The Big Read

The complicated relationship between tech and universities

When Uber announced plans last fall to invest $200 million on its Advanced Technology Group (ATG) in Toronto, the company made a point of showcasing a key hire—Raquel Urtasun, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Toronto. The MIT and UC Berkeley scholar is a leading light in the world of machine learning-based vision systems, which figure prominently in the future of automated vehicle navigation. Under the agreement, Urtasun became Uber ATG’s chief scientist, while retaining her academic positions at both the university and the Vector Institute, which she co-founded.

The move gives Uber unrivaled access to Urtasun’s research and to her graduate students. It reflects the university’s emergent philosophy of tech transfer—that is, to forge close partnerships with private firms with the market experience and capital to commercialize academic research. The university’s approach, says Derek Newton—U of T’s assistant vice-president of partnerships, innovation and entrepreneurship—“has worked very well.”

The Uber investment fits neatly into a broader narrative about how international tech firms have brought jobs and capital to AI research hubs in the Toronto-Waterloo corridor, Montreal and Edmonton.

Yet such deals also raise questions about how Canadian universities are managing tech transfer and the difficult business of licensing inventions to startups, investors or large firms with an eye to commercializing university-generated intellectual property.

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