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Ontario appoints Balsillie-led panel to help implement ‘action plan’ on commercializing IP

Ontario Colleges and Universities Minister Ross Romano in Toronto in June 2020. The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette
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The province of Ontario has appointed a panel led by former BlackBerry executive Jim Balsillie to help it implement its new intellectual property action plan, part of a push to increase the commercialization of publicly funded research. 

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Talking Point

Ontario’s IP action plan is a direct response to the Jim Balsillie-led expert panel report that was published in February, which urged the government to create a structure for a burgeoning intangible economy. Colleges and Universities Minister Ross Romano told The Logic the COVID-19 pandemic has more acutely highlighted the gaps as Ontario companies scrambled to produce personal protective equipment and other medical supplies, unable to access patented technologies and formulas for things like hand sanitizer. “We’re building an ecosystem to correct our course of action,” Romano said.

The plan, announced Friday, is a response to the gaps identified and recommendations made in a February report by a Balsillie-led expert panel. The report urged the Ontario government to make the generation and commercialization of intellectual property (IP) a priority for universities and colleges, including a mandatory curriculum to teach provincially funded entrepreneurs and researchers how to develop and license their IP.

The “special implementation team” Balsillie will lead is made up of the same panel members who authored the report. They’re now charged with helping create the curriculum they recommended, as well as a central resource hub to improve access to IP-related legal and professional expertise and a governance framework to help streamline the process. 

“We are late in fixing this, but it’s critical we get started,” Colleges and Universities Minister Ross Romano told The Logic. “We’re building a ecosystem to correct our course of action.”

Balsille said the February report “purposefully put forward very specific, tight, focused, actionable recommendations” that were straightforward to implement, and highlighted “a misalignment” of money. He said the government didn’t need “persuading” to recognize the issues and implement the report into a plan. 

“Usually, the governments take these innovation reports and don’t do anything about it; they just shelve it,” he told The Logic. “The fact that they’re going forward with this IP action plan to drive made-in-Ontario economic competitiveness, that they’re taking it seriously and supporting the ecosystem—I think that’s really, really powerful.”   

Ontario’s announcement comes a day after BDC Capital launched a $160-million fund to help finance IP-rich companies, recognizing that licensing intellectual property through patents, trademarks and copyrights has long been lagging in Canada. According to a report by the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO), just two per cent of small- and medium-sized enterprises in Canada hold patents. Canada’s top universities and research institutes spent $5.7 billion on R&D in 2017, the latest year for which the numbers are available, but generated less than $75 million from licensing their innovations.

There are benefits to a focus on IP in the innovation sector. The CIPO report found that Canadian startups with registered IP rights were three times more likely to have grown domestically, and over four times more likely to have grown internationally. In a sign of things shifting, The Logic reported in February that Ottawa-based Shopify, which has generally not licensed its innovations, was ramping up its efforts, with a half-dozen active patent applications and several new hires in the patent space.

Romano told The Logic the COVID-19 pandemic has more acutely highlighted the problem. Ontario is host to 43 per cent of Canada’s research. While in the past the province has helped develop insulin and an Ebola vaccine, it didn’t “reap the rewards” of that research, Romano said. 

To avoid this, Ontario launched a $20-million Rapid Research Fund in May to cover the costs of licensing and commercializing any COVID-19 research and development. Romano said he set aside $450,000, or 2.5 per cent, from the fund specifically for commercialization agreements. He also said the fund has met its goals and financed 20 ongoing research projects.

“We applied an innovation lens to the fund,” he said. “Usually a fund takes 18 months to process applications and get funds out the door…. We effectively took an 18-month process and brought it down to a month.” 

Myra Tawfik, a University of Windsor professor of intellectual property commercialization and strategy and a member of Ontario’s new IP team, said the fund and the new action “[speak] volumes to how seriously the province is taking this.” 

Tawfik agreed that the pandemic had created “heightened urgency” to create an IP structure because Ontario companies were innovating very quickly to produce personal protective equipment and other medical supplies, unable to access patented technologies and formulas for things like hand sanitizer. 

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“Once the pandemic is over, there may be potential for these new inventions, these new ideas and techniques, to become part of the invaluable intangible economy in Canada,” she said. “But there’s no infrastructure to rally around that, to provide intellectual property insights on the ground while these innovations are happening, so companies know who to call for advice.

“It was already an economic imperative, but now with companies struggling, it’s a potential revenue-generating lifeline,” she said. The challenge, she added, will be to design the curriculum and framework that is accessible to all, from large companies to the average person who has what Romano called “a eureka lightbulb moment.” 

Romano said the team has been given a two-year term, but expected all the elements they were tasked with implementing to be up and running within a year. “We’ll leave the back half flexible and open to tweak, perfect and monitor its progress.”

With files from Catherine McIntyre