Thursday, March 29, 2007
U of M a real player in selling research
Materials research improves industry
By Martin Cash
Not so long ago, representatives of a Kentucky company called Ashland Inc. were in Winnipeg meeting with scientists at the University of Manitoba.
Ashland may not be a household name in Manitoba, but one of its divisions, Valvoline motor oil, is. The company generated US$7.2 billion in revenue in fiscal 2006.
Among other things, Ashland is also the leading North American distributor of resins and associated materials to the composites and polymer industries. It was interested in research U of M scientists are conducting on composite materials, which have attributes that could be used in the production of wind turbine towers.
Winnipeg is developing a centre of excellence in the composites industry that now includes the Composites Innovation Centre in the U of M’s Smartpark.
Not to say Ashland will necessarily do any business in Winnipeg, but its exposure to the expertise that exists here might yield dividends someday.
Ashland’s contact with Winnipeg came through the U of M’s technology transfer office (TTO). One of its roles is developing a broad network of commercial entities who might someday pay a fee to licence technology and discoveries undertaken by U of M researchers.
And since the U of M and its affiliated institutions, including St. Boniface General Hospital Research Centre, CancerCare Manitoba and Health Sciences Centre, have a hand in just about all original research taking place here, the university’s technology transfer office acts as a very sophisticated clearinghouse for the potential commercialization of a lot of that research.
One of the consequences of a fairly small community like Winnipeg trying to play above its weight class — like in the biotech or life sciences field — is that the largest player might seem like a 10-tonne elephant beside the rest of the players.
And while collaboration is a key dynamic for a community like Winnipeg, it doesn’t preclude the existence of self-interest on the part of every player, including the university.
In this space a couple of weeks ago, it was suggested the U of M took a flyer on a couple of industry-wide undertakings. But that is not to say it isn’t a vigorous participant in industry collaborative affairs.
Manitoba is known to have the fastest-growing biotech industry in the country, but that metric is a lot easier to achieve when you’re starting from a small base.
But the U of M is of a size that its relative success in the commercialization of research can be compared head to head with other universities. And the fact is, it stacks up very well.
In the most recent statistics compiled by the Association of University Technology Managers for the fiscal year 2004-2005, only six Canadian universities generated more revenue from technology licences than the U of M’s $1,676,576.
An even more noteworthy detail is that the University of Toronto was just ahead of the U of M at $1.69 million, but its research budget was almost four times the size of the U of M’s budget.
Gary Breit, who came to Winnipeg from Texas to run the U of M’s TTO two years ago, is projecting 2005-06 totals to increase by 75 per cent to $2.8 million.
Another measurement of success is the number of start-up companies that emerge out of university research. The U of M has produced six over the past couple of years compared to just one over the previous three years.
The funding and development of those start-ups can become the core of a growing industry in the future. The fact there is competition and rivalry for the affection of the city’s budding scientist/entrepreneurs is probably a good sign that the industry is becoming more mature.
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