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U of M research program taking off

Initiative makes resources available to partners in private sector

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A new initiative at the University of Manitoba that makes its research much more accessible to the private sector is getting enthusiastic take-up and turning heads in technology-transfer circles at home and abroad.

After lengthy consultations last year, the new program, called Transformational Partnerships, launched at the beginning of the year, has virtually done away with lengthy negotiations over potential royalty payments and control of intellectual property (IP).

Instead, the university will now assign the IP management to private-sector partners giving them full control of the technology to incorporate it into their product or service or even sub-licence it.

"It's going really well," said Darren Fast, director of technology transfer at the U of M. "It is hard to say we are the ones absolutely responsible for the interactions, but we have played a significant role in about a dozen collaborative research projects that are currently happening."

The Technology Transfer Office (TTO) has been aggressively reaching out to private-sector companies to see what kind of partnerships can be forged. Fast said the only concern is in establishing too many partnerships that would overwhelm the resources available to manage it all effectively.

Eugene Gala, the president of Biovalco, a Winnipeg company that makes furnaces fuelled by biomass, is one of those new partners.

After installing about 130 of the furnaces in Canada and the U.S., Gala said he wanted to understand some of the principles that would make the technology more efficient.

The TTO put him in touch with U of M mechanical engineering professor, Madjid Birouk, who is now working on a computer-simulation project that will show the impact changes to certain parameters such as the type of fuel and moisture content will have on the operation of the furnaces.

"It is a perfect fit for us," Gala said. "There is strong competition in the U.S. but still we have managed to sell about 40 per cent of our product there. The advantage is that our systems are somewhat more efficient than U.S.-built units. But now we are seeing the influence of European units in the market. We want to stay ahead of the competition."

Birouk applied for and received a six-month Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) grant that requires only a short-form application for $25,000 the private-sector partner must match in in-kind resources.

"I think Eugene is happy with what we've done so far," Birouk said. "And it's been very good work for me."

If the research results in some patentable innovation, Gala will have complete freedom to implement the innovation into a new design.

Digvir Jayas, the U of M's vice-president research and international, said the whole idea of the initiative is to become more involved in economic development in the community and increase the research activity at the university.

"We want to contribute to the social, cultural and economic benefit of the society so the university is seen as a partner in that growth," said Jayas.

He said by starting the projects in small-scale collaborative research projects the idea is they can grow over time into more significant undertakings.

"What our hope is with this model is that we would be able to attract significant investment in research into the province that would help grow the research enterprise at the university," he said. "It would produce highly trained people who might be hired by the (partner) company. Those companies might then think, 'They are being trained and are working on projects of our interest; we might as well set up a place in Manitoba.' "

It's too early to pinpoint what the impact is so far, but Jayas said he has heard supportive and encouraging reports from local industry. As well, the initiative has had exposure in places such as London's Financial Times newspaper and an Atlanta-based publication called Technology Transfer Tactics.

Only after the company has included the IP into some commercialized product or service would there be discussions about the value of the IP and how much the university might receive in royalties. (The existing process for managing IP through assignment to the TTO will be maintained and available to researchers, if that is what they prefer.)

Jayas said when the time comes, the company will assess the value of the IP, and if there is a dispute, both sides would go to third-party arbitration that would be binding.

"What's changed is that the discussion is a lot more about how we work together versus how we divide the pie that does not exist," he said referring to the lengthy, high-risk process that is characteristic of technology commercialization, a process that more often than not ends on the laboratory bench.

Local industry groups are applauding the efforts. John Fjeldsted, executive director of the Manitoba Environmental Industries Association Inc., said, "I know they have been putting in a lot of effort to make the process more friendly for companies to participate."

In the past, his members had tried to work with the university but were frustrated with negotiations and said it was not worth the effort, he said.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 2, 2013 B7

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