NRC cluster event raises intellectual property issues

Technology development initiatives are often better approached through the collaborative efforts of partners – be it academia or corporate – than taking the solo route, according to a University of British Columbia expert.

“There are opportunities to do things in a collaborative nature that you just can’t do in your own realm,” said Angus Livingstone, managing director at the UBC Industry Liaison Office in Vancouver.

The ability to leverage capabilities, expertise and access to corporate and federal funding are the main drivers behind partnerships, he added. And the cost of infrastructure is often so high that it makes more sense to collaborate to build and equip the physical premises so it may be used repeatedly by different stakeholders. He cited the $128-million capital investment fed into the Edmonton, Alta.-based Nanotech Institute that is now accessible to the NRC, the University of Alberta, and businesses.

Livingstone was in Toronto to discuss challenges and approaches to partnering for technology development at The Technology Cluster Advantage in Canada conference by the National Research Council (NRC) on Tuesday. NRC is an Ottawa-based public agency that promotes research and development, and believes in creating globally competitive technology clusters.

He cited Raytheon Canada Ltd., an Ottawa, Ont.-based defense and aerospace systems supplier, which partnered with a UBC researcher to develop a system and tools for formal verification of algorithms. Raytheon benefited by using the tools to find erroneous algorithms and test whether such verification techniques complement its business model. The university, meanwhile, reaped real-world application of the system. With these collaborations, the advantage to the customer will be products and services from the businesses involved in partnerships, but the greater benefit belongs to the economy that will become increasingly diversified, as new industries develop, said Livingstone.

Despite these advantages, one challenge that arises is the management and ownership of intellectual property (IP), he said – a hurdle that’s borne out of the complexity of IP itself coupled with the lack of expertise to resolve the resultant anxiety.

Stakeholders, he said, should vary their treatment of the different outputs of IP – data, software, techniques, papers, academic theses, algorithms – and identify which are of real value, in other words, the “crown jewels” for a company.

Those outputs that are of value to partners should be handled uniquely from IP that is merely a “handy little tool” that can be licensed via the open source community for everyone to share.

The problem is that people consider IP to be a single set of rules applicable to all situations, when in fact, it should be seen as a framework granting maximum protection around an organization’s key products, said Livingstone. “If they don’t have it, they’re not going to get their financing, they can’t defend themselves in the marketplace.”

Acknowledging that a set of rules don’t apply to all will mean identifying unique issues and approaches to adopt, whether its a large business, startup, or academic institution, said NRC’s Marie D’Iorio, director general for the Institute for Microstructural Sciences.

She added that although the consideration of IP is important, it can often be over valued, and really is just a small part of a larger investment in ensuring technology gets to market.

Often partners think a little too hard about what shape IP will take at the end of the road, when in fact reality checks are necessary to re-evaluate the status of some projects that may be going nowhere, said D’Iorio. “We’re spending all this time thinking of all the scenarios whereas really if we take a cold hard look at what will come out of it, might be adding to the knowledge base, not necessarily the next large company that will revolutionize the world.”

According to Livingstone, the best way to approach the issue of IP is to start by identifying best practices around ownership and management. Then introduce those approaches to educational forums, laboratories and businesses, so that stakeholders are exposed to the breadth and variety of practices out there.

Partners also need a stronger cohort of people who actually understand IP so those experts can consult with organizations and provide mid-level advice (not high-level) that is more strategic in nature, he said. “It’s not the same as having a patent agent because they’re going to tell you have to patent stuff. That’s a level that’s missing not only Canada, but in North America.”

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