Breaching academia's ivory towers

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By my estimation – and I have also heard the number elsewhere – 80 percent of startups in Silicon Valley have a close working relationship with a university, while in Canada, the number is much closer to 20 percent.

YOU i Labs president Jason Flick.

By Jason Flick

To be honest, I think that Canadian figure is optimistic. I would love to hear examples of productive relationships between universities, colleges and startups.

How do we fix this and why is it happening? I have invested a fair bit of time working with, and trying to work with, our academic institutions. Let's start with why we so rarely lever their strengths to support startups here in Canada.

Not on the same page

It may seem obvious, but it wasn't to me when I first began dealing with universities. Professors in this context have two goals - funding and publishing papers. An entrepreneur has two goals as well - acquire or boost his IP and accelerate his product to market.

These goals are in direct conflict with each other, and putting this on the table early on is key. Unfortunately, this is where many relationships stop. The funding language and deadlines from organizations such as NSERC (a major funder of academic R&D work), which universities must follow, quickly confuses and disillusions a startup that just wants to get going.

Current tech transfer offices are ill-equipped to deal with a large number of small companies

I have gone through the official channels for working with our local universities and they just don't work. Tech transfer staff can handle an IBM or Siemens because they can have five projects in parallel with a full-time staff member exclusively committed to managing the relationship with the university. When a startup shows up and they don't see solid progress in every meeting, they will disengage very early on.

Few startups can afford to have their CEO or CTO busy filling out paperwork and having four or five meetings trying to narrow down the right professor and project.

This is not intended as a slight toward our local tech transfer offices, but when a professor was put forward for a project we were trying to get off of the ground, it was apparent they had been coerced. We appreciate that tech transfer staff are pushing professors into these types of relationships, but the professors have to want to work with the private sector.

My concern is that professors positively predisposed to working with the private sector are already doing so with $1 million in funding from a multinational such as IBM, with a five-year plan where the multinational also provides a year of government lobbying to boost next year's budget. The odds of securing funding as a result of this kind of partnership with a large company are very good. Of course, these projects rarely make it to market and they do not add to the financial future of Canada if the multinational isn't based here.

Funding, funding, funding - the little guys just don't have it

When a startup engages with university staff and the first or second thing they hear is "matching funds" before the startup even knows what the project is and how it could add value, it is again another serious road block.

Luckily, there are "in-kind" arrangements, such as having your staff work on the project for free or loaning equipment. Cash is king for a startup and a joint project is a high-risk proposition; there needs to be an assumption with any initial project that there will be an in-kind arrangement in lieu of cash.

For future projects, a startup can be a great funding stream for an academic institution, but they need to get past that first project and both parties need to experience an early win to fund the next one.

How can we fix this?

There is no silver bullet. I think what must be addressed are the general attitudes among faculty towards partnering with startups and the lack of success stories. Startups must also understand that academic institutions are driven by different outcomes and they need to carefully select projects that fit them. However, both of these issues can be resolved if we can drive some successful outcomes. I am focused on how we can do that at the ground level.

Lack of startup entrepreneurs and professor 'dating services'

One of the biggest challenges I face in trying to succeed is the relationship with the professor. We have had three successful joint projects with universities. Ironically, none were local. In every instance, the success of the project came down to the individual professor. Is their R&D in line with yours? Are they a professor who wants to work with the private sector, and, preferably, have done so before?

Academic institutions and professors will post "active" areas of interest on their websites, which is somewhat useful but often far out of date. The onus still rests on the startup's shoulders to research opportunities and qualify potential partners.

What I think we need is more university open houses, ones just for startups, where the professors can showcase what they are doing and what they will be working on next. Or - and this is an idea for an entrepreneur listening out there - a social media website not unlike a dating site where you can match founders to professors.

Government funding

I don't believe the government needs to add more funding, but it must do a more effective job of educating startups on the funding that is available. First, raise awareness of the funding sources that are available then increase funding levels as the results speak for themselves.


At both of my businesses, we often have co-op students working on site. They learn so much about what it takes to build a company and the cool projects we are working on, but this information doesn't seem to be filtering up to their professors. I would love to someday receive a call from a professor to discuss his student's work and how we could create some kind of strategic partnership. It's never happened to me. Has it happened to you? I think there is a resource pool here which universities are not accessing.

