Uniting Queen's research and entrepreneurship

November 24, 2017 - As originally published by Phil Gaudreau, Senior Communications Officer of the Queen's Gazette. Feature photo credit: P. James McLellan.

RockMass Technologies was the first group to pilot the Foundry Program. Feature photo credit: P. James McLellan
RockMass Technologies was the first group to pilot the Foundry Program. Feature photo credit: P. James McLellan

The Foundry program combines the passion and skill of student entrepreneurs with the research smarts of Queen’s academics to form successful start-ups.

Over the years, Queen’s researchers have made many important and impactful discoveries – helping plants grow more effectively, ensuring car engines stay lubricated for longer, and unpacking the tiny building blocks that make up our universe to name just a few examples. The question for the university is always how to take these discoveries to the next step.

In recent years, Canada’s major funding agencies have been placing more emphasis on how some of the valuable research conducted at universities like Queen’s can move from discovery to commercialization. But bringing a product to market takes time and resources, and sometimes faculty members prefer to teach and continue their research. This means the university must create other avenues to get this research to market.

One such initiative is the Foundry program, which connects student entrepreneurs in the Queen’s Innovation Centre Summer Initiative (QICSI) program with intellectual property that could have some commercial potential. The program was inspired by similar efforts at universities such as Arizona State, and has been piloted for the last two years by the Queen’s Office of Partnerships and Innovation and the Dunin-Deshpande Queen’s Innovation Centre (DDQIC).

“As research transitions from business concept to start-up to viable business, the team behind it needs to change,” says Greg Bavington (Sc’85), Executive Director of the DDQIC. “The researcher is not necessarily the same person who is interested in determining if their idea has commercial merit, and that person is not necessarily the one who wants to work in a start-up environment. This program is designed to help ease that transition from research to start-up.”

The Foundry program already produced two viable businesses during its pilot. RockMass Technologies provides a mobile 3D mapping tool for geologists – a device that was based on the research of Professor Joshua Marshall and then-PhD candidate, now graduate, Marc Gallant (Sc’16). Dr. Marshall and Dr. Gallant worked with the Office of Partnerships and Innovation to file for patent protection for their technology and set up an agreement with RockMass Technologies, which was founded by six Queen’s students in the QICSI program, to develop the technology. 

The second pilot of the Foundry program began earlier this year, when a five-member team of Queen’s students formed Spectra Plasmonics. The company took on the development of a product based on the chemical detection research of Professors Aristides Docoslis and Carlos Escobedo – both Chemical Engineering professors – along with doctoral candidate Hannah Dies (MSc’21, Meds’21). Spectra Plasmonics has since gone on to win a global business competition in Singapore, and also placed in another competition in India.

“There are increased expectations from government and society around commercialization, and how we prepare our students to innovate, to be flexible, and to start their own businesses,” says James McLellan, Academic Director of the DDQIC and Professor in the department of Chemical Engineering. “At the same time, there is an increasing interest and increasing amount of support for entrepreneurship on campus and in the community. It’s an alignment of stars and an alignment of interests.”

With two successful pilots completed, the plan is to expand the program. The DDQIC and Office of Partnerships and Innovation are seeking faculty members with intellectual property that could be commercialized in hopes of partnering them up with teams of entrepreneurial students. The goal is to have five Foundry companies participating in QICSI this year.

“The Foundry program is an avenue that we are exploring in addition to our traditional licensing efforts,” says Ramzi Asfour, Assistant Director, Commercial Development, with the Office of Partnerships and Innovation. "We hope these companies grow here in Kingston and form close collaborative relationships with the research groups at Queen's. Ideally, the companies would bring problems from industry to the labs and help create great opportunities for talented research students supported by funding programs that are designed to enhance commercialization."

If you are a Queen’s researcher with intellectual property and you would like to explore its commercial potential, or if you would like to learn more about the Foundry program, visit the DDQIC’s website.

 How does the Foundry program work?

1) The researcher discloses their information to the Technology Transfer Unit of the Office of Partnerships and Innovation (OPI-TTU) using the Invention Disclosure Form.

2) OPI-TTU assesses the patentability and commercial potential.

3) If accepted as a commercial development project, the OPI-TTU starts the patent protection process.

4) OPI-TTU then pitches the project to groups of interested students.

5) The student groups express their interest in the project and begin interacting with the researchers to learn about the work in more detail.

6) The students present a proposal to the OPI-TTU and the researchers.

7) If the proposal is accepted, the students form a new company and OPI-TTU enters into a renewable six-month option agreement with the company to start the commercial development process.

8) If all goes well during the option period, the OPI-TTU and the company can enter into a longer-term license agreement.