Elicia Maine is arming Canada’s researcher-entrepreneurs with the tools they need to turn their inventions into consumer-ready innovations.
Scientists and engineers are usually more comfortable in the lab than they are in the boardroom, lacking as they are in the expertise to navigate the early-stage decisions that can make or break a venture. Luckily, Elicia Maine, associate professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship at SFU's Beedie School of Business, is an expert in both the management of technological innovation and in the commercialization of advanced materials and it is her passion to enable the success of a new generation of Canadian science and engineering entrepreneurs.
“There are many pressing global issues that can’t be solved by a new app,” Maine explains. “Clean water, curing cancer, zero-emission transportation, personalized medicine, and clean energy require complex science, and the current innovation ecosystem overly constrains the commercialization of potential scientific solutions.”
Maine has been studying the proliferation, formation, and growth of science- and engineering-based ventures since 2001, particularly in emerging sectors such nanotech, biotech, cleantech, and advanced materials. With a trend that has seen corporate research labs downsizing and a larger share of breakthrough inventions are coming from universities, Maine aims her research and teaching and empowering university-based innovators. “University spinoffs are becoming very important in our innovation ecosystems–they are becoming the originators of radical innovation,” she says.
Notably, she led an international collaboration which identified, classified and analyzed over 500 firms that were making a go in the global nano-bio sector, an industry which includes sub-sectors such as biopharma, drug delivery, diagnostics, bioinformatics and medical devices. This research was the first to focus on this new sector and to identify the particular factors that stimulate or suppress innovation as ventures increase in size. Findings were published in the journal Nature in 2013.
Turning some of this research into practice, in 2015, the Beedie School of Business launched a graduate certificate program to cater to scientist-entrepreneurs. The Graduate Certificate in Science and Technology Commercialization, an SFU Innovates program that is for credit and counts toward an MBA, will strengthen a researcher's product development, marketing, leadership and financial know-how when it comes to their industry and innovation idea. Maine is program director and helped develop the program for SFU or the University of British Columbia research scientists. A major differentiator of the program is the co-development of a customized business plan, accounting for both technology uncertainty and market prioritization.
Maine has spent years analyzing nanobiotechnology (the manipulation of living matter on a molecular–or smaller–scale) businesses in particular. She aims to improve understanding of the barriers and challenges they face during the commercialization process so that technology which often has extreme social value, such as stem cell medicine, can make it to market. These are inventions which often also have major potential in contributing to our economy.
Maine credits her motivation to highly-nurturing parents, including her father whose own career titles included engineer, PhD chemist, director of R&D, Member of Parliament in Pierre Elliott Trudeau's government, inventor, entrepreneur, and member of the Science Council of Canada. “He demonstrated to me that you can accomplish most things if you put enough of yourself into the attempts,” she says.
Starting a business is always a risk. And given the inherent high risks, high costs, and long development and adoption times for applications based on university research, attempting to take them into the marketplace is an all-to-often treacherous venture. Elicia Maine's expertise is making it so that Canada's scientist-entrepreneurs can better navigate the business world so their radical inventions can take hold and change our lives for the better.
Dr. Elicia Maine teaches "Managing Technological Innovation" at the MBA level, "Lab to Market" to graduate scientists and engineers, and supervises MBA applied projects. Her research focuses on the dynamics of innovation in the advanced materials, nanomaterials, biotechnology, and emerging nano-biotechnology industries, with a focus on science & technology ventures. She also applies her research to production scale-up decisions for cleantech innovations. Her specialties include: Tech Management, Tech Entrepreneurship, Growth of Science-based Ventures, Tech Portfolio Management, and Tech Commercialization. She was nominated for a 2016 “Person of the Year” Technology Impact Award by the British Columbia Technology Industry Association.
Q & A with Elicia Maine
What motivates you as a researcher or innovator?
Making a positive change in the world through research, through teaching and mentoring students, through educational innovation, and through influencing innovation policy. When my students come back to an alumni event or just drop by 5 or 10 years after graduation and tell me about an innovation course concept that still influences the way they think about the world, it makes my day!
SFU bills itself as “Canada’s most engaged research university.” How does your own work exemplify this spirit of engagement?
In particular, I engage with scientist-entrepreneurs, studying exemplars in various contexts, and help to overcome the challenges of turning world-class science from invention to innovation. (Invention is the discovery–it becomes innovation when it is brought to market in a commercial application). Some key innovation management concepts are managing under uncertainty, matching technology to markets at an early stage, harnessing interdisciplinarity, patenting and alliance strategy, and building a culture which doesn't punish "intelligent failure".
Putting one’s work out into the world often requires a leap of courage. Where do you find your courage?
From a place within, created by my parents, and refilled by family and dear friends. My father taught my three brothers and I to strive for positive impact on the world. My mother believed in all of us, loved us unconditionally, and fed our curiousity.
What do you see as the most noteworthy emerging trend that will shape the direction university research/innovation over the next 50 years?
University spinoffs are becoming very important in our innovation ecosystems– they are becoming the originator of radical innovation. Large multinational firms are monitoring emerging sectors (such as clean energy, nano-biotechnology, and personalized medicine), letting the university spinoff develop the technology, and acquiring the successful experiments. If national and regional policymakers want university spinoffs to be better at this translational role, innovation policy and technology transfer office mandates need to be better aligned.