I would love to hear your success stories, and your ideas. I think Canadian startups are at a significant disadvantage against their U.S. counterparts if we don't build more linkages with colleges and universities. Our academic institutions hold a wealth of knowledge and intelligence and are equipped with multimillion-dollar labs. It just doesn't seem right that only big companies, which typically have a poor track record in efficiently commercializing R&D, have access to these resources.

Jason Flick is co-founder and president of YOU i Labs and Flick Software. He has founded half a dozen companies in the past 18 years and is an adviser and executive to nearly a dozen software companies.

This article is part of a continuing series examining the state of the ecosystem necessary to successfully bring technology to market and looking at what is working and what can be improved in the go-to-market ecosystem. It first appeared on

Organizations: IBM, NSERC

Geographic location: Canada, U.S.

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Recent comments

  • Suzanne Fortier
    November 30, 2011 - 17:30

    We completely agree that there have been many challenges to successful interactions and collaboration between business and researchers. At the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, we have tackled those challenges head-on and have reorganized ourselves to work better with business. From our experience in dealing with researchers, we knew many who were interested in working with companies but who, on their own, had challenges in finding the right industrial partner with whom to work. NSERC identified an opportunity to help make these relationships happen and launched a new Strategy for Partnership and Innovation in 2009. Within that new initiative we introduced a new tool to bring companies together with researchers whose work meets the company’s needs for research and development. The researcher can then receive a six-month, $25,000 grant to work with the company. NSERC provides a decision in “business” time: within six weeks. We also heard that it was extremely time-consuming for business to navigate the many programs that the government offers via different agencies. So we reoriented our regional office staff to have a more customer-focused approach and to help connect more businesses with researchers. NSERC’s regional offices offer targeted networking events at which preselected researchers – those willing, able, and ready to form a partnership – can meet with interested companies. To start a project, NSERC offers an option for researchers to travel to a company and meet to ensure the collaboration will be a good fit. Since we launched this strategy two years ago, NSERC has facilitated access to research expertise for almost 1,000 companies. The results speak for themselves: of the industrial partners who have participated in a research project, 94 per cent reported that they are applying or intend to apply the knowledge gained from the relationship. Seventy-five per cent said the project contributed to new business opportunities and two-thirds plan to work with the same researcher again. We need to facilitate and increase connections between business and the experts in our universities and colleges. We need to remove unnecessary hurdles and be more agile, more flexible and quicker off the mark. – Suzanne Fortier, president, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council

  • Mark Hoddenbagh
    November 22, 2011 - 12:03

    Thank you for an interesting, provocative and honest blog, Jason. My role at Algonquin College is to link industry, faculty, clients and funding organizations to support and conduct applied research that helps industry develop their own ideas to a great state of market readiness. There are many brilliant entrepreneurs who have not gone the academic route and obtained an advanced degree, but still have great ideas that are commercializable - if only they could get the support from government and academic institutions. Instead of "technology transfer", we use the term "technology bounce" because our clients ideas are shared with us and then developed in collaboration with professors and students who are able to bring their own expertise to the applied research. We are finding that this applied research program at the College is giving students a real-world experience prior to graduating, helping our professors gain knowledge of cutting edge thinking (which they then bring back into the curriculum) and stimulating social and economic growth. The success of our approach is evidenced by the more 100 clients with whom we have worked over the past two years, many of whom become repeat clients. Colleges, universities and industry will all be stronger if they work together to create products, processes and services for domestic and international markets.

  • Nabil Seddigh
    November 10, 2011 - 10:47

    Jason - thank-you for bringing up such a critical topic. Your article provides a number of interesting perspectives on the challenges facing startups and small/medium tech firms who wish to engage academia. I wanted to provide one additional perspective. My company Solana Networks has a strong desire and history of collaborating with a number of Canadian universities. Our experience has been generally positive. Based on our experience with different universities, we utilize the following strategies to address two of the key challenges you mention (i) Recognize the different objectives in academia vs industry and structure research project plans accordingly - one way is to treat the university research as advanced technology input and derisking but out of the critical path of product development. (ii) Designate the right personnel for the university interaction. From the company side, one needs the right type of individual as the prime interactor with the university. An individual with a pure business-mind or product-focus will likely get frustrated quickly and not see the benefits of the interaction. In my mind, the number one challenge preventing greater involvement of startups and business with academia is the point you make about the requirement for some type of cash or matching funding from industry. In Ottawa, over the last 10 years, this has become increasingly harder to justify. Nowadays, even large companies and well-funded startups are extremely hesitant about putting in small amounts such as $10,000 or $20,000 into a university research project - talk less about small or medium size companies for which "cash is king". This was not the case 15 years ago.

