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So you think you want to commercialize a technology?

Dec 18, 2012

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Bringing the results of research to market is not for the squeamish

By Alisa Kim

Bringing the results of research to market is not for the squeamish. The process is long and fraught with challenges, but the reward can be huge, says Raphael Ronen, who works on business development for technologies created by Sunnybrook Research Institute's (SRI) physical scientists.

He previously worked at MaRS Innovation and the University of Toronto as a life sciences commercialization manager where he was involved in getting patents, finding licensees, reviewing contracts and helping start-up companies get off the ground. At SRI, his focus is on bringing funding to the institution to advance the commercialization of various projects. He says that commercialization of scientific know-how is one of SRI's strengths. "The commercial output from SRI is the best of any of [U of T's] teaching hospitals. In particular, the imagers here have a long track record of working with industry and commercializing technology."

Here, he talks about the good, the bad and the ugly of commercialization, and the resources at SRI that trainees may not have thought to use.

In evaluating technologies for commercial viability, what things do you look for?

The first is the technology. If you have a technology that works, then that takes away so much of the risk. Number two is the people. You want people who are dedicated and have the capability to move it forward. Thirdly, some form of intellectual property protection. The last is some understanding of who's going to buy it. You can call that the market; I prefer to think of it as the customer. Why is someone going to buy it, and does that person have the money to buy it?

What is the first thing a trainee who wants to commercialize a technology should do?

Submit a disclosure form [to SRI's business development office]. It's a two-page form to describe their invention. It goes to MaRS Innovation, which has an agreement with all the teaching hospitals such that they get to see the disclosures first. If they want to take it on, then they will support the invention in some way, paying the patent cost, for example. Often, for anything that looks remotely interesting, MaRS Innovation will meet with the inventor to get a better sense of the technology and market.

What resources can trainees access if they are interested in commercialization?

They can go to Hassan Jaferi, [a commercialization manager with MaRS Innovation] who is here two days a week. I'm happy to speak with them as a first pass. MaRS offers "Entrepreneurship 101," which is their lecture series. There's "Techno," a program [of the Institute for Optical Science at U of T] for students who want to be entrepreneurs. They provide incubation space, put on seminars and give you contacts. The Ontario Centres of Excellence offers a training program in commercialization. But the best resources are the people who've done it already. Not many places have as many successful people as SRI. Peers who have had successes or attempted this path are the best people from whom to get advice. 

What are the pitfalls?

It's an investment if you go down this path, especially if you decide to create a company. It's a lot of time and frustration, because there's potential for many things to go awry. At the beginning, there are out-of-pocket expenses such as legal fees. Once you have the rights to the technology, you need to convince people to invest in the company. As soon as you get money in, you're indebted to people who will be making demands on you. You suddenly have another boss. If you speak to anyone who's been involved in a start-up, they have their war wounds. The flip side is: if it were easy, everybody would do it. The fact that many get scared away or aren't successful with it means that if you are successful, there's a chance for a good return financially and to create something that has a positive social and economic impact.

Is there anything else you think trainees should know about this process? 

If you think you have a good product, don't be intimidated by what seems like a very daunting process. There are pitfalls, but the process itself is not hard to understand. A lot of it is getting the right things in order—for instance, a good lawyer to help you with whatever agreement you need, or you might need insurance or an accountant. These are areas that people don't have a lot of experience in, but in Toronto, there are a lot of resources to help fill in those gaps.