cover art for Beyond the Breakthrough featuring Elicia Maine

Elicia Maine has thought and written a lot about innovation in her more than two decades as professor for innovation and entrepreneurship at Simon Fraser University. It’s no surprise then that in July this year she was named the institution’s inaugural associate vice-president, knowledge mobilisation and innovation.

In this episode, Elicia talks us through a six-year study she co-authored identifying the four key pre-incorporation elements that indicate whether a spinout will be successful, and she explains why she’s a major proponent of professor’s privilege.

She also tells us about the various programmes that SFU offers and describes how her appointments at Innovate BC, the Creative Destruction Lab and the Foresight Cleantech Accelerator Centre all add value to her work back at SFU.


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Please note that the intro and outro have been omitted.

Elicia, welcome to the podcast.

Thank you, Thierry. It is a delight to be talking with you this morning my time, and I am coming to you from Vancouver, from the Unseated Territories of the Musqueam, Skxwú7mesh and Tsleil-Waututh nations, where SFU is situated in three campuses in Vancouver, Burnaby, and Surrey, British Columbia, the three largest and growing cities in British Columbia. I am really excited to talk to you about innovation at SFU today.

Same. I look forward to our discussion. To start with, perhaps can you give me a bit of an overview of innovation with some headline figures at SFU?

Yes, so SFU is the top-rated comprehensive university in Canada and has been for as long as the rankings have been in existence. A comprehensive university means that we do not yet have a medical school or a law school, but that we are very research active. SFU has also been very highly rated in innovation and entrepreneurship.

For example, the last three years in the World Universities with Real Impact ranking, SFU has come top in Canada on the innovation ranking and the entrepreneurial spirit ranking and this past year in the 2022 rankings, SFU actually came number one in the world on the entrepreneurial spirit ranking. I hope to dig in a little bit today into some of the secret sauce that enables us to have that sort of an impact. Also, in some more traditional figures.

SFU has 35,000 students across our three campuses. Nearly a third of those students are involved in co-op work learning opportunities, and we have sponsored research income of 170 million per year.

Okay. That is quite impressive figures already. Where does your role fit into the university?

So, this is an inaugural position, an associate vice president of knowledge mobilisation, and innovation, and just started it three weeks ago, four weeks ago now, July 1st. But I have been seconded for the past two years as a special advisor on innovation to our vice president research and international.

So, I have had a halftime role with the innovation part of that AVP role. And it is a pan-university role overseeing knowledge, mobilisation and innovation. It is meant to provide support, strategy, and oversight for the many bottom-up initiatives that we have at Simon Fraser University. Starting from faculty and students and initiatives and institutes that are here.

We have many of these bottom-up initiatives because kind of students and faculty we attract are interested in making an impact in the world. In fact, our tagline is the engaged University, and people really do walk that talk. So, this role is meant to try to provide support, strategy, and oversight to all of those efforts and hopefully find synergies with them.

Amazing. I want to take a look back at your own career for a bit as well. You have been a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship since 2000. You gained a PhD in technology management and materials engineering from Cambridge, and then you got a masters in technology and policy and materials engineering from MIT. It is quite impressive academic career already.

What piqued your interest in innovation and what has kept you at SFU all this time?

Great questions, Thierry. So, innovation has been something that I grew up at the kitchen table with. My father was a PhD scientist who also went to Cambridge, and Queens University before that. All of my brothers and I went to at Queens Engineering, where I also did an extra degree in English and marketed myself as a literate problem solver. But I saw my father was many things, including a member of parliament in our federal government under PM Pierre Elliott Trudeaux, a member of the Science Council of Canada, Chair of the Waterloo Center for Innovation.

So, I got to think about these issues very early on. I was also lucky to attend a programme in Canada we have for high school students called Shad Valley, which is started at the University of Waterloo. It is about innovation and entrepreneurship for high school students, and that is a month-long intensive in person programme at university for high school students who then go out and try to do those things in the world. So, that was formative.

My time at MIT in the technology and policy programme was very formative. Everybody there, it is a cohort-based programme, everybody there is in an area of engineering expertise and also an area of policy or management expertise. So, that was where I first really dug into the issues of how designers and manufacturers think about new materials.

