Communitech launches IP program as province aims to boost income from innovation

Photo: Anthony Reinhart

Kitchener, Ont.-based Communitech is offering an eight-week program to C-suite executives to help them generate more income through intellectual property. The startup accelerator is introducing the curriculum, which covers everything from patenting and marketing inventions to defending IP in legal disputes, after the Ontario government called for accelerators, universities and entrepreneurs to increase the commercialization of publicly funded research. 

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Talking Point

Communitech is offering an IP program to C-suite executives to help companies increase their income from their innovations. The five-module course comes as the Ontario government reviews the mandates of post-secondary institutions and startup hubs, like Communitech, to focus more on turning publicly funded research into revenue-generating products.

Communitech ran a pilot version of its IP program in the fall, and has now opened registration for a new cohort launching in April. Each of five modules, taught virtually due to the pandemic, is led by one of five experts, who include IP lawyer Jim Hinton and Alexis Conrad Black, an IP advisor to the federal government. The group also invites business leaders to speak with participants about their own experiences commercializing their IP.  

Azhar Janjua, a legal expert and head of Communitech Outposts, which recruits overseas talent for Canadian firms,  leads the IP program. He said the modules are designed to offer entrepreneurs and executives the kind of guidance he said wasn’t available to startups when he was starting out as a lawyer. “I came from SaaS companies, I worked with entrepreneurs; we didn’t have this,” said Janjua. “When we dealt with IP issues, we’d bring them to our CEO who was an engineer, but it’s hard to talk legal to an engineer. They don’t have that training.” 

In July 2020, the Ontario government announced plans to revise the mandates of post-secondary institutions and startup hubs, like Communitech and Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District, to place more emphasis on turning publicly funded research into revenue-generating products. The team leading the action plan is tasked with working with post-secondary and research institutions to create commercialization mandates and improve overall IP literacy in the province through an IP curriculum. The government has so far budgeted $1.5 million for the initiative. 

Matthew Bondy, Communitech communications vice-president currently running for the Conservative Party nomination in Kitchener-Conestoga, said Communitech’s IP program is not directly tied to the province’s action plan, but “it’s done in the same spirit,” he said. “The government has been clear, and the economic trends are clear: we all need to work together to get better at IP,” Bondy told The Logic. “It’s early days, but we want to be a partner to the government of Ontario, and most importantly to innovators, so they can get smarter and tougher.” 

The province’s action plan and Communitech’s IP program are both meant to fill the gap between Canada’s spending on R&D and the relatively little revenue it generates from the products of those investments. 

Canada lags other countries in terms of generating income from its research. It ranked 17th on the World Intellectual Property Organization’s most recent Global Innovation Index. While the 2020 report pegged Canada ninth on inputs such as R&D funding and policies to support innovation, it ranked just 22nd on outputs, which include commercialization and “intangible assets” like patents. 

Charles Plant, an innovation consultant and economist, said solving the commercializing challenge in Canada requires more than simply filing more patents; he said scaling companies need to have a better understanding of the market they’re serving and how to reach them. “We think that good IP is enough and we underspend on sales and marketing.”

In a white paper published through Communitech on Monday, Plant noted that Canadian firms file more patents, on average, than their U.S. counterparts. His analysis of more than 3,300 Canadian and U.S. companies specializing in artificial intelligence, biotech, cleantech and electronics found that 67 per cent of Canadian firms have U.S. patents compared to 54 per cent of American firms. Canadians also spent less to secure their patents, gaining about 3.2 patents for every $1 million spent versus 2.4 patents per $1 million in the U.S.

While innovation is fairly well funded in Canada through venture capital and government grants and programs like the scientific research and economic development tax credit, Plant said firms lack the executive experience they need to market their IP and claim revenue from it. In a 2017 report from the University of Toronto Impact Centre, Plant found that Canadian startups improved their commercialization record when they hired U.S.-based marketers with experience at high-growth firms. 

Initiatives like Communitech’s IP program could help arm Canadian executives with IP marketing skills, giving firms another option for acquiring that expertise than through foreign recruits. 

The federal government is also taking steps to address the dearth of IP commercialization. In 2019, it committed $30 million to the Innovation Asset Collective. The non-profit, chaired by former BlackBerry executive Jim Balsillie, will acquire patents for cleantech firms to license, help them generate more IP through education and funding and try to safeguard members against patent trolls and lawsuits. The four-year pilot project officially launched in December 2020. 

Janjua said 15 companies participated in the Communitech pilot, including AI-imaging firm Aiimsense, building-materials company Trusscore, and communications app TextNow. Communitech expects to run the program twice a year, depending on demand. It plans to cap the modules at 12 companies per cohort, though multiple executives can participate from a single company.