By Virginia Wilkinson

A unique Saskatoon-based centre is bringing the best and brightest academic minds together with those of industry, and having amazing
outcomes.

Saskatoon’s Innovation Enterprise (IE), which grew out of the former Commercialization Unit at the University of Saskatchewan, is the hub which connects businesses—small and large—with leading research and innovation at the university.

“Basically Innovation Enterprise does whatever is needed to turn new research results and new ideas into products, services or companies,” said Johannes Dyring, Managing Director of Innovation Enterprise. Opening its doors as IE in February 2017, IE’s most recent success has been the fostering of a start-up company (Excir Works) which was featured on CBC’s Dragons Den in September 2018. Excir’s laboratory team developed an environmentally-friendly solvent which enables the simple extraction of thin layers of gold from the circuit boards of electronic waste. The new process offers so much potential that all six of the Dragon’s chose to invest a total of $1 million in the company on the spot.

The fact that IE was able to foster the creation of Excir speaks to the role this type of organization can play in bringing key innovations to industry, the economy and society.

Dyring, who has a lengthy background in industry and start-ups, became IE’s Managing Director in 2015, and quickly initiated an intensive external stakeholder information gathering campaign which has become the basis for the centre’s approach to fostering industry/researcher collaboration. He is passionate about the role IE can play in fostering the evolution of new products, and helping companies use innovations to solve problems.

“The University of Saskatchewan is unique in that it has world class research in many different fields. However, when we look at how many companies are created, and how many products and services emerge from the university, we can see that this is a vast, untapped source of commercial activity,” said Dyring.

As part of its quest to strengthen collaboration between industry and research, in the spring of 2017 IE introduced a unique collaboration concept, AIMday™, to Saskatoon. The IE event in 2017 was the first ever AIMDay event held in North America. Developed by Uppsala University in Sweden, AIMday™ is an initiative which facilitates discussion and collaboration between researchers and industry. Businesses are encouraged to submit questions/topics prior to a day-long collaborative workshop with researchers. The topics are then matched with the appropriate academic expert, and become the basis for a multidisciplinary workshop. This process is unique because it takes businesses and researchers from an idea through to an innovation in a matter of hours.

The first Saskatoon AIMday™ event focused on minerals. Since then, there have been three more such events, focusing on imaging, big data, and ag tech. Companies come from all over Canada and around the world to take part in these events, and the results have been nothing short of amazing. The workshops have each generated between 50 and 60 new potential research projects, one-third of which have resulted in industry/academic collaboration, and a number are already on track for commercialization.

In June of 2018, IE launched yet another innovative new tool aimed at reducing barriers to academic and industry collaboration. USask Fast Track License was designed to make accessing university technology faster and easier.

“Collaborating with universities can sometimes be challenging, largely because licensing can take time. We wanted to take the hurdles associated with licensing off the table, so researchers and businesses can focus instead on commercializing the innovation,” said Dyring.

The Fast Track License is a legal template document which outlines consistent terms and conditions around the commercialization of an innovation.

“The royalty rates and contract terms were developed to be very favourable to industry, and to provide businesses with the best competitive advantage, because we want to get the innovation out into the market where it can be used for the benefit of society,” he said.

Just months after the launch of the new tool, the Fast Track License is already generating interest among large and small businesses in the province.

“One of our greatest challenges is getting business to understand the capabilities we can bring from all aspects of the university, science, technology, social sciences, the arts, and more. We have innovations and can create solutions for businesses from very small, to very large, so we encourage businesses of all types to bring us their questions and problems,” he said.

Dyring says the IE team is excited about the role they are beginning to play and can play into the future, in fostering industry and academic collaboration for the benefit of society, the environment and the economy.