There are 50,000 new materials. How do you think about a new one? How do you try to design it into processes? How is it chosen? What kind of timeline does it take to make its way into different applications? So that was really fascinating to me, marrying what you are doing in the research lab with how it is being used and the decisions that need to be made to take something from the lab to impact in and that could be commercial impact, that could be impact in policies and processes, but that all of those factors and those perspectives were first introduced to me in a comprehensive way in that interdisciplinary programme at MIT, a two year programme.

Amazing. Why SFU, then? What brought you here and why have you stayed?

As I said, I did my first degree in Canada at Queens University, great experience. Had two years of working with a multinational management consultant firm, and then went to MIT, did my master’s degrees, went to the University of Cambridge on a scholarship, and did a wonderful interdisciplinary PhD, which was not the norm at Cambridge at the time. It was before the Cambridge MIT alliance, and so I was bringing together perspectives.

I had a phenomenal main supervisor, Prof Mike Ashby, a very renowned material engineer and renaissance man, a big thinker. I had another wonderful advisor on the management side, on the entrepreneurship side, Dr Elizabeth Garnsey, and the two of them at the end helped shape my thinking. And at the end of that PhD, I could have gone into an engineering school, I could have gone to a business school, but I definitely wanted to come back to Canada.

So, I looked at different locations in Canada. Vancouver is a phenomenal place to live and work and play. SFU at that time had started an interdisciplinary programme called The Management of Technology MBA programme, where they were teaching engineers to have an MBA that was specific to their sectors and that is back in 2000. So, that was very early on for that kind of thinking. And the university itself and the faculties within it were far more interdisciplinary than other universities that I looked at in Canada.

So, I could see that culture right from the beginning, and I was given the freedom to be able to have a foot in both worlds, and I very much valued that throughout my career. I have had chances to have leadership positions. I did take over as academic director of that management and technology MBA programme for three years, a tour of duty, if you will, and enjoyed it, and then was able to advocate for and go through the processes of developing, assessing, and championing a new programme called Invention to Innovation that went through Senate, and I became the academic director.

That process, the freedom of being able to do that, the belief in the institution to get behind innovators within the university is a big part of why I am still here and still thriving at Simon Fraser University.

Oh, that is amazing. You have mentioned your invention innovation programme. I think before we started recording, you said you just stopped being the academic director. You are still the founder though, I suppose. Can you tell me a little bit more about this programme?

I sure will. Thank you. Yes, it was hard. It was harder than I thought to pass over the reins of the academic director role. We founded it in 2015, and so it is a seven-year-old child, and it really does feel like a baby and like many founders of companies find, but there is a time to pass it on to new leadership.

Our new leadership is phenomenal. Dr Sarah Lubik, who is also our director of entrepreneurship across SFU and has been faculty in the i2I programme since it started, is taking it over. The programme is designed to be a minimal viable product, if you will, or a sufficient lens for research scientists and engineers to have the entrepreneurial mindset and perspective and the innovation skills to be able to take research in their lab and make impact from it and to also not only have someone fish for them, but to teach them how to fish.

So, a very good MBA programme will give you capacities that you will use in multiple situations throughout your whole career.  This is the same here that we wanted to give scientists and engineers capacity to repeatedly make decisions that were going to steer their research, that were going to open up opportunities over their careers, and that were going to help the ecosystem bridge some of the gap that we experience here, and I know it is experienced elsewhere around the world, between research excellence and making impact through research-based innovation.

You have got quite a lot of things that you have done, so I want to move on to the next one. As much as I would like to keep talking about the i2i programme because that is very interesting. You are also a director of Innovate BC though. Can you tell me a little bit about this organization, how it adds value to your work?

Innovate BC is a wonderful organization that is something that is enabled by the province of British Columbia. So, it fits within the jobs, economic recovery and innovation portfolio of the provincial government and it is an independent board that advises on innovation initiatives and programmes at the provincial level. We meet every two months, and we try to meet in different parts of British Columbia and oversee and recommend strategy around innovation. So, each of the major research institutions have a seat on the board. I am privileged to hold the one from SFU.

