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David Naylor. Photo by Sean J Sprague

Start-Up U

U of T is helping to create a culture of innovation

Dentistry professor Paul Santerre understands the world of start-up companies. Ten years ago, well before assuming his current role as director of the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, Santerre discovered a way to control the adverse reactions of cells to medical implants. That idea sparked the establishment of Interface Biologics, a company that now employs 18 people, holds 10 patents and recently signed a deal with a multibillion-dollar health-care company specializing in dialysis systems.

Absent the regulatory hurdles of biotech, software companies can move even faster. Two U of T start-ups have both been sold recently. Bump Top, created by graduate student Anand Agarawala, was acquired by Google for an estimated $30 million. Sysomos, the brainchild of computer scientist Nick Koudas and Nilesh Bansal (formerly a graduate student), has been sold to Marketwire, a public relations company.

These companies exemplify a growing trend. Today, the university and its hospital partners lead Canadian academe in the number of start-ups created. To sustain that advantage, U of T has created the Innovations and Partnerships Office (IPO), which works with the staff at MaRS Innovation, a new group created by 14 universities and hospitals in downtown Toronto to identify and leverage the commercial potential of discoveries made within the member institutions.

Basic research in all disciplines remains central to U of T’s mission. It’s the continuing source of breakthrough discoveries and ideas that change the world. But opportunities for application can emerge unexpectedly. This is one reason why U of T’s innovations office is also building relationships with faculty members in all disciplines: to gain a better understanding of the range of research underway at the university.

Space is part of the equation. For example, several years ago the chemistry department converted five underused labs into state-of-the-art “pre-incubators” that have already nurtured five spinoff companies. The university is now setting up additional incubator space in the Banting & Best buildings, where another successful U of T start-up, ViveNano, already resides.

Toronto is also home to a growing suite of educational programs designed to nurture the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders in Canada. During the school year, the MaRS convergence centre offers Entrepreneurship 101.” These weekly seminars cover topics such as how to make an effective pitch to potential investors or create a sales strategy. More than 1,800 people – mostly U of T faculty and students – took part in the 2009-10 sessions. Recent graduates looking for a more intensive experience can sign up for
a three-week summer boot camp in “technopreneurship,” led by chemistry professor Cynthia Goh, herself a veteran of three start-ups.

More initiatives are in the pipeline. The Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering will launch an engineering business minor in 2011. And another program still in development will bring together 36 top students from across Canada for a summer of intensive work with business experts.

Why does all this matter? To me, it’s about a culture shift. The usual indexes of “technology transfer” – new enterprises with university roots, patents filed or licensing revenues – are far too narrow, not just from a disciplinary perspective but in what they measure. Think back to the early 1920s. The university’s approach to patenting and licensing insulin had far more to do with ensuring the quality of the product and protecting the reputation of the university and the inventors than generating revenue. Fast-forward to this century. While the vast majority of new enterprises in Canada will not have tight ties to academe, they are almost always led and staffed by people with a university education.

That’s the key. Successful societies depend on successful enterprises – be they investor-owned, non-profit or publicly administered. And successful enterprises depend on people who have not only the requisite knowledge or skills, but creative minds coupled to an innovative outlook. That’s why your university believes that education goes hand in hand with research, and that a culture of innovation is important in every discipline we teach.

Start-up U isn’t just about new companies. It’s ultimately about new ways to think.

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