Innovation. If ever there was a buzzword with staying power, this is it. Governments, corporations, and universities alike celebrate it, cherish it, and compete for it. But can they actually make it happen? And – in the particular case of academia – who does it even benefit if it does happen?
One of the misconceptions behind research spending is that it leads to innovations that have broad benefits for society. While that may be true in some regards, economic figures do not support that view. In 2018, Canadian universities created only 0.25 per cent of new businesses in the country. Of course, universities do not simply exist to create businesses, but nevertheless this is a shockingly small figure.
The problem is not unique to Canada – in the US, for example, where one might assume the connection between academia and commercial activity to be stronger, universities also struggle to make economic impact. In 2016, of the more than 304,000 patents granted that year, only 6,639 were issued to a university, or about 2 per cent of the total. Similarly, American schools generated roughly 550 startup companies per year between 1996 and 2015 – which accounted for less than 0.1 per cent of the total generated in the USA.
Given these figures, it seems clear that more can – and must – be done to ensure that innovations that emerge from universities survive and thrive once they leave the laboratory or classroom.
Enter the McGill Innovation Fund (MIF) which officially launches Tuesday, September 28. Event details and registration can be found here. The launch will feature a panel discussion with some distinguished members of the Montreal entrepreneurial community:
- Professor Mark Andrews – a serial entrepreneur whose latest venture, Anomera, has been steadily raising funds for its sustainable, nanocrystalline cellulose business.
- Craig Buntin (MBA, ’06) – CEO of Sportlogiq, and former Olympian, Craig has taken his AI-driven sport data company from concept to must-have tech for almost all NHL teams.
- Elizabeth Douville – Founding and Managing Partner of AmorChem, a leading early-stage venture capital fund focusing on research innovation and translating it into next-gen startup companies.
- Margaret Magdesian – a scientist-entrepreneur with over 20 years of experience in biopharmaceutical research and founder of Ananda Devices, a company that uses nanotechnology to accelerate R&D in the pharmaceutical, food and cosmetic industries.
The MIF provides up to $100,000 in funding to selected spinoff companies that have an active license agreement with McGill University, and funding packages of $50,000 and $25,000 to technologies that have been accepted as inventions by the Office of Innovations and Partnerships (I+P). In all, ten prizes will be awarded, for a total pool of nearly $500,000, making it the biggest fund by far at McGill and one of the biggest in Canada.
In other words, it’s a golden opportunity for entrepreneurs, but also for those who are more interested in just innovating. That’s because the fund is divided into two streams: The Technology phase will support promising new tech, and the Spinoff phase which supports already established businesses that have a license agreement with McGill.
A home for McGill entrepreneurs
The MIF is the brainchild of Mark Weber, Director of I+P and himself a holder of several patents. “Our vision for this is simple,” he explained. “A home for everyone in the McGill entrepreneurial space, even for those who may not see themselves as entrepreneurs.”
The MIF will be open to all faculties and departments, and funds received have no strings attached. Funds at other universities are often exchanged for partial ownership of the company or some other debt – not so with the MIF.
To help set up the fund, Weber turned to the local expertise of Arche Innovation, a Montreal-based consultancy with broad experience in developing and operating funds for academic partners. “Working with Arche has been excellent, and their guidance has made this a very smooth process,” Weber said.
“Historic moment for McGill”
One of the early actions by Arche was to survey the McGill/Montreal entrepreneurial ecosystem, to find out what was missing from McGill’s existing support mechanisms. The message they heard from nearly all those polled was the same: bridge the funding gap between discovery and implementation. The McGill Innovation Fund aims to do exactly that.
It’s more than just money though – recipients of the fund will also be supported for one year following the award, with access to a pool of service providers who will offer discounted support, a personalized roadmap with defined milestones and objects, and the possibility of being matched with a coach or mentor who has experience in their field.
Looking ahead, Weber is planning to expand the fund and potentially increase the size and number of prizes. But for the first iteration, the focus will be on execution.
“We want to get things right, and we want people to get excited by what this represents,” he said. “This is a historic moment for McGill.”