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To solve complex problems such as the global pandemic or climate change, society looks to science for solutions. Academic scientists play a central role in the production and translation of breakthrough scientific inventions. However, many breakthrough inventions in science, medicine and engineering operate in environments of high uncertainty. Their development can span decades, leaving great ideas languishing in the lab, instead of thriving as spin-off companies within a robust innovation ecosystem.

Elicia Maine is an international expert in science innovation and entrepreneurship. As the W.J. VanDusen Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Simon Fraser University (SFU), and the Special Advisor on Innovation to the Vice-president of Research and International, she is working to further strengthen innovation culture and research impact at SFU, while advocating for corresponding programs and policies to enhance the Canadian innovation ecosystem.

Maine has oversight of the university-wide innovation strategy, SFU Innovates, including the new Technology Licensing Office. She is also the Academic Director of SFU Beedie School of Business’s for-credit Invention to Innovation (i2I) program, and the national Mitacs i2I skills training program, both of which teach scientist-entrepreneurs how to commercialize their ventures.

Maine has published widely on innovation and entrepreneurship, including writing an op-ed for Research Money on supporting a Build-for-Scale strategy in Canada. Recently, her paper Rapid Response Through the Entrepreneurial Capabilities of Academic Scientists was featured in Nature Nanotechnology, an interdisciplinary journal that publishes papers of the highest quality and significance in all areas of nanoscience and nanotechnology. The article, co-authored with SFU Beedie i2I faculty members Andrew Park, Jon Thomas and Azadeh Goudarzi, and with SFU Beedie post-doctoral researcher Pegah Yaghmaie, analyzes how a university nanomedicine spin-off, AbCellera Biologies Inc. (AbCellera), rapidly delivered an antibody therapeutic for COVID-19. The article investigates the early stage translational supports and entrepreneurial capabilities that enable academic scientist-entrepreneurs to found ventures which can respond quickly to global crises, creating both social and economic impact.

We met with Maine to discuss her research team’s work.

Your article describes how AbCellera was able to rapidly turn their nascent antibody therapy into the first life-saving COVID treatment, and then into a thriving publicly traded company, and anchor in British Columbia’s. innovation ecosystem. How did they do this? 

For science-based spinoff ventures, what may seem like an overnight success story is rarely anything less than 10 years of scientist-entrepreneurs swimming upstream, developing and building on an unconventional approach or theory, and constantly seeking translational funding. The founding CEO of AbCellera, Carl Hansen, had the benefit of both scientific and entrepreneurial mentoring by his PhD supervisor at the California Institute of Technology. Hansen then paid that forward with his own PhD students and post-docs at the University of British Columbia. He demonstrated entrepreneurial capabilities while still in the research lab, and later within the new science-based venture. These competencies shaped and endowed AbCellera, and enabled rapid, breakthrough product development in response to the global health crisis. 

You have five key recommendations to enable the growth of emerging nanomedicine ventures. What are they and will this work for other types of university science ventures?

AbCellera’s ability to be a game-changer is because of the scientific and entrepreneurial capabilities set in place by its founders pre-formation. These skills are highly relevant to other types of science-based university spin-off ventures. They include:

  • Steering emerging technologies towards unmet market needs during the early stages of research and development;
  • Protecting scientific advancements with broad, blocking patents filed in parallel to elite journal paper submissions;
  • Training and mentoring graduate students, post-docs and colleagues to have an entrepreneurial mindset while potentially matching them with experienced business co-founders whose networks and backgrounds are relevant to the venture; and
  • Incubating the translational research or nascent venture within university research facilities until the technology is close enough to viability to match venture capital timelines.

In addition, ventures that can change the traditional risk-reward tradeoff in a sector, by lowering risk or increasing reward, give themselves greater chances for success. 

In your Research Money op-ed, you describe how SFU Innovates purposefully supported Ionomr Innovations Inc.—a science-based green energy spinoff co-founded by SFU Professor Steven Holdcroft. What is SFU doing right when it comes to supporting science-based ventures?

SFU has world-class researchers, often attracted to SFU by our culture and reputation for creating impact from research. For example, we have an inventor-owned intellectual property (IP) policy, a strong tradition of community-engaged research, and faculty and staff who dedicate large parts of their careers to creating social impact through improved policies or novel products. Compared to North American universities, SFU also enjoys rare coordination and cooperation across the research and academic portfolios in supporting innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives and facilities.

Where can SFU—and Canada—do better to support its scientist-entrepreneurs?

We spoke earlier of how scientist-entrepreneurs need to swim upstream for a decade or more. I would prefer that our ecosystem provided canoes. And paddles. It is always going to take persistence, determination, skill—and some luck—but more scientists will embark on the innovation journey if they can stay dry and have a better chance of a positive outcome. I recommend creating more flexible translational funding, offering training and stipends for commercialization post-doctoral fellows, better support for strategic long-term IP protection, incubation and acceleration services, enhanced access to prototyping, scale-up and living lab facilities, and government investment to develop the entrepreneurial capabilities of scientific researchers. I think enhanced investment in these types of supports will pay dividends in many ways: for our health; the environment; for the economy; and for society.

SFU's Scholarly Impact of the Week series does not reflect the opinions or viewpoints of the university, but those of the scholars. The timing of articles in the series is chosen weeks or months in advance, based on a published set of criteria. Any correspondence with university or world events at the time of publication is purely coincidental.

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