You are also quite passionate about cleantech. We have been lending your expertise to the Creative Destruction Lab, Vancouver’s Climate Stream and the Foresight Cleantech Accelerator Center. Can you tell me a little bit about these two organizations and your work with them?

In both of those cases, you have 24 hours in a day, and some of those you have to sleep and some of those you want to spend with family or eat. But both of those organizations are trying to move the dial on an issue that I care about deeply, which is our climate crisis, and how do we try to use research-based innovation and our research institutes to try to be part of the solution in both a technological way and in creation and growth of the regional innovation ecosystem.

So, part of it is supporting innovators who are trying to find technological solutions, and we know that to meet our net zero requirements by 2050, that about 50% of those technologies have not been developed yet that we are going to need. So, technological innovation is part of the answer, but it is also from a regional point of view, from municipal politicians, provincial politicians, federal politicians, and the tough choices that they face with balancing the economy with this clean energy transition, how do you try to help support win-win solutions? So, in both of these instances, I have been giving my time to try to have an influence in that fashion.

Is cleantech something that you have always been interested in or is that something that is come over the course of your career?

I have a deep training in materials engineering and so I have always been interested in materials-enabled innovation and advanced materials underlays many deep tech innovations. It is a true generic technology or general-purpose technology in which it cuts across several industry sectors, many applications, and it is a particularly tough nut to crack of how you get that out of the lab and into the world.

So, I have done a lot of research on that. I have observed hundreds of companies and their strategies and publish a lot of papers, and I wanted to do more of walking the talk. We say in our research that we recommend ways that scientists can better navigate this innovation process, and we believe that capabilities can be developed, that can be deployed and executed in the lab and before companies are founded and then after companies are founded. And so, this is a way of trying to walk the talk, if you will, of the things that we are trying to teach.

That makes perfect sense. Speaking of writing, researching a lot. One paper that you wrote in 2020 that I thought was really fascinating looked at how to endow spinouts pre-formation, and you specifically looked up to entrepreneur Robert Langer out of MIT. You identified four key entrepreneurial capabilities in that study.

Can you tell me, perhaps for the listeners, since I have read the study, tell me what those are and what they implied?

Yes, absolutely. So first, Professor Robert Langer are more commonly referred to by his many alumni from his lab as Bob Langer is a remarkable human being, and a remarkable scientist, entrepreneur, the most highly cited chemical engineer in history, both being shaped by and shaping the MIT ecosystem and deciding very early on that he was going to be guided in his choices of research and even his post-doctoral fellowship by places that he could make a big impact and by trying to direct research towards large unmet needs of problems to be solved.

So, as an example, as a chemical engineer, he had lots of job offers in the oil industry and instead decided to be a very lowly paid postdoc in a biomedical research lab, the only engineer, and trying to understand the pain points that were not being solved and working on very interdisciplinary research.

Then in his early career at MIT, again, trying very interdisciplinary research, publishing big results that the system actually was not rewarding, was not getting grants, was not getting patents, and finding ways to overcome that and one good example bubbling, he had pushback from all the eminent scientists in his field to say that his results probably were not possible. That they must be a replication issue. It was very interdisciplinary research and it overturned the thinking of the time. Then the patent office was not granting his patents and saying that they were self-evident that the results were not interesting, not enough to be patentable.

So, he actually had the idea to go and get all those eminent scientists who were essentially trashing him in the response sections of Nature and Science, and asked them to write affidavits that this was not common practice and this was not self-evident, took it to the patent office and was able to get his first patents.

He has, since had the time that I did the study, 30 spinouts out of his research lab, that he has been a co-founder for. Some of them out of his research lab and some actually from colleagues’ research labs. What we did in that study was it was a six-year study where, we got as much data as we could that would ground these inventions through innovation processes in time and in observations around them.

So, we looked at all of his patents, at the time, 363 issued US patents, many more when you looked at patents around the world, but we looked at the US patents. We looked at the research publications and we analysed many aspects about those publications, but we saw his broad platform type research. We matched them to the patents, and we matched them to the companies that were formed out of his lab and then we looked at processes.

