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Industry-sponsored research, entrepreneurship mix it up at U Toronto’s Impact Centre

This article appeared in the September 2017 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. Click here to subscribe.

Industry-sponsored research thrives alongside start-ups and student education at the University of Toronto’s Impact Centre, which intentionally blurs the lines that divide the main pathways to commercialization and offers instead a one-stop shop for turning ideas into products. A potential research sponsor shows up and explains what it’s looking for — generally in the natural sciences or engineering — and Centre professionals, most of whom are technology domain experts and successful entrepreneurs, set the company up with academic or entrepreneurial resources to get the job done.

Specifically, the Centre focuses on industry projects and partnerships, entrepreneurial companies, and entrepreneurial education — and networking, too. “We perform research for existing businesses, incubate start-ups, and run training programs for students,” reports the Centre’s Director, M. Cynthia Goh, PhD, who’s also a chemistry professor at U of T. “We also organize a number of clusters based on areas where we have strong expertise” — including the Smart Sustainable Lighting Network and the Synthetic Biology Innovation Cluster — which “get faculty, businesses and students together to talk about industry advances and new technologies, plus how the market for the technologies is developing.”

Each cluster is a collection of stakeholders in a defined technology domain that represent the up- and downstream members of a value chain, interconnected by shared technologies, markets, supply chains or labor pools, explains Venkat Venkataramanan, PhD, director of scientific operations, at the Centre.

The goal is “connecting academics conducting cutting-edge science with industry innovators” so that all parties get a better grip on the issues faced in the marketplace and how to address them using the resources the cluster members possess. The cluster itself plays an information exchange coordination role, collaborating with public and private sector entities on knowledge-sharing projects and networking events.

Other hubs may add corporate partners

The Impact Centre is — for now, anyway — the only one of the University of Toronto’s nine entrepreneurship hubs that combines start-up activity and student training with corporate-sponsored research, calling it one of the “deeply interconnected” aspects of commercialization. And it boasts of providing research-for-hire services for a couple dozen companies in the last year, primarily those developing innovative medical devices, advanced materials and complex computer hardware or software. But it’s not the only entrepreneurship hub on the U of T campus, and each has its own history and focus.

The Impact Centre was launched in 2012. It started out as the Institute for Optical Sciences, which soon moved beyond academics and developed an emphasis on “translating knowledge into commerce” by working with existing companies to help improve their product offerings and by helping students start new companies based on their academic research. Right away, it started raising money from private investors to fund start-ups. While still operating as the IOS, the Centre’s first cluster was created in 2009 — the Solid State Lighting Network. Two years later, the university scaled up the IOS pilots as an independent unit with the stated mission of developing new models for academic-industry collaboration.

A more recently launched U Toronto hub, called ONRamp, provides a collaborative workspace for students, entrepreneurs and start-ups and was developed with $3 million from the Royal Bank of Canada, which houses its own Innovation Hub in the building. Its purpose: allow entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas and secure financial assistance.

Additional hubs include the Creative Destruction Lab, which offers a highly competitive development program focused on ready-to-launch companies; the Department of Computer Science Innovation Lab, which emphasizes the nature, structure and dynamics of the contemporary software industry; the Entrepreneurship Hatchery, an engineering-focused incubator and one of the hubs that’s talking about adding an industry-sponsored research component; and the Health Innovation Hub, a two-year-old center launched by the school’s Faculty of Medicine.

U Toronto also hosts ICUBE, which offers commercialization services on the Mississauga campus through its Institute for Management & Innovation; Start@UTIAS, launched by the school’s Institute for Aerospace Studies with a $1 million donation from a philanthropist; The Hub, the UT Scarborough incubator that focuses on web-based technologies, especially computer science and business management; and UTEST, a start-up development program for software companies supported by UT and MaRS Innovation, the commercialization agent for 15 of Ontario’s leading academic institutions that focuses on industry partnerships, licensing and company creation.

