A panel of intellectual-property experts wants Ontario universities, colleges and provincially funded startup hubs to prioritize commercializing the inventions they incubate in a bid for better returns to offset public costs and to boost long-term economic growth.

They also suggest Ontario develop an education program around intellectual property (IP) that would be mandatory for anyone receiving provincial money for their entrepreneurial work, and to create an online hub for IP advice to make expertise more easily available. The panel, chaired by BlackBerry pioneer Jim Balsillie alongside a roster of IP lawyers, experts and professors, included these recommendations in a report Tuesday for Ontario’s Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, which funds startup hubs, and the Ministry of Colleges and Universities.

Those two ministries oversee the core institutions that would be most affected by the recommendations. The panelists recommend that Regional Innovation Centres, such as Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District and Waterloo Region’s Communitech, focus more consistently on helping startups across the province commercialize inventions. They also want university and college technology transfer offices to remove roadblocks that prevent the commercialization of patents and other IP.

As both foreign and domestic technology companies deepen their presence in Canada’s economy, a growing number of IP experts have been flagging the importance of monetizing the ideas behind technology to generate private and public wealth for the long term. Their call to action has only intensified with the growth of technologies such as machine learning, a segment of artificial intelligence in which Ontario is considered a global leader. Machine learning is able to find trends within the growing troves of data being collected and develop new innovations from the results.

“If we look across our various institutions, not all of them are set up to have metrics around intellectual property,” said panel member Natalie Raffoul, an Ottawa patent lawyer.

The report highlights a study from the IP-specialist merchant bank Ocean Tomo that found that intangible assets such as IP have grown from just 17 per cent of the S&P 500 index’s market value in 1975 to more than 80 per cent in 2015. “That’s really where company value is residing,” Ms. Raffoul said. In Ontario, “We’re great at idea generation, but not necessarily converting them into products and services.”

Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli and Colleges and Universities Minister Ross Romano issued a joint statement Tuesday saying they are reviewing the expert panel’s report and considering how to implement the recommendations.

The Globe and Mail first reported on the panel last year when Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives released their first budget. The Ontario panel was created to improve the province’s return on investment in tech-focused institutions while encouraging fast-growing tech businesses to commercialize their work.

Canadian academic institutions, the panel wrote in its report, have recently slowed their pace of patent filings. Some provincially funded institutions don’t consider the value of IP at all, panelists found: Only half of the 18 Regional Innovation Centres reviewed by the panel had mandates that focused on IP, the report says, emphasizing the need for greater education.

“Right now, every single institution is left on its own to figure this out,” said panelist Myra Tawfik, a University of Windsor law professor who focuses on IP commercialization and strategy. “The idea is trying to level the playing field, in terms of the knowledge base, across the province.”

The University of Waterloo, a leading academic and research hub, said in an e-mailed statement that it would “look forward to reviewing the report released today and continuing to work with the Government of Ontario to leverage [the province’s] world-renowned universities for the economic and social benefit of all Ontarians.”

“It’s terrific that supporting and advancing Ontario’s tech-based economy is so high on the government’s priority list,” Iain Klugman, president and chief executive of Communitech, said in an e-mailed statement. “We are looking forward to digging into the report and talking with partners in the innovation space and in government about how we can advance this agenda in a balanced and integrated way.”

Panelists collected information from public surveys, questionnaires to provincially funded innovation organizations, and in-person consultations across the province.

Shiri Breznitz, a University of Toronto professor whose 2014 book The Fountain of Knowledge explored the relationships between universities, governments and industries, was also on the panel, as was Dan Herman, a former head of strategy for Innovation Canada.

The Globe and Mail, February 11, 2020