  • Sean Flanigan
    November 09, 2011 - 09:17

    Jason, I agree with you 100% when you say that business can benefit from working with Universities and that is why our teams at the Technology Transfer and Business Enterprise office at uOttawa are actively trying to promote that relationship. We, as a service to the University community, operate in four broad areas: Industry Liaison, Technology Transfer, New Venture Creation and Student Entrepreneurship. It is within the first and fourth of these areas that I would stress how we are developing programs to specifically addressing the gaps you have so properly identified. First, we created a program called Science Medicine & Engineering for Small and Medium Sized Enterprises ( that is allows us to go to local businesses and ask them how, with the considerable resources of our institution, we can help them solve a problem, accelerate growth or achieve a competitive advantage. This is a program supported by FedDev Ontario and we are pleased that in the first cycle of the program we created fifteen (15) new working relationships with local SME's. In relation to entrepreneurship, and specifically student lead companies, we created the Startup Garage ( which has funded, housed and assisted student run companies in each of the past two summers. We are currently running a competition for the Garage for Summer 2012 which will see each of 8 student lead companies receive 20K, a place to work, dedicated resources and active volunteer mentoring. Universities have as their core objectives the teaching of students and completion of research...but Universities such as uOttawa are taking bold and progressive steps to recognize that within those core objectives we can do much more. I invite you and all your readers along for this very exciting ride.

  • Cathie Edmond
    November 08, 2011 - 10:05

    One of the best ways to connect with a post-secondary institution is to hire co-op students. Not only do you get talented help when you need it, you begin a symbiotic relationship with the college or university and therefore have easy access to the expertise you seek. However, you need to invest time to enjoy a ROI. Ask for advice on how to attract the best candidates and request help with interview techniques. Experienced co-op practitioners can ensure you get the best talent for your team but you need to ask for help and be willing to consider it.

  • Bill Cuming
    November 07, 2011 - 21:16

    My company also tried to engage with university professors and the response was underwhelming. I do not find it productive to complete form after form of justification for their participation. And for what?? I need assistance on my terms to make a project successful, not on theirs.

  • Reality Check
    November 07, 2011 - 18:19

    Suggest that commentaries ought to research the level of endowment funds residing in and gathering dust in Canadian institutions. More to the point, this is the FIRST concise and honest article that clearly portrays inadequacies and entitlements with few results.

  • SBorza
    November 07, 2011 - 17:45

    We need to recognize that many of the US Universities that are successful at spinning out start-ups and having successful collaborative projects with start-ups also have multi-billion dollar endowments to fuel that collaboration. We like(d) to think we are silicon valley north, but let's be real. Stanford U's endowment fund is over $16B dollars, they are surrounded by corporate research on Page Mill road, and by real VCs on Sand Hill Rd. The Universities have started to use their endowments as seed money to fund start-ups. Sadly, Ottawa is the Ugly cousin to this model at best. We have some excellent engineering talent, but we lack the money, VCs and excitement that drives start-up innovation. Having licensed fingerprint technology from Carleton in the '90s and built a company that was world leading in its computer security innovations, I have experienced the ivory towers... While the concept was good, we quickly found that a University can't be left on the critical path for fast moving technology development. I could go on, but suffice it to say, we are sadly lacking the funding to allow start-ups to collaborate with the University system.

  • Kevin
    November 07, 2011 - 16:19

    With respect to co-op students, I've had mixed luck with this one. With the ones I've had, the quality of the student depended on a number of factors, including the institution they attend, the profs they've had, etc. I've had some with very unrealistic expectations as to what to expect when the graduate. The other issue is what I refer to as the care and feeding of a co-op. This is not unlike the same for a junior person, except that they will likely require more attention from me as their mentor. If I have the time to give to them, it can work out quite well. However as the mentor I need management recognition of the time that is required for the amount of mentoring that people at various levels of experience require. This also can get back to the institution and reduce your pool of candidates if they have a bad experience.