More “traditional” industry-sponsored research at the university is handled by the Innovations & Partnerships Office, the school’s “gateway to sponsored research and other forms of partnership agreements.” The university boasts of signing about 2,000 agreements total each year, representing about $50 million in industry and leveraged funding.

The Impact Centre and the other entrepreneurship hubs are managed by the university under the U of T Entrepreneurship umbrella, which itself is part of the Banting & Best Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship family of commercialization programs.

Connecing industry to resources

At the Impact Centre, an industry research engagement begins with Centre staff meeting with a company to assess its needs and the capabilities of its scientific staff and those of the UT research faculty to fulfill them. “Research itself is either done in-house by Impact Centre scientists or in collaboration with university faculty, depending on the nature of the project,” Venkataramanan says. “In both cases, the Impact Centre plays a key role in managing the project to ensure timely delivery of the project milestones.” Some corporate clients come to the Impact Centre through Techno, its annual boot camp program; alumni start-ups can access the prototyping and other services performed on a research-for-hire basis.

The first step, notes Communications Coordinator Scott McAuley, is using the Centre’s Connector System to lay out options for joint research and development projects and industry partnerships. Calling it “a framework that lowers barriers to working with the university,” McAuley says the Connector System has three parts:

  • Focus on the outcome. Evaluate each industry request; leverage in-house expertise or tap into the Centre’s cluster network to find a suitable academic partner.
  • Provide entrepreneurs with the guidance they need. Provide research commercialization and job creation support.
  • Build a community. Introduce sponsors, partners, mentors and friends to technologies and entrepreneurs.

After an initial meeting, the Impact Centre team determines “the feasibility and technical requirements of the project,” Venkataramanan explains. “It is then assigned to an Impact Centre staff member to manage and oversee the project.” A la carte services are lined up, depending on each’s company’s needs, and “fees are determined by the type of work required, including staff time and equipment usage.” Most of the research companies contract for is done by internal Impact Centre staff or in collaboration with faculty members, he says. In addition, Venkataramanan adds, “the Centre reaches out to researchers at other universities, including abroad, or to our partner companies. We go where we have to go to get timely and cost-efficient solutions for our clients.”

A success story

Because there’s also “traditional” sponsored research under way on campus, the Impact Centre makes a point not to “involve a faculty member who has competing interests,” Venkataramanan stresses, adding that “we follow the intellectual property regulations of the university and of any government funding organization that’s supporting the research.”

He also emphasizes that if a project involves student researchers, “it is done in collaboration with a faculty member, ensuring that the industry-sponsored research does not lead to delays in student outcomes, but rather complements their skills and knowledge development.” Sometimes employment results: “There are occasions where the students are eventually hired by the companies sponsoring the research,” he says, “and while we certainly encourage this hiring, it is not the norm.”

The companies sponsoring research at the Impact Centre may have started out there, but they are not usually still tenants. “Once companies become well-established,” McAuley notes, “they generally leave our facilities for their own facilities.”

But often they keep coming back. For example, one of the Centre’s most recent industry-sponsored research successes involves its ongoing partnership with Allanson International. The two first worked together in November 2011, when the Impact Centre — then still IOS — carried out research to help the company solve a critical technology problem with its lighting products. The next year Allanson again sought the Impact Centre’s help to refine one of the fine points of its product line. Then, as part of what the Centre calls “an ideal industry-academia collaboration,” the two developed a further lighting refinement; the company now thinks of the Impact Centre as its outside R&D arm.

Sponsoring companies also interact with the start-ups at the Centre, McAuley points out, through events and “targeted introductions.” It’s all part of providing whatever services a client company requires, he adds.

“The main thing an institution should do to replicate the success of the Centre,” he says, “is to learn the needs of the companies and become a trusted partner and source of knowledge and expertise.”

Contact Goh at 416-978-6254 or cgoh@chem.utoronto.ca; Venkataramanan at 416-978-3875 or vvenkat@imc.utoronto.ca; and McAuley at 416-978-3875 or smcauley@imc.utoronto.ca.


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