The process of taking an invention from the lab to the marketplace can be long and consist of more than a few twists and turns. Scientists at the University of Lethbridge who have the expertise to research and develop a novel idea or product may need coaching and support to commercialize it and that’s where the University Industry Liaison Office (UILO) within the Office of Research and Innovation Services (ORIS) can lend a helping hand.
Inventive works demonstrating a valued use to society are intellectual property (IP), which is defined by the Canadian Intellectual Property Office as a creation of the mind. IP includes inventions, literary and artistic works, designs and symbols, and names and images used in business. At the U of L, the person who creates the ‘work’ holds the IP. While researchers who want to commercialize an invention can do so independently, UILO provides resources and expertise to work on the inventors’ behalf to translate their findings for an applied use and benefit. The U of L directs some its Research Support Fund towards the operation of the UILO.
“The UILO does several things to enhance knowledge translation of research for society’s benefit,” says Dr. Greg Vilk, UILO manager. “It can take many forms, such as the design of new bioplastics, precision agriculture techniques and technologies, a new drug for medical purposes, or a medical device such as a diagnostic mobile app for an unmet clinical need. It could also be educational materials for a unique requirement in the form of traditional methods or more progressive digital platforms.”
The UILO can assist with intellectual property rights, assessing their value and determining the best way to approach partners who might be interested in collaborating in the refinement of the research, license the intellectual property for mutual gain and to solve society’s grand challenges. While the developer may stand to gain financially from their intellectual property, knowledge translation and commercialization provide other benefits such as more student exchanges, increased employment, other new projects and further collaborations.
“When an intellectual property disclosure arrives at the UILO, I do a full confidential analysis,” says Vilk. “I use proprietary databases; I look at the economics of it, I look at market and company information and try to assign a value for the intellectual property going forward. I give my assessment of whether the presented findings demonstrate a solution to a commercial challenge or problem. University-level intellectual property is inherently rough around the edges and therefore high risk. It’s susceptible to failure so I assess that risk and determine if we should go forward or wait and develop it further to de-risk the invention and increase its social and economic value to interested parties.”
Vilk also looks for strategic partners who could team up with the University, both to help commercialize intellectual property or to provide essential University expertise to help solve a pressing industry problem.
“The University has strong humanities and physical sciences expertise so there are opportunities to cross-pollinate between those departments. A lot of technology in the physical sciences space can facilitate research and development in humanities space, an example being the use of technology to turn sign language into speech,” says Vilk.
The UILO also performs an educational function and is available to help researchers, staff, students and the university community understand how the knowledge translation and commercialization process works. Vilk can also provide advice on technology translation and knowledge translation given his own experience as a co-founder of four companies in genomics, platform diagnostics, biofuels and agricultural biotechnology. In addition, he was a co-lead in a cell therapeutics company, directing their research and development initiatives to clinical trials. He’s also experienced the patenting and licensing process for both his inventions and others.
Vilk, who has a PhD in biochemistry from Western University, developed patented infection control drugs while at Western and a proof-of-principal platform detection device that allows allergy sufferers to test for peanut proteins in foods, for example. The infection control drugs were successfully licensed to an international firm, while the allergy platform device technology is still in development. These experiences and outcomes sparked his keen interest in commercialization and knowledge translation.
“I like the startup and entrepreneurial atmosphere, especially its diversity. I like seeing different technologies and early-stage ideas coming from diverse areas and figuring out how to marry them up to accelerate their maturation for society’s use. That’s what I like about academia,” says Vilk.
The UILO is part of the Regional Innovation Network of Southern Alberta which includes Lethbridge College, tecconnect, Alberta Innovates, Community Futures and the National Research Council. Members of the network come together to help with commercialization and act as a conduit for grants, incubation space, advice and connections. In addition, Vilk strives to establish and nurture existing connections with other universities, investors, industries, enablers and associations in Canada and the United States to amalgamate resources where possible, discover new collaborators and note investor trends. He also works with his colleagues in the research office to build strength in new and existing grant fund applications.
“We’re a young and vibrant university with niches of world-recognized expertise that we can pull on and capture value. We can’t be everything to everybody because we don’t have the resources to do that,” he says. “If I can try to leverage our world expertise in these areas, then I can build tangible value that way and make the University stronger.”
The Research Support Fund supports a portion of the costs associated with managing the research funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, such as salaries for staff who provide administration support, training costs for workplace health and safety, maintenance of libraries and laboratories, and administrative costs associated with obtaining patents for inventions.