We did many interviews also with the MIT’s Technology Licensing Office and the people that had been in charge of the file and with CEOs of companies that had spun out from that research. So, in the end, we saw these repeated capabilities which we felt can be replicated and taught, and some of it is within the environment of the university. It is also the ecosystem that you find yourself in and those processes around you. But the things that we felt that the scientist can control, the individual PI and their grad students and postdocs and the lab can control, are first how they shape their research in the very beginning. How they think about the technologies that they have capacity and competence in their lab, the research field that they are doing, and the potential market applications that they are aiming to solve problems in. So how they think about that process, we call it technology market matching.

Bob Langer is remarkable at it from both directions, from the technology looking to steer towards unmet market needs and therefore framing the research around that, and from the market seeing large unmet needs and trying to match in his lab or his colleagues’ labs technological solutions or approaches that could address unmet market need. So, the idea there is very early in the lab and reacting to information that you find from those experiments both inside the lab and outside in the world around you, shaping research projects. So many examples of this and of grad students coming to Bob Langer and saying, But, here is what I am thinking.

Here is how my next set of experiments are going to go. And being encouraged to frame those experiments differently and be very ambitious in what you are trying to accomplish. So that is number one, technology market matching. That is a skill that we do teach in the i2I. And that from a very good PI that is a scientist entrepreneur their grad students and postdocs are very lucky to be able to be shaped in that.

The second one is about IP, and so that is where tech transfer offices, technology licensing offices come in of course, but the scientist and engineer can play a big role here too and so this one is about claiming and protecting your invention, doing it early, which can be controversial. And certainly, there are people in open science who would say that this is not in the best interest of the ecosystem. What I would argue is that patenting becomes a currency for inventors and their spinoff companies to be able to make impact from their research.

So, that patenting becomes a way to be able to attract investors, a way to be able to attract alliance partners and make reasonably fair deals in cooperation with them and alliance partnerships and it is a way to bridge the very long time, often 10 years, sometimes 15 years from invention to innovation. So, I think strategic patenting is very important and a well-resourced technology licensing office can be a huge help in that. But there are also strategies that the scientists and inventors can deploy, and that is something that we also believe can be taught and we attempt to do so in the i2i programme. Two more capabilities.

The third overall pre-formation entrepreneurial capability is around the founding team and how they are attracted to a research lab, how they are mentored, and then combining the scientists on the founding team with the right person from the business world. Whether that be from an incumbent company, whether that be from another startup, whether that be from a venture capital company, somebody in that world that can play the roles that scientists typically do not like to play, raising the funding or being the public face of the organization, and yet not throwing the technology over the fence to that business individual.

So, really still keeping the scientists, co-founders, and often the CSO and on the scientific committee, keeping the responsibility to be able to shape new product development and to be able to shape which opportunities the nascent venture is going to pursue. That is really important, and so that requires again a broader perspective and understanding something about the investment world and understanding something about the large strategic partners that you may want to create alliances with. And then the final capability is, when do you start? When do you actually found a company? So, strategic timing, it can be timing of your patents, it can be timing of your really large, impactful publications. And those publications can be timed in the journey of the startup as well. Like when you want to do a major push for strategic alliance partners, when you want to IPO, timing around that, but most notably timing around when you found the company and when you leave the nest of the university.

So, you could found the company, but stay in stealth mode within the university, utilizing the supports of the university, the research lab, and having a low burn rate. But often, and we would see this often in Langer’s companies, you actually purposely do not start the company, but you have the IP, but you continue to be closer to critical market needs and to a timeline that is going to fit with who your investors are going to be. So, if your investors have a 10-year fund portfolio as venture capitalists and they basically want to have a liquidity event within five years, you have to be able to time your founding of the company to be able to have a liquidity event in five years.

You do not want to found when your chances of actually IPOing or being bought out are going to be 15 years. That makes no sense. So, those are the pieces and the considerations that we feel that every scientist could have a frame on that would help them to navigate between these worlds and would help them to create more impact from their research, not only in new startups, but also in dealing with licensing with industry. And if those scientists end up going into industry, this lens will help them be more effective in being bridges back to university labs for breakthrough research commercialization.

That is fascinating. I think my next question was going to be whether this is possible outside a cluster like MIT or Boston. But considering you are teaching quite a few of those elements in your i2i programme, I suppose the answer is yes, it is.

