President’s Faculty Lecture: Elicia Maine on turning scientific invention into innovation

Feb 25, 2016


Elicia Maine, associate professor at the Beedie School of Business and academic director of the Graduate Certificate in Science and Technology Commercialization.

Elicia Maine, associate professor at the Beedie School of Business and academic director of the Graduate Certificate in Science and Technology Commercialization.

Canada is punching above its weight in invention – but when it comes to bringing its scientific discoveries to commercial applications, it receives a failing grade on its report card. So what can be done to turn Canada’s burgeoning community of scientists into a prolific community of scientist entrepreneurs?

Elicia Maine, associate professor at the Beedie School of Business, addressed this question in a special lecture, Turning Invention Into Innovation: Strategies for Scientist-Entrepreneurs. The lecture was part of the SFU President’s Faculty Lecture Series, a public program aimed at showcasing outstanding SFU faculty and their research, and strengthening relationships between the university and communities.

Since the 1980s, Industry Canada has issued report cards on Canada’s performance in invention and innovation, which have consistently shown that the country is failing to commercialize its inventions. In 2009 they issued a survey to find out why the report card was consistently poor, with the results indicating that risk and uncertainty were the biggest obstacles to innovation. Yet ironically, without risk and uncertainty there is no opportunity.

“We have to change cultural attitudes towards this, or train scientists to better manage under environments of risk and uncertainty,” said Maine. “This is particularly problematic in this category of science based ventures, which have a lot of tacit knowledge. Some of the great challenges of our country and our world come in the bio-med and advanced science space: curing cancer, climate change, and clean water all happen in that space. You can build a solid knowledge economy in these spaces.”

In order to improve the chances for scientist entrepreneurs, Maine cited a research study she had conducted, examining the techniques used by MIT Professor Bob Langer. In 1976 Langer developed control release polymers, which allowed for delayed drug delivery – something that was previously thought by other leading scientists to be impossible.

Despite the unique potential of his invention, Langer experienced problems both patenting the technology and in commercializing it. He ultimately found ways to overcome these problems, and today has had over 30 ventures born out of his lab, published more than 1400 papers, had 60 US patents issued, licensed to more than 300 companies, and is the most cited engineer in history, with over 170,000 citations.

Langer developed four strategies for managing, financing, and rewarding science commercialization: technology-market matching; the 3P technology strategy (platform technology, patent, and paper); strategic timing; and founding team composition.

The first, technology-market matching, involves choosing the technology to meet the market needs. This is a key innovation management capability for radical technologies, which either offer a dramatic increase in what can already be functionally achieved, a dramatic decrease in cost, or enable something that has never existed before.

“Being able to do this when the technology is in the lab, and being able to do the type of forecasting and simulation that can help the scientists see if there is a good match is key,” said Maine. “It fulfills significant unmet needs in an area where there is no big competitor.”

The 3P technology strategy begins with the platform technology. This is almost a generic technology, enabling many applications, but all within one sector. Langer used this in the case of his control release polymer technology to enable many different shots at bringing it to market. Importantly, he then patented it early – even before the paper was issued – in order to get a broad blocking patent in place.

Langer also makes clever use of strategic timing, filing provisional patents early on in the process, from which stem a number of broad and blocking patents. In doing so, this keeps competitors out of the space in which he is working.

“One of the interesting things we found was that the timing was not just in the patents – there was a strategic timing used elsewhere in order to raise money in this very challenging environment,” said Maine. “He used strategic timing in founding the firms, publishing in elite publications, and raising financing.”

Finally, the founding team composition was key: should the scientist found it, and if so, should they act as CEO? Langer played an active role in none of the companies that formed from his lab, instead sitting on the scientific advisory board or as a director. He would place alumni from his lab to act as the Chief Science Officer in the company, and pair them with someone with business experience who acts as CEO.

“The question is, how much does the scientist need to know about entrepreneurship – if they are matched up with a business executive, do they need to know anything?” said Maine. “The answer is, yes, they do need to know because they are leading the innovation in the lab. They need to know the market needs and they need a framework to assess opportunities from.”

Maine closed by noting that the Graduate Certificate in Science and Technology Commercialization at the Beedie School of Business, of which she is the academic director, is the first program of its kind in Canada designed to teach scientists to become the entrepreneurs that the nation is sorely lacking.

“What we’re trying to do is create a cohort of people understanding uncertainty,” she said. “We want to take their inventions and translate it into something good for the economy and our social needs.”

For more information on the Graduate Certificate in Science and Technology Commercialization, visit beedie.sfu.ca/commercialization-certificate/

Watch a replay of Elicia Maine’s lecture below: