Elicia Maine, Academic Director of the Management of Technology MBA program at the Beedie School of Business, discusses nanobiotechnology research with collaborators V.J. Thomas (left) and Armstrong Murira.

Beedie researchers explore the emergence of a new sector.

Effectively targeted drug delivery; nano-scale tissue engineering; stem cell medicine; rapid diagnostics. These ground breaking scientific advancements are made possible through the birth of an exciting new industry: nanobiotechnology. It combines nanotechnology, the building of useful objects at an atomic or molecular level, with biotechnology, the manipulation of living organisms and biological systems, to develop any number of highly novel products.

Elicia Maine, academic director of the Management of Technology MBA program at the Beedie School of Business, is leading an international collaboration of researchers to examine how this new industry is emerging – and how firms are succeeding in their approach to commercializing their technologies within it.

Earlier this year, Professor Maine presented research highlighting the ramifications of the confluence of the two sectors at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston.

The paper, entitled “Global Bio-Nano Firms: Exploiting the Confluence of Technologies”, was written in collaboration with MIT’s James Utterback, Professor of Management and Innovation, Sloan School of Management and Professor of Engineering Systems; V.J. Thomas, Postdoctoral Fellow, SFU and IIT Delhi; Martin Bliemel, Lecturer at the Australian School of Business, University of New South Wales; and Armstrong Murira, Simon Fraser University PhD student, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry.  It was supported through a SSHRC grant, the Beedie School of Business, and the Sloan School of Management at MIT.

Through investigation of company patents, the study shows that the integration of knowledge from the biotechnology and nanotechnology fields has been driven by so-called “de novo” firms — technology start-ups typically borne of interdisciplinary research labs and tightly integrated with universities. The radical innovations enabled by the blending of ideas from disparate fields opens up opportunities for de novo firms at the intersection of these two fields. However, large incumbent firms appear to have a more difficult time exploiting these opportunities.

Described as the birth of a new sector, the researchers discovered that between 2005 and 2011, the number of nanobiotechnology firms has nearly doubled, from 287 to 507, with over 100 new companies emerging in North America alone during this timeframe.  More than $20 billion of revenue was generated from this emerging industry in 2011 alone.

“We have watched the ecosystem emerge in terms of the number and type of firms entering the industry,” said Maine. “This confluence of technologies in the emerging nanobiotechnology sector is enabling radical innovation, new products and connections that didn’t exist before. Some of the things we’re talking about are effectively targeted drug delivery, nano-scale tissue engineering, enhanced medical diagnostics, and enabling new therapeutics.”

Maine, who will host the Science and Technology Entrepreneurship segment of SFU’s President’s Dream Colloquium on Entrepreneurship in spring 2014, stresses the interdisciplinary nature of her research team — one that mirrors the interdisciplinary topic they are studying. The global group includes researchers from both business and science backgrounds, and is comprised of Dr V.J. Thomas, Beedie School of Business Postdoctoral Fellow and a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi; Dr Martin Bliemel, Australian School of Business at the University of New South Wales; Armstrong Murira; and Jim Utterback, David J. McGrath jr. (1959) Professor of Management and Innovation at MIT.

Interdisciplinary research

The team – which possesses an appropriate inter-disciplinary mix to tackle the confluence of technologies and its impact on economies – has recently had two more research papers that examine the new sector’s birth accepted for publication. The first, “The Emergence of the Nanobiotechnology Industry”, published in the January issue of Nature Nanotechnology, looks at the emergence of the new industry by identifying, classifying and tracking the entry and exit of firms of various sizes and application focus over time and by observing the degree to which they integrate nanotechnology with biotechnology.

“Impact factor” is measured by the number of times that articles in the journal are cited, relative to the number of articles it features in a year. Top management journals tend to have an impact factor of between five and ten. Atypically for management scholars, Maine’s group submitted their research to Nature Nanotechnology, a journal that has an impact factor of 31.

“There’s a big community of scholars and practitioners who care about the commercialization of science and management of technology who don’t read the management journals,” says Maine. “The decision to send our research to Nature Nanotechnology was a complementary strategy. The journal has a very broad readership, and its impact factor is a proxy for quality and influence.”

The second paper, “Radical innovation from the confluence of technologies: Innovation management strategies for the emerging nanobiotechnology industry”, was accepted for publication in the Journal of Engineering and Technology Management. It explores what kind of innovation management strategies will help to exploit the confluence of technologies.

Maine’s co-author on the papers and part of the international research collaboration, V.J. Thomas has recently been accepted for a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship to continue researching the emergence of the nanobiotechnology sector.  As part of Thomas’ two-year Mitacs Elevate Strategic Postdoctoral fellowship he is required to work with an industry partner, thereby maintaining a direct link with his research and its impact on industry. Thomas has partnered with CDRD Ventures Inc., the commercialization arm of The Centre for Drug Research and Development, which has a focus on transferring technologies from university to industry, and setting up new firms.

Thomas’ fellowship, for which the Beedie School is the academic partner, builds on much of Maine’s nanobiotechnology research collaboration’s work, which previously had identified the biotechnology and nanotechnology firms across the globe. Thomas’ proposal will investigate both multinationals and de novo firms within the sample and interview scientists to establish how they approach nanobiotechnology research and commercialization.

“At the end of this post doctoral fellowship we will be able to provide a nuanced understanding of how nanobiotechnology innovation works within different firm types,” says Thomas. “We will be able to suggest some best practices for these different firm types – practices that they can use to improve their innovation activities.”