Technology industry

Ontario Brain Institute program helps scientists commercialize research

Business with brains: A new investment fund aims to get cutting-edge Canadian neuroscience out of the lab and working for patients.

(Ashley Fraser)

Aliasgar Morbi, like most scientists, is not a businessman by training. The Carleton University PhD student has spent his entire adult life studying mechanical engineering: he is a builder of things, he knows how they work. But that doesn’t mean he knows how to sell them. And therein lies the rub.

Morbi is a part of a team of Ottawa scientists working on what they hope will be a pioneering rehabilitation technology. The group’s robotic exoskeleton—currently at the prototype phase—is designed to walk behind a rehab patient and support him if he begins to stumble or fall. If it works correctly, the robot could eventually help thousands of post-surgical or post-stroke patients learn to walk again. (Crucially, it’s also being designed to be relatively small and inexpensive, which would make it affordable for hospitals of all sizes.)

Here’s Morbi’s problem: he’s Canadian. And Canada, while long home to world-class medical research, has a pretty bad record when it comes to turning that research into viable, sellable products.

Why that happens is not always obvious. Maybe it’s capital. Maybe it’s culture. Or maybe it’s because the words “medicine” and “commerce” are not supposed to co-exist in this country. But medical technology doesn’t help patients if it’s stuck in a lab or left on the drawing board in a peer-reviewed paper. And whatever the reason, that’s where some believe too many Canadian ideas are ending up buried.

But now a Canadian research institution is hoping to change that. And it’s using Morbi—along with six other budding scientist/entrepreneurs—as test cases for its method. The Ontario Brain Institute’s Entrepreneurs Program, launched this spring, aims to plug hard scientists into the business world at the start of their careers. Beginning this year, it’s providing funding, business training and connections to budding researchers who believe they have marketable ideas. The goal is simple: make the next generation of top-notch Canadian medical researchers great business people too. The execution? Well, that might not be as easy.

If the human brain is a mystery, Donald Stuss is a detective. A career scientist, Stuss has spent decades exploring the form and function of the frontal lobe. He was the founding director of the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Hospital in Toronto and has more than 400 published citations to his name. So when the province of Ontario was looking for someone to head an interdisciplinary research centre aimed at breaking down barriers in brain science, Stuss was a natural pick.

The Ontario Brain Institute opened its doors (such as they are; the institute’s work is largely virtual) earlier this year, and Stuss was named its first president and scientific director. Built into the DNA of the institute is an unabashed focus on industry. Philanthropist and businessman Joseph Rotman (of the Rotman School of Management) is the institute’s founding chair, and forging ties between scientists, government and business is one of its official raisons d’etre.

Stuss is almost comically enthusiastic when he speaks about the institute’s work, especially the entrepreneurship program. In the early days of the institute, he says, Rotman had the Boston Consulting Group look at the neuroscience field in Ontario to examine where it was coming up short. The consultants found two gaps: money and management. “So we said, let’s attack [those] head on.” The entrepreneurship program is the institute’s first attempt to do just that.

The program works like this: for the first year, seven Ontario scientists have been given $50,000 each in one-time funding, plus dedicated business and management training in areas like patent registration, marketing and investment. Crucially, according to participants, the program also plugs them into a world of experienced biomedical entrepreneurs and possible investors.

“I had experience in biomedical engineering and neuroscience, but commercialization was another story,” says Mehran Talebinejad, a PhD graduate from the University of Ottawa and one of the program’s first participants. The institution, he says, has already given him access to medical researchers who have experience with commercialization. “That’s a rare combination,” he says. “You don’t see that every day.”

On a larger scale, the program aims to help close a more significant gap. The founding document of the Ontario Brain Institute, an 85-page report blandly titled A Proposal to Mobilize Ontario’s Excellence in Brain Research, compares Canada’s neuroscience field to brain research conducted abroad. What it found was that Canadian scientists are outpacing those in the U.S., the U.K., Germany and Japan when it comes to per capita peer-reviewed publications on neuroscience and behaviour. But after publication, that research isn’t always translating into patents, products and commerce.

Stuss and the rest of the institute are hoping the entrepreneurship program can begin to change that, even if not every idea supported by the grants ends up as a viable project. “Our goal is teaching skills,” Stuss says. “Our goal is filling that bucket—the lack of managerial focus.”

Morbi, for one, is convinced it’s a good idea. As a science student, he never learned core commerce skills. Now that he and his collaborators are trying to launch a business to develop and market their rehabilitation robot, they’re figuring out exactly how much they still need to know. “One of the biggest issues, frankly, is having enough money when you’re trying to develop a real product,” he says. “We were clueless when we started, I’ll be honest. It was a learning process to realize even this product might take us several million dollars before we’re ready to go to market.”

In the end, the availability of that money may do more than anything else to determine whether the entrepreneurship program succeeds. If the program can connect scientists to investors willing to put down the capital to help ideas grow through the long—and often massively expensive—development and testing phase, it could leave Ontario as a Boston-like hub for medical commerce. And make no mistake, that is Stuss’s goal. “I think that we can be a world leader,” he says. “I think we’re certainly going to start turning Ontario around.”

This is the first in a series of articles about how Canada can take the lead in global business. This theme will be explored at the 10th Annual Canadian Business Leadership Forum on Oct. 23 in Toronto. For more, visit: