Technology transfer hinges on the human factor

Joe Irvine

As director of Technology Transfer and Business Enterprise, Joe Irvine orchestrates a sprawling network of human relationships to mobilize and monetize research.

by Tony Martins

Joe Irvine, director of the Technology Transfer and Business Enterprise office, can quote impressive figures on the value of uOttawa research contracts, but he sees greater long-term value in building relationships with students, academics and industry. 

You’ll see contrasting views through the large windows of Joe Irvine’s office at the southern end of the University of Ottawa campus. In the middle distance, cars whiz along a Highway 417 exit ramp in a manner that speaks of progress, technology and acceleration. In the corridor just beyond the windows, however, students sit in small groups with laptops and textbooks and soft drinks, talking quietly, perhaps about course work or perhaps about their futures beyond graduation. 

Despite the complexity of Irvine’s job and its emphasis on innovation, the slower and more human view may be of more interest to him. He could offer up all manner of statistics and performance figures relating to his role as director of the university’s Technology Transfer and Business Enterprise (TTBE) office, but numbers don’t seem to engage Irvine as much as human relationships do. 

“The most effective kind of technology transfer is through students,” says Irvine, noting how student empowerment is central to the TTBE mandate and that 8,500 University of Ottawa students graduate each year.

Irvine is overseer of both TTBE and the Ottawa Technology Transfer Network (OTTN), a provincially funded entity that links several academic technology transfer offices to enhance the impact of research commercialization. Irvine’s overarching challenge is to orchestrate a sprawling human network that both mobilizes and monetizes research.

How sprawling? In 2009-2010, TTBE administered more than 525 research project agreements and $27M in research partnership revenue from government and industry sponsors. Despite continuing challenges in the world economy, the 2010-2011 figures (not available at press time) will be similar. 

At the core of Irvine’s network, TTBE has seven staff members who specialize in either new research agreements or technology development and commercialization, working in collaboration with the OTTN and its team of nine, whose focus is on discovery disclosure, intellectual property protection, technology development and commercialization. 

“We review inventions for both patentability and commercial potential,” says Irvine. 

While the number of inventions is increasing, the number of patents filed annually is decreasing from a peak of 60 to about 20, Irvine reports, a trend that stems from the cost of patents and the types of inventions being disclosed.

Among all TTBE and OTTN activities, facilitation of contract research is the most robust, accounting for about 25% of all research conducted across uOttawa, including at affiliated hospital research institutes ($74 million of $273 million in 2010). The vast majority of this research is not rooted in technology, and four out of five contracts handled by TTBE are with government. 

Educating various stakeholders on what their network can do and what’s to be realistically expected is another ongoing challenge for Irvine. With 100 new academics on campus each year and new student-centric programs appearing regularly, “it’s a constant education process,” he says. 

While high-profile start-up success stories such as University of Waterloo’s Research In Motion (RIM) grab lots of headlines, Irvine knows that these are the rare exceptions to the more sobering rules: one in ten projects receives investment funding, and the average funded innovation takes 10 years to get to market. 

“The probability of becoming the next RIM is very, very small,” Irvine notes, adding that for him, “relationships with industry are more important than individual innovation successes.” 

Though it is rarely featured in headlines, a core aspect of that engagement with industry is preparing students for entrepreneurship and the workforce.

“Student involvement in our programs is increasing year over year,” says Irvine. TTBE provides a number of services to students, including general professional skills training for improved employment opportunities, which is “within our mandate—and part of our external funding—to promote innovation and entrepreneurship.” 

In 2008, TTBE established the Students as Innovators networking event that exposes students to both young and seasoned entrepreneurs who share their experiences and passion. TTBE also makes use of these occasions to promote technology venture case competitions for students, some of which TTBE helps to guide. 

Having an in-house suite of programs and services doesn’t stop Irvine from solidifying relationships with counterparts in nearby universities. In April, OTTN formalized an agreement with PARTEQ (the not-for-profit technology transfer office at Queen’s University) to form the Rideau Commercialization Network. 

Despite all the intricate growth, Irvine has a fairly simple formula for relationship building: “Practice, practice, practice,” he says with a smile. “Keep doing deals and build on the ones that work. These will accelerate and expand into strategic partnerships of benefit to all parties.” 

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