Yes, it is. And it is interesting. It is true that it is interdependent with the ecosystem that you find yourself in, but we have had the opportunity with a wonderful partner here in Canada. There is an organization called Mitacs, which also started at SFU more than 20 years ago and is now embedded in 60 higher education institutions across Canada and provides, I believe, 18,000 internships per year. So, it brings graduate students closer together with industry through the mechanism of internships, and we have partnered with them back before covid in trying to bring the i2i across the country in an online mainly asynchronous format. And we are so glad we did it before Covid because we were able to put our full energy into working on the pedagogy to really make it work over distance and largely in an asynchronous fashion, but cohort and then when covid hit, it meant we also took our in-person classes and pivoted and used some of the material that we had developed in the videos and other learning mechanisms that we had developed.

So, we have been teaching for the last three years, this i2i programme, across the country and with some participants from other countries, from the UK, from Germany, from India, from the US, from Columbia but mainly, we have been focusing because our partner is a Canadian partner, we have been focusing on Canadian postdocs, PhD students, and even faculty members. We have had several Canada research chairs that have taken the programme and have found it to be transformational in the way that they guide the research that is happening in their lab, and they guide their students’ research. Yes, I do believe it can be taught, and I do believe that it does transcend institutions. Although, of course, your strategy needs to be informed by the strengths and supports and constraints of your individual university and regional innovation ecosystem.

Yes, not every TLO or TTO might have the resources to patent a lot of things that may or may not work out.


Is there anything that policy makers can do to support this? Or is it just universities?

No, absolutely. So, one of the things, there have been some very good reports out research papers definitely, but also quantitative analysis of the gap between programmes and supports for discovery research and research that is funded by research councils through to the funds that are available for academics to try to bring their research out into companies or new product development and in fact, there is a report that is called, I think it is called Mind the Gap.

It is a play on the UK subway system slogan, but it is basically showing that large gap, an under-resourced area. And so, I do think that innovation policy champions should be thinking about that space, both in terms of programmes, also in terms of people. So, there are grant programmes that you can write and we need more of them that transition that space, but I firmly believe that if we take advantage of the incredible talent that is coming out of our science and engineering institutions, and I do not know what it is in the UK, but here in Canada, only 20% of those PhDs that come out of STEM PhD programmes in Canada are going on to tenure track faculty positions.

So, that means that you have 80% of the talent that you are training not being utilised in the way that would be the typical path, and Canada does not have a lot of large companies that are doing research in which you can be solely the scientist you were trained to be. I do not think we are doing enough both in service of those highly qualified personnel and helping them create career paths that can be fulfilling and where they can utilise their strengths for the good of the economy.

But also, from the point of looking at your regional and national innovation ecosystems, we are not utilising that talent. Right here in Canada again, we get told we need more receptor capacity in industry, that industry is not doing its share of innovation. You need to train the people who can be those bridges between the great invention we have in our universities and the breadth of types of innovation that you would like to see industry leading.

So, I think that is an underutilised resource. I think that it is not just the funding programmes, it is trying to change the career paths and the perspectives of these very smart individuals who just have been narrowly socialised and narrowly educated. And that is not true of every institution. There are exemplar programmes that are working on alternative career paths, and the example I already brought up of Mitacs and the internships is a great example, but it is still not necessarily taking advantage of the breakthrough research that student is doing in their lab and the new possibilities it can create.

Usually, in an internship with a company, you are going and you are doing more of what that company already does, but you are doing it incrementally better. Whereas to try to better capitalise on the things coming out of research labs, the breakthrough inventions, you then need leaders of that innovation that understand both the technology, but also the things that keep CEOs awake at night and the market pressures and how to think about the resources that are going to be required and the timing that you are going to get a return on. I do think that from policy makers’ point of view, that they should invest in those people and in ways to give them the extra skills to be the receptor capacity that we want in our country.

That makes perfect sense. You have previously also argued, I think it was in 2017, that Canada would benefit from professor’s privilege or creator-owned model. I think SFU actually employs that model now. What are the benefits of that? Is it working better for SFU having this model?

