How universities can build a robust innovation culture

Sylvain Coulombe
Associate Vice-Principal
Innovation and Partnerships
McGill University

Bringing ideas from the university research environment to market is a complex dance. While basic research – and often a little serendipity – are at the heart of discovery, commercializing inventions requires a robust innovation ecosystem. Universities can support this process by operating offices equipped to support faculty and students to commercialize their research applications, develop business research partnerships, and forge links with science and technology leaders.

In recent years, the research and innovation landscape in Canada has undergone significant changes, including the emergence of granting programs that reward interdisciplinary approaches. In principle, this focus on collaborative research is positive. However, on campuses across the country, including at McGill, collaborative space is limited. Researchers must therefore remain creative in cultivating connections among their fellow researchers and research partners. And they must be open to discovering the unexpected applications of their research.

Take for example the case of a McGill-start-up conceived in the lab of McGill’s Professor Thomas Szkopek. When Szkopek began researching graphene oxide, a new and exciting 21st century material, he did so with the hope of contributing significantly to energy storage technology. He did not immediately consider that his work might also contribute to cutting-edge audio technology in the form of the world’s first graphene headphones. That is until a student in his lab, Peter Gaskell, asked an intriguing question: could the properties of graphene oxide create the ideal conditions for professional, high-quality sound, clear of distortion across the entire band of human hearing?

Gaskell’s question triggered a series of fruitful collisions, bolstered by university-led support, culminating in the launch of Ora Graphene Audio, a Montreal start-up based on a patented McGill technology. It may be tempting to say, “And the rest is history,” but the intervening steps from idea to innovation illustrate the increasingly important role universities can play in our innovation ecosystems and economies.

For a conference presentation, the Ora Graphene Audio team produced its first prototype of an audio transducer based on graphene oxide technology. This prototype received an Innovation Award from McGill’s Faculty of Engineering, a small but critical investment, sufficient to hire a summer student to improve the prototype.

McGill’s Innovation and Partnership (I+P) team, an administrative unit dedicated to facilitating collaborative research and innovation, provided another key to success. Upon learning about the technology, I+P mobilized to turn the invention disclosure into a patent application. Equally important were the I+P officers’ connections with the local innovation ecosystem, including TandemLaunch, an incubator that specializes in creating start-ups from university research. With TandemLaunch’s support, Ora Graphene Audio assembled a founding team, secured investments, and started on their path to deliver professional-quality sound to every audio device.

This is just one of the many striking stories of how universities help bring the great ideas generated in a research environment to commercial application. However, universities continue to face many challenges in fulfilling their commitments to support the innovation process. Most markedly, we must attempt to change a process-oriented and bureaucratic culture into an innovative and creative ecosystem, securing sufficient funding to support ideas throughout their maturation process and deploying means for the cross-fertilization of ideas.

Together, we must ensure that a robust and well-structured innovation office is there to support an idea from its first conceptual stages through to application. In addition, we must continue to grow local and international networks, connecting with donors, alumni, and community partners, and to plug them into the university ecosystem. When members of an innovation and partnerships office work in tandem with researchers to assume such activities, opportunities for financial support are diversified and efforts to build innovation ecosystems strengthened.

At a time when global challenges demand discoveries at the inter- sections of diverse disciplines, fostering an adaptable, agile and multi-sectorial innovation ecosystem is one of the most powerful ways that universities can act as economic accelerators. To succeed, we must ensure that our researchers, like those at Ora Graphene Audio, have the time, space, and flexibility they need to keep their eyes – and ears – open for unexpected opportunities.