Commercializing R&D to be a key focus in federal budget
Rebecca Lindell, Global News: CATA Comments
March 29, 2012

It’s the way the federal government would like to see innovation happen. 

An idea for a micro-surveillance helicopter borne in the minds of remote control enthusiasts at the University of Waterloo takes flight over Libya where rebels use it to gather intelligence as they overthrow a dictator. 

That’s the story of Scout, a drone product developed by Aeryon Labs – a company that employs 25 people in Canada and sells its products to consumers worldwide, where it is used for everything from mapping ice flows to monitoring suspected drug lords in Central America. 

Aeryon’s vice-president of product and marketing Ian McDonald said the secret to success is simple: “You have to be passionate enough about the idea to see it through.” 

Seeing ideas through to the market – a process called commercialization – has been a challenge for Canada’s research and development sector (R&D), with small companies often dying out or being snapped up by multinationals before they can get established in Canada. 

“It’s of great concern to us. We want to sell our products and services, not our ideas and knowledge,” said Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear. 

But it can be all too tempting for Canadian innovators to sell their ideas. 

American investors in Silicon Valley were opening their wallets to Ottawa-based entrepreneur Peter Lalonde after he shopped around his idea for a computer program that allows users to find and share files across cloud storage services like Google Docs, Dropbox and Basecamp. 

“I knew the moment I took their money the clock would be ticking to when I would move the company to California,” said the Openera CEO. “I made the decision to start my company here. Every day I regret that decision.” 

The regret comes as Lalonde searches for capital in Canada, where the list of available investors is short. 

Budget to address R&D shortcomings 

Goodyear said the federal government is going to do more to help innovators commercialize their products, and the proof will be in the Thursday’s federal budget. 

“We will act soon because we are committed to turning ideas and innovations into new, marketable and globally competitive products and processes that result in jobs here at home, the growth and stability of our economy going forward and prosperity for all of us,” he said. 

The federal government spends approximately $7.4 billion on R&D each year, but it isn’t content with the results it is getting from the investments. 

In January, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told business leaders and economists in Davos, Switzerland the investment’s “less than optimal results” are a “significant problem.” 

A wealth of ideas, a dearth of money 

“We’ve got the ideas,” said Russ Roberts, senior vice-president at the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance, a high-tech association that supports members through the commercialization process. “We are having difficulties … getting them to the point we actually have commercial products that continue to grow as the base of firms that are internationally competitive.” 

This valley of death has been an enduring part of Canada’s innovation history... 

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