So, I am a big fan of professor’s privilege of invention-owned policy. SFU has had one for more than 20 years. Waterloo has a great example of this model and has a true 0% kickback, if you will, to the university if the inventor commercialises the technology on their own and pays for their own patent costs. Now clearly the university has a role in every research-based innovation that comes out of the researchers that are employed at that university.

Clearly the university has been supporting them in their salary, in their research facilities that they have access to. So, we are not saying the university has not had a role, but we are saying that an inventor-owned policy gives choice to researchers at that institution, and it takes off a damper cloth. It takes off the suppression of innovation at an institute. And coupled with a strong technology transfer office or technology licensing office that is service-oriented and offers value to inventors at the institution, the coupling of those is extremely powerful.

So, if inventors are choosing to use their technology transfer office or their technology licensing, and there is a lot of service provided that is making that a reasonable choice, but you also do not require your inventors to use the technology transfer office. It becomes an explosion of innovation. So, there are half a dozen institutions in Canada that have that policy. I think the institution that has done it the best so far has been Waterloo, and we have a very good IP policy, but we do at the moment have a piece that goes back to the university, regardless of which path you choose, and we are revising our policy.

We have been working on it the last two years and trying to make it more transparent and to make sure that we are showing what success means for us as an institution, for the individual researchers and for the regional and national innovation ecosystems. So, I am an advocate of having an inventor-owned policy coupled with a strong service-oriented technology licensing office that can support those inventors who would like to be backed by their university and assisted by their university in doing their licensing and commercialisation.

I find it is quite an interesting discussion. I know Sweden, for example, has professor’s privilege, they are quite happy with it. Italy has professor’s privilege. A lot of people are not happy with it. Imperial College London here in the UK, they have a system where they take very minimal equity if the professor basically goes off and does it by themselves, or they take higher equity stake if the professor needs quite a lot of help. Usually, it is the first-time entrepreneur.

I do not know if there is a right or wrong answer here, but I certainly think you are right that the professor having the freedom to choose and then a TLO that is equipped to actually handle the entire process if they need to, is quite a good way forward.

Yes, I was actually, interestingly, I was the external examiner on a PhD thesis done by a student in management science at the University of Waterloo who had studied all of the Canadian universities and their inventor-owned, or hybrid, or university-owned policies, or whether they had a policy at all, because there are some institutions that are not particularly research based, that do not have policies. He had looked at them and done a whole bunch of regressions over a lot of periods of time and had looked at an output as the number of university owned patents.

So, it is counterintuitive, he looked, as an innovative measure of university-owned patents, and he found that those that were inventor-owned were the most innovative, followed by those who were hybrid, followed by those who were university-owned, followed by those who had no policy. Even when your measurement of innovation was the number of university-owned patents, Then I pushed back as an external examiner and said, I want you to go deeper into the other aspects of innovation in the ecosystem.

So, for Waterloo and for the University of Alberta, both who have inventor-owned policies, he went much deeper and looked at all the spinoffs created by faculty and so that was a much bigger sense of innovation, that you were able to look at those patents that did not get assigned to the university.

By those measures, you can see the impact of having an inventor-owned policy. But even if you are looking at university-owned patents, an inventor-owned policy stimulates innovation. So, we have that natural experiment across Canada, and we can see that there are more innovation happening if you have an inventor-owned policy.

Interesting. It is always good to have hard numbers. I will have to hunt down that PhD thesis because that sounds fascinating. Are there enough tech transfer practitioners going around Canada? Is that talent there to fill the TLOs?

I think it is. Clearly, there are always people who are remarkable and we are very happy to have such a person as the director of our TLO, Kamaldeep Sembi, but there are, I would say there are very good tech transfer people in Canada, but the person who leads up such an office and the success metrics that they create or are guided by, they are very much dependent on the vice president research of each of those institutions.

So, I am a believer that you need to purposely examine in your strategic research plan, which every institution in Canada has to have, you need to examine what is success for you in the innovation outcomes of your university research, and think hard about that and to make sure that the resourcing and the success metrics are the ways that your tech transfer professionals are recruited for and compensated, are aligned with what success is for your institution.

I think that some VPs of research feel out of their comfort zone in trying to assess that and set those criteria. And so, if they leave it up to someone else in the institution, maybe that is going to be too much guided by legal and legal as in general counsel of the university, which are generally by nature risk averse, or maybe that is going to be guided too much by finance or accounting. So, I think it has to be taken on as a strategic part of the VP research portfolio.

Speaking of success, what are the opportunities in SFU’s ecosystem?

EM: We have been undertaking, as I mentioned, a two-year study, discussion, stakeholder consultations around revising our current IP policy, which had not been revised since 2004, revising it for clarity, for transparency, and to be strategically aligned with the goals of the university, our inventors, and the regional innovation ecosystem.

So, I think that this is a big opportunity to really express to our board of governors, to our senate, to our industry partners, and to our community within the university, to make explicit what role a university can play in the regional innovation ecosystem and to make explicit where we want to be maximising output. People often talk about having a bigger piece of the pie or growing the pie. And the question is, where do you do that? Are you talking about the regional ecosystem level and is that where you would like to have a very large pie? And does it matter how big the university’s piece of the pie is? Since here in Canada, a big portion of our universities are funded by government and public sector investment.

So, that discussion itself I think is going to be very interesting, and our belief is that if we can support our scientist entrepreneurs and scientist innovators on faculty and in the research staff and students, that they are going to give back to the university and to the ecosystem in many ways, and we have in fact collaboratively worked on what we call a community engagement agreement, which talks explicitly about the ways that people who have founded companies can give back, and some of that is simply through providing co-op positions to students, coming and giving lectures to classes, being able to hire students and alumni, perhaps sponsoring some space, some research space, within the university, doing contract research, all of these sort of things, as well as when you make it really big, giving a big donation back.

What lessons have you learned over the course of your career to date?

One thing I have learned is that there are a very big gap between how all professors are incented to publish and how they are incented to be determined to being excellent in research and to go through the tenure process and then up the career ladder in an institution versus how you make impact in the field that you care about, in the policies that you would like to impact, in the innovation that you would like to see in the world, in the way that you mobilise knowledge. Most people that go into academia are not motivated primarily by money, and are motivated by scholarship, by curiosity, and by making an impact on the world around them, through their students, and also through their research.

I am a believer that we can do better in our policies and metrics that are meant to be meritocratic, that are meant to be objective, that are meant to show accountability, to be bold enough to try to measure things that are more aligned with the behaviours we would like to see and the outputs that we would like to see.

So, I am a big fan of people that are the many groups that are trying to change how research grants are assessed and how tenure and promotion criteria are set and uphill because I think that some of the things that we have been measuring have been leading us in directions that are neither fulfilling for faculty or students, nor are making the impact that we have the potential to have on the major pressing problems in the world around us, such as climate change, such as major health issues and disease, and that we could have a much bigger impact.

Is there any piece of advice that you would give to someone starting out in this career today?

Starting out as a professor? Starting out as an innovator?

I was thinking starting out in innovation management or tech transfer or knowledge mobilization, but if you have an advice for a professor or a young postdoc, I am sure they would like to hear that too.

So, some advice I would give is anybody who is in a STEM research degree, or is in a postdoc position, seriously consider finding a programme that can, or an educational programme that can, help you gain the perspective of business, of managing uncertainty, of understanding basic finance and accounting.

Really helpful, and IP, really helpful to you throughout your career. I would say for somebody that is trying to come into a career in innovation and entrepreneurship through a business school or an engineering school that supports that sort of a research front to make sure that you find a quantitative stream of research that can gather you enough publications to go through the ladder that is required to make it in academia, and also that you have an additional stream of research that is more qualitative, more phenomenon-based, and that you can complement your quantitative research with, that you will find it much more fulfilling and it will give you options to transition throughout your career after you have jumped through the hurdles.

That is pretty good advice. Can you give me some examples of SFU spinouts?

Absolutely. We have a few that have been through the i2I programme of whom I am immensely proud and I believe will make enormous impact. So, this is on the spinoff path, but one example. So, SFU has very strong research in across clean tech and climate innovation research, and in our chemistry department we have a research lab, Holdcroft Labs.

