Get Back To School

How more companies are using university research partnerships to push their products forward

Written by Frank Condron

When it comes to marketing “intelligent orthotics,” Sylvain Boucher needs something a little more substantial than a catchy jingle or a glossy sales brochure.

Boucher is CEO of Laval, Que.-based Ergoresearch Ltd., which manufactures high-tech shoe inserts designed to treat specific pathologies. Although the orthotics are purchased and used by everyday consumers, the doctors who would prescribe orthotics are the targets of Ergoresearch’s marketing effort. And what an intellectual effort it is.

“The doctors want to see the evidence that the device does what you say it will do,” says Boucher. “But because we are a small company and not a huge pharmaceutical corporation with millions of dollars in our bank account, it’s tough for us to pay to conduct the research we need to back up our claims.”

To overcome this challenge, Ergoresearch is generating the research evidence it needs through Quebec City-based Laval University. Two years ago, the company entered into a research partnership with Laval to help move its product to market.

Currently, 74 universities across Canada connect faculty and students with businesses in research partnerships through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), a contract funded by the business or via a government-funded program. Universities traditionally have focused their efforts on “discovery research,” which is designed to lead to published academic papers that advance the general body of knowledge in a given field of study. However, businesses often require discovery type research in areas such as theory and product validation, and that’s where universities are increasingly offering help.

“These partnerships are an excellent way for businesses to conduct research and move projects forward,” says Bill Bilic, CEO of HyperCube Technologies Corp., a Richmond, B.C.-based educational-software developer. Bilic turned to his contacts in the research community to help develop an advanced learning product. Professors at the University of British Columbia and Alberta’s Athabasca University are involved in validating Hypercube’s mathematical models and theoretical assumptions in the field of learning analytics. “I just called them up, explained what we were doing, and they were very keen to get involved,” explains Bilic.

To help fund Ergoresearch’s research project with Laval, the company accessed an NSERC program. The three-year Industrial Innovation Scholarship program allows Ergoresearch to sponsor a doctoral student at Laval to lead a comparative clinical study of the effectiveness of Ergoresearch’s orthotic devices. Upon completion, the firm will have a legitimate academic study that can be published in a medical journal and featured in the company’s marketing materials. “For the business, it costs $9,000 a year, and the rest of the cost is subsidized by NSERC,” says Boucher.

The scholarship is just one of a number of such programs for business/university partnerships offered by NSERC. These programs range from three months to five years, with funding of up to $500,000 per year for a major research project that involves more than one company.

Small-business participation in NSERC research programs has jumped by 67%

NSERC funding goes directly to the university, and the companies involved must make financial or in-kind contributions. Companies also are expected to take an active role in the research through regular consultations. Before the research begins, the two parties iron out issues related to confidentiality, ownership and licensing rights related to the intellectual property involved and developed during the project.

“We are supporting a very powerful workforce full of ideas and talent that can be used to create new ideas in terms of research,” says Janet Walden, vice- president of research partnerships for NSERC. “The speed of change for business is really accelerating, and it has become clear that going it alone is a very difficult task when it comes to bringing new innovations to market. Increasingly, collaboration is a big part of innovation.”

In 2009, NSERC launched a new initiative called the Strategy for Partnerships and Innovation, which was designed to raise awareness about the agency’s programs and establish connections between the business and academic communities. “We set a goal to double the number of research partnerships we fund, from around 1,500 a year to 3,000 by 2014,” Walden explains. “We are at around 2,400 right now for 2012, so we are on track.” Some 61% of participants in NSERC research programs so far in 2012 are companies with fewer than 100 employees—a 67% jump from 2009.

NSERC operates five offices across Canada through which it works with regional business-development agencies to bring the academic and business communities together. “Think of it as €˜applied research speed dating’; we’ve held more than 150 events in the past two years,” says Walden.

For a university, partnering with businesses offers faculty members and students an opportunity to conduct research with more immediate ramifications than are traditionally found in discovery research. “That’s the human payoff,” says Sarah Howe, director of Innovation York at Toronto’s York University. “But helping to develop something that will benefit the economy and society in general is a huge payoff as well.”

Launched in September, Innovation York is a liaison office created in part to help encourage and facilitate business research partnerships with the university. According to Howe, York currently conducts about $1.3 million in research projects with business partners each year but is looking to increase that number. “For companies that want to take a project from A to B but that don’t have the knowledge or resources, Innovation York was set up to be a point of contact and make the process easier,” Howe explains.

Hypercube also recently entered into an agreement with Simon Fraser University (SFU) to conduct a field test of the company’s latest learning software. Again, Bilic says, the university agreed to conduct the field test because it has an interest in learning about cutting-edge educational technologies. Depending on how the test goes, Bilic expects to join with SFU in an NSERCfunded research project involving faculty and students to test the learning efficacy of the software.

“I perceive this as a strategic partnership,” says Bilic. “I have provided the money in development of the product, and SFU is providing the real-world testing laboratory and people who can help with the testing and evaluation.”

Originally appeared on