Graduate Certificate brings Ben Britton’s invention closer to market
Jul 06, 2016
When Ben Britton took the stage at the Hong Kong-Canada National Investment Pitch Competition on June 3 in Calgary, he presented with the confidence of a professional. He knew his product, he knew his market, and he knew he could sway the judges to hand him the $50,000 grand prize – which they did – along with the opportunity to meet investors in Hong Kong.
What makes his victory so rewarding is that, at heart, Britton is not a businessman. He is a scientist.
Britton is part of the first cohort of students to graduate from the pioneering Graduate Certificate in Science and Technology Commercialization program at the Beedie School of Business.
The program empowers researchers to become scientists-entrepreneurs through business skills development. With that business knowledge, scientists can be more involved in the commercialization of their inventions, which in turn will see more innovative technology making it out of the lab and into the market place.
Britton and a team of Simon Fraser University chemists have developed a polymer membrane, called Aemion, which is the strongest and most durable of its kind. Other anion-exchange membranes either melt in chemical reactions or break down quickly, but Aemion’s performance is far superior.
“We make something that is ridiculously simple,” says Britton. “It is literally one sheet of plastic that goes in the middle of complex devices, such as batteries or fuel cells, and enables them to work. It also happens to be the part that breaks down the most.”
Essentially the membrane is the key to making clean technology, renewable energy and the hydrogen economy a viable reality – but that’s only if it can make it to the marketplace.
Although Canada is strong at invention, its track record for innovation – bringing these inventions to market – is poor. The country lags behind its peers in the number of new firms to file for patents, which are an indicator of the formation of science-based ventures, and as a result is not capitalizing on its world leading science.
Furthermore, by the time products make it to the marketplace, the scientist has often relinquished most of the control over how the product is used to larger firms with management teams.
Britton wants to disrupt the status quo by building a business around Aemion, called Ionomr, which was the reason he signed up for Beedie’s Graduate Certificate program.
“Our goal with the Graduate Certificate is to help our world leading scientists and engineers get the perspective they need to lead innovation throughout their careers,” says Elicia Maine, academic director of the Graduate Certificate in Science and Technology Commercialization. “This will be a huge advantage to them and to our economy, as these scientist-entrepreneurs will understand the importance of early stage market assessment, be more comfortable managing under uncertainty, and will be able to lead New Product Development, either within their own venture or for an existing firm.”
Through the program, Britton learned the importance of financial literacy, market projections, creating a business plan, prioritizing market applications, and communicating on the same level as investors.
“The program really clarified what it was to have a business plan and what it meant to attract investors and actually sell the value of your product in non-technical terms,” says Britton. “Before, I would talk about the engineering side or the theoretical side, but that’s not what they mean. They want to know why this is worth investing in and how much money it could potentially make.”
His willingness to learn the business side of science is paying off. Through Beedie’s network, Ionomr has already attracted preliminary investors. In addition, by winning the 2016 Coast Capital Savings Venture Prize and the Hong Kong-Canada National Investment Pitch Competition – which granted him a prize comprising cash seed money, consulting services and a trip to Hong Kong to attend the 2016 Hong Kong Forum – Britton has gained more exposure to investors than he originally could conceive.
“I was in Elicia Maine’s office a couple weeks ago and she introduced me to someone from the Business Development Bank of Canada and another from Sustainable Development Technology Canada,” says Britton. “They could potentially invest substantially in Ionomr. It would be so much harder if I had to cold call these people.”
Despite Aemion’s current success, Britton knows that it can still sink if he doesn’t step out of the lab and sell it, and himself as CEO, to investors in Canada, Hong Kong, and the world over.
“There’s a lot of ways you can approach investors or a business plan and now that I’ve come through the program I can see how people in science are doing it badly,” says Britton. “It’s really apparent that I would have made many errors that could have been complete killers. Now I won’t make them.”
For more information on the Graduate Certificate in Science and Technology Commercialization, visit beedie.sfu.ca/commercialization-certificate/