Stephen Holdcroft is an extraordinary chemist that works on membranes for fuel cells, for green hydrogen production, for electrochemistry. He had never started a startup. He had a PhD student come through the i2I back in 2015, they started a company called Ionomr Innovations at that time, that has, again, to the point earlier about materials innovation, it had applications across a dozen different sectors, but focusing in on the ones that could make the most impact on being able to produce green hydrogen, they have a far lower cost production process that they have proved with scaling up. They now have about 35 employees.

They have raised close to $20m, and they have partnerships with Shell Ventures and with other major companies, and they won an award, several awards, but one that I remember from the Startup Energy Transition Awards in Berlin saying this is a company that has the ability to turn the energy world upside down. So again, transformational clean energy that we need for 2050.

We need it before then, but we absolutely needed at scale for that period of time and coming out of a research lab that would not have started a company without a graduate student who walked in both worlds.

Another example of this PI came to SFU because of our inventor-owned policy, is a phenomenal physicist, Professor Stephanie Simmons. She came through the i2I programme and later her postdoc came through the i2i programme. She formed a company called Photonic based on quantum computing research. She has just recently had a fantastic paper in Nature and a lot of coverage in our national press about a low cost quantum computing technology out of her research lab that it is basically silicon-based quantum computing and again, has the potential to transform the possibilities of that emerging industry because of the cost points that the technology is coming out of and the fact that they have proved that they can scale it, and so it is marrying deep tech or science-based invention with a frame of how, what kind of business models to use? What kind of financing to be pursuing? When to start your major public push? When to be in stealth mode? What order to prioritise markets in? What kind of partners, strategic alliance partners to engage with? All of these things lead me to even more firmly believe that we can bridge the breakthrough inventions from our university labs more systematically with ventures that can scale, can become anchor companies and can make a big impact, big positive impact, on pressing global problems.

So that is one big piece of ventures that have come out. I would say another path that is really interesting has been the path that is champions of innovation in industry. So, building your own receptor capacity, and again, out of our i2I programme and more broadly, they are not all our research students, they are research students at UBC, at another 15 institutions across Canada.

We have a strong partnership with Queens University that we have seen a lot of transformation in those HQP, but I would say some local examples people have been hired that have been postdocs already and that have been in a sort of research capacity on their career track that have gone through this, either we have a seven-month version and we have an 11-month version of the programme. One is for credit, and one is not. And at the end of that time, they apply for different roles, they get callbacks for those roles, they get hired into those roles, and then they get promoted and their bosses say, rhis is my best employee, or this is the employee I go to when I have really hard problems because this person walks in both worlds.

This person understands the business side and the technology side, and we see that repeatedly of people that are trusted by their CEOs and their senior leadership to represent their company or their institution in championing innovation, being the innovation leader, being a business development person that is given really challenging tasks. So, that is another thing that we have seen in many of the large companies here in our ecosystem, is that alumni are playing roles that are of great responsibility in the innovation file for their company.

That is fascinating. I could keep talking to you all morning or evening in my case, but unfortunately, we are nearly out of time. Is there anything else we have not covered that you want people to know about SFU?

I would say that we have great strengths in community-engaged climate innovation, so we have a lot of community-engaged research, and we think both on the initial end of the research process about the communities that we are impacting and what they value, and then after the invention, we think a lot about the knowledge mobilisation of what we have developed, and sometimes that makes impact in policies, particularly climate policies. We have a great faculty environment here and researchers within it that are informing all of our major climate policies across the country.

Mark Jaccard is a huge influence on federal and international climate policy, for example. So, community-engaged research that mobilise that knowledge, and yes, with a special focus on our sustainable energy engineering faculty, our mechatronics faculty, our chemistry faculty are really working on creating some of those solutions that can be deployed to mitigate climate change as well. So, those are the pieces about SFU that I think I would want your listeners to know.

Amazing. I think those are some very good last things to put into listeners’ minds and very topical and important obviously. Elicia, it has been a very stimulating conversation. I really enjoyed this a lot. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today.

My pleasure, Thierry.

Thierry Heles

Thierry Heles is the editor of Global University Venturing, host of the Beyond the Breakthrough interview podcast and responsible for the monthly GUV Gazette (sign up here for free).