New research finds timing is the key to success for science startups

Feb 08, 2017


Timing is essential when it comes to achieving commercial success for science-based companies according to a new research paper by faculty at SFU’s Beedie School of Business. The study, published in leading journal Nature Nanotechnology is part of a broader multi-year project on the global nanobiotechnology industry led by Professor Elicia Maine and Dr. Jon Thomas.

According to Maine and Thomas, when a scientific breakthrough is made, the difference between success and failure in commercializing the new technology for the mass market may be the timing of certain strategic actions taken by the inventor. These strategic actions include the publication of findings, filing for patents, forming a company, and forming R&D alliances.

“Canada has an exemplary record in scientific research, but lags behind when it comes to creating long-term value from science-based ventures,” says Maine. “Our research looks at ways in which we can help ventures get these innovations out of the laboratory and into the commercial market by improving their strategic timing.”

Companies based on cutting-edge science face significant barriers to commercialization, due to uncertainty and long development times, which can be up to 10 or 15 years. This can lead to challenges in attracting funding at critical points in the company’s development, since investors tend to require the delivery of returns in a shorter timeframe of three to seven years.

To understand how companies can overcome these challenges, Maine and Thomas conducted detailed research into nanobiotechnology drug delivery ventures. All of the North American ventures of this type who reached an Initial Public Offering (IPO) had employed elements of strategic timing. Maine and Thomas demonstrated strategic timing through a case study of BIND Therapeutics, an M.I.T. spinoff venture from the laboratory of Professor Robert Langer that successfully raised over US$180m and reached an IPO.

Maine and Thomas argue that, to stand the best chance of successfully commercializing inventions, scientist-entrepreneurs should pursue broad patents on their technologies while still in the university laboratory, and delay forming a company until they are closer to commercial viability, to better fit with investors’ timelines.

These findings could provide useful insights for science innovation in Canada.

Thomas explains, “Professor Robert Langer and M.I.T. are exemplars of science and technology commercialization, particularly in their emphasis on long term societal impact. Building on the results of our study, Canadian scientist-entrepreneurs aiming to launch science-based spin-offs can use strategic timing to better position their ventures for success and social impact”.

The research also highlights the role of university technology transfer policy and government innovation policy in supporting entrepreneurial researchers.

“Tech transfer policies in Canadian universities are not conducive to scientific commercialization,” says Maine. “The policies have short-term objectives, which keeps the pie small. We should provide a structure that supports greater value creation over the long term.”

Professor Maine and Dr. Thomas both teach in the Invention to Innovation program at SFU Beedie, sharing their applied research and sector-specific knowledge with scientist-entrepreneurs. An information session for the Invention to Innovation program will be held on February 23, 2017 at the Burnaby Campus.

Jon Thomas (vjthomas@sfu.ca) is a Research Associate at the Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. He has received his PhD in Technology Management and Strategy from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi. His research uses publication and patent data in novel ways to unpack and compare science and technology commercialization across universities, industries and regions. Dr. Thomas’ research has been published in Scientometrics, World Patent Information, Journal of Engineering and Technology Management, and Nature Nanotechnology. Dr. Thomas is the lead researcher on a larger study of an exemplar biomedical scientist-entrepreneur who has founded 30 ventures and positively impacted the lives of tens of millions of patients.

Elicia Maine (emaine@sfu.ca) is a Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. Professor Maine is also Academic Director of an interdisciplinary program in Science & Technology Commercialization aimed at teaching PhD Scientists and Engineers how to turn their inventions into innovation. She teaches “Managing Technological Innovation” in the Management of Technology MBA program, “Managing Innovation” in the Executive MBA program, and “Lab to Market” in the Science & Technology Commercialization program at SFU’s Beedie School of Business. Dr. Maine’s research interests are in managing technological innovation and in science & technology entrepreneurship, publishing her research in leading journals, such as Research Policy, R&D ManagementNature Nanotechnology and Nature Materials.  Dr. Maine holds a PhD in Engineering & Technology Management from the University of Cambridge, and master’s degrees in Technology & Policy and in Materials Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Maine has worked in industry as a strategic consultant in Canada, the United States, and Austria, specializing in technology management in the automotive sector and in various materials sectors. She is active as a speaker on innovation policy and the commercialization of science.

Dr. Thomas acknowledges funding from a Mitacs Elevate postdoctoral fellowship supported by CDRD Ventures Inc. and the Beedie School of Business for the conduct of this study.