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Innovations and Incubators: Commercializing Research

[detail of laser-induced plasma formation]
This image shows laser-induced plasma formation during an investigation of welding defects in automotive powertrain components. Laser Depth Dynamics is one example of a company that was successfully launched with the help of Queen’s technology transfer and commercialization services. Photo courtesy of pauljwebster.com

A restraint for wheelchairs on public transit. A device that can control precisely the penetration of the beam in laser welding. A system that can monitor drinking water for E.coli, even remotely at great distances. It’s hard to see the connection among them, but they all share two common qualities – they were developed by researchers at Queen’s and later enjoyed commercial success.

When it comes to commercializing research, Queen’s has long been a leader among Canadian universities. Through both its technology transfer arm and more recently Innovation Park, its research park and now incubator-accelerator for technology startups and small- to medium-size enterprises (SMEs), Queen’s has nurtured and helped launch dozens of companies, all while creating what Janice Mady, director of Industry Partnerships & Innovation Park, characterizes as a robust “innovation ecosystem.”

So central is the idea of commercialization to university research today that it is surprising to learn that it is a relatively recent development. Founded in 1987, Queen’s not-for profit PARTEQ Innovations was a Canadian pioneer in what is termed “technology transfer” – helping researchers who had developed potentially useful and remunerative forms of technology secure a commercial outlet. Headed today by Jim Banting, the office receives about 50 “Invention Disclosures” from Queen’s researchers each year, which its staff of patent agents and commercialization experts evaluate in terms of originality and possible benefit. For those promising opportunities selected to move forward, they will typically draft and file a patent application, explore sources of research funding, and seek an industry partner to license and develop the technology. In its nearly thirty years of operation, PARTEQ helped launch more than 40 companies.

When it comes to commercializing research, Queen’s has long been a leader among Canadian universities.

But while PARTEQ Innovations could launch companies, one thing it didn’t do, and was never intended to do, was retain them in Kingston and near Queen’s. Firms would start up, and then many left town. One reason, says Mady, was “a lack of proper facilities and support systems.” One solution was the ground-breaking development of Innovation Park.

Intended to create an environment that would foster discovery and accelerate innovation, and ultimately support the development of new companies and economic growth in the Kingston region, Innovation Park opened in June 2008, in leased space at 945 Princess Street. Through it, Queen’s sought to encourage a new generation of scientists and engineers to undertake socially and economically meaningful research, and to support public-private research partnerships that took advantage of Queen’s particular strengths, such as green energy. Such partnerships would also enhance the facilities and equipment available to Queen’s students and faculty. Originally serving as the landlord for 945 Princess, Queen’s transitioned these duties to the private sector in July 2016, and the university is now focusing its efforts on collaborating with numerous partners to develop and deliver incubation and acceleration programs to promising entrepreneurs, startups and SMEs in Eastern Ontario. Says Mady, “an innovation ecosystem flourishes when partnerships and collaborations develop, and entrepreneurs and startups have access to experts, programs and services as well as real estate and infrastructure.”

The growing partnership between research and commercialization promises many advantages for communities at Queen’s, in Canada and around the globe.

GreenCentre Canada is a prime example of how the Innovation Park model works in practice. Founded in 2009, and headquartered at Innovation Park, its mandate is to encourage the commercialization of “green chemistry” – the use of chemicals and processes that reduce harm to the environment. GreenCentre Canada’s chemists work on greener forms of chemistry, testing and refining them in its purpose-built 8,000-square foot facility, and then helping to scale up production. The organization also matches promising applications with possible investors. When Queen’s professor Philip Jessop needed help commercializing an exciting energy-efficient wastewater purification system that could benefit millions, GreenCentre Canada could offer support, nurturing the idea and ultimately spinning off Forward Water Technologies in 2012. In a move that signals the next stage in commercialization, the not-for-profit is now offering its services and academic connections to startups, SMEs and international companies to help them develop new products. Today, they are bringing in businesses as well as spinning them off.

An important goal of university research is to produce benefit for society. The growing partnership between research and commercialization promises many advantages for communities at Queen’s, in Canada and around the globe.

Ian Coutts
(e)AFFECT Issue 10 Fall/Winter 2016