need to publish and to defend one’s results during the peer review process. Again from personal experience, I know that in the laboratory, there may not be an entrepreneurial culture. There is a lack of incentives or mandate to commercialize (nor should there necessarily be), and little knowledge of market conditions or front line technical challenges.

I believe that we should not cut basic research in favour of industry-directed applied research. That risks ceding what has recently been a national strength and it also misses the point that there is immense value from basic research that is not being realized. Instead, the many seeds of discovery which are being produced by the research community need to be nurtured in the right environment. An organization should be given ownership of this task.

I once worked in a financial institution where I developed new technology for the business. I remember that some of the most useful conversations I had were with the salespeople. They were the ones who could give me the information I needed so that my work could have the biggest benefit to the bottom line.

So I’m attracted to the idea of establishing a centre, with dedicated scientists and commercialization experts who are connected to Canada’s many and geographically diverse universities, and are fed with their pipeline of discoveries. It would also have active participation of industry, bringing understanding of markets and the competitive landscape, and the ability to validate technological opportunities. This centre would be provided with the infrastructure, financing, and entrepreneurial culture to bring discoveries to market with their industrial partners.

Such a centre has already been established in green chemistry with GreenCentre Canada in Kingston, Ontario. I am pleased to say that this not-for-profit model for commercialization has received funding from both the federal and provincial governments. It has received more than 300 discoveries, from 40 research institutions across Canada, and the best prospects are being developed with the help of over a dozen industrial sponsors by roughly 20 technical and commercialization specialists.

Founded only three years ago, GreenCentre has already spun out its first company, Switchable Solutions Inc. (www.switchablesolutions.com).  Using a Queen’s University researcher’s technology, the company is pursuing the potential of extracting bitumen from oil sands without the need for tailings ponds.

GreenCentre is a proven alternative model for a government role in fostering commercialization. It is having success in the green chemistry sector. The model deserves serious consideration for replication in other strategic sectors of the Canadian economy where return on investment in research and development is hampered by a weak link in the step from the laboratory to commercial application.

Ted Hsu, Liberal Party critic for Science and Technology and Federal Economic Development for Northern and Southern Ontario

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[…] The Liberal Science and Technology Critic, Ted Hsu, recently told the Hill Times that, “Government support for R&D and innovation has been generous” (27 February […]

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[…] And so, Minister of State of Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, naturally took the opportunity (iPolitics July 5, 2012) to contrast a statement by my colleague, Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan, who wrote a column in iPolitics entitled, “Science for the public good under attack by Conservatives” (iPolitics July 3, 2012) with a quote from myself writing about tax credits for business research and development in the Hill Times (February 27, 2012), “Government support for R&D and Innovation has been generous”. […]

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