Technological nationalism has long been a force driving the conversation about the commercialization of university research in Canada. Through archival research, I have shown how since the 1960s, academic scientists in this country struggled with the options available to them to patent and license discoveries, although such efforts had started much earlier. While many sought to contribute to Canadian industry, it was often the case that domestic companies would lack the interest or resources to license inventions coming out of their laboratories. Licensing to subsidiaries of American firms, both willing and able to develop these inventions into marketable products, was thus usual. The need to protect intellectual property (IP) arising from academic research has not been lost on university campuses for quite some time: the University of Toronto’s first patent policy was proposed in 1961. More than just historical trivia, our history is directly relevant to current policy debates and decisions.
Last year, the Ontario government commissioned an expert report on the commercialization activities of higher-education institutions. As I wrote back then, this initiative lacked a clear and logical purpose at the outset; its original mandate was unintelligible if you took it at face value. In subsequent stakeholder consultations, excessively open-ended and convoluted questions were posed to various groups, including university and college technology transfer officers, as well as campus incubators and accelerators.
However, the results of this work were a foregone conclusion. All you needed to anticipate the panel’s recommendations was to follow its chair’s numerous op-eds and interviews in recent years. Former Research in Motion/Blackberry CEO Jim Balsillie has become an “idea entrepreneur,” actively seeking to influence public policy related to IP. His basic gripe revolves around what he sees as Canada’s naïve posture regarding the support for, protection, and commercial exploitation of IP. Usually in hyperbolic terms – he likes to claim that “Canada has the most superficial discourse on innovation” of all 135 countries he has done business in – he touts the need for government to actively step in to rectify the situation through a series of policy interventions. He dismisses policymakers in Ottawa for outdated thinking on innovation, and criticizes what he sees as an “incubator-accelerator industrial complex” involving the countries’ colleges and universities.
Last July, the Ontario government announced it is moving forward with the panel’s four recommendations by appointing a “Special Implementation Team on Intellectual Property” composed of – guess who? – the same group who proposed them, led by Mr. Balsillie. The four ideas conform with the worldview advocated by Mr. Balsillie. First, because those working in research institutions and research organizations lack “IP literacy”, the government should support the development of an online, mandatory IP curriculum. That an online course could address what Mr. Balsillie and the expert group regard as a flagrant lack of expertise in the innovation ecosystem seems like wishful thinking – only consider the many forms of mandated online training that exist that remain cursory in form and results.
Second, to address the lack of capacity within colleges and universities to handle IP, the panel proposed “a centralized provincial resource” to provide legal expertise and educational resources. What a centralized provincial resource actually is remains left to the imagination. Presumably the group intends the government to set up a service organization, and to judge from the sequence of events thus far, this could arguably be the next job for members of the expert panel.
The last two recommendations are, to borrow freely from Mr. Balsillie’s rhetorical style, the most obviously cliché recommendations ever produced by an expert panel in this province. The report basically proposes that publicly-funded units within college and university supporting commercialization “should have a clearly defined mandate regarding their roles and responsibilities and ensure that there is a plan to address any issues of institutional alignment and capacity to fulfill this mandate” (because if government does not intervene they presumably would not). Further, the government should “create a mechanism for commercialization entities to identify their comprehensive IP policies where they exist, their intention to create them where they do not, and to articulate perceived gaps inhibiting commercialization outcomes.”
In other words, this proposes yet another little rationalization and accountability exercise of the kind that already inundates Ontario colleges and universities. This would result in campus administrations needing to churn out an additional government submission, ensuring that they appropriately deploy all the expected twists of phrase and previously sanctioned objectives that would characterize their “unique” strategy. As a policy recommendation, this might be a better way to generate management jobs at the “centralized provincial resource” to oversee the process, than to actually help colleges and universities become better at commercializing IP.
In announcing these steps, Premier Ford endorsed Mr. Balsillie’s thinking: “Too often the priceless intellectual property developed here in Ontario gets bought up by the big U.S. or international firms.” This is nothing but the current manifestation of Canadian techno-nationalism, which has for several decades been used as a justification to advance a number of policy ideas, including a number of bad ideas.
If the Balsillie-led panel is misguided, then what is the solution? What steps should be taken to ensure that Canada can retain and successfully commercialize the valuable IP generated here, rather than have it poached and exploited by the big American companies?