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A Perfect Storm: The Case for an Entrepreneurial Postdoctoral Framework in Canada

April 19, 2017
By: 
Bart De Baere, PhD and Elicia Maine, PhD


Bart De Baere, PhD
Postdoctoral Research, Teaching Fellow
Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences
The University of British Columbia, Vancouver Campus



Elicia Maine, PhD
Professor, Innovation & Entrepreneurship
Academic Chair, Science & Technology Commercialization
Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University

The recently released Naylor report (2017) revealed “very low success rates in competitions and a sense of futility on the part of young scholars and researchers”. Referred to as “a valley of death between early career scientists and more established researchers” (p. 97), this attrition should not be ignored, both because we’re losing HQP south of the border and because we’re underutilizing many that remain in Canada. In parallel, according to the report, peer review committees “favour proposals using proven techniques, in areas that have been productive in the past” (p. 124). In other words, innovative, high-risk research is inherently discouraged. Where does this leave our most innovative, entrepreneurial early-career scientists and engineers? The status quo is discouraging innovative research that has the potential to introduce transformative technologies.

Our most innovative postdoctoral fellows (postdocs) are most susceptible to the “Valley of Death” and are also most open to alternative career paths. The CAPS 2016 Canadian National Postdoctoral Survey indicated that 83% of current postdocs are interested in non-academic career opportunities. Given the recent dramatic increase in time required to reach a research-intensive faculty position (e.g. UBC PhD Career Outcomes, 2005-2013 Survey), entrepreneurship is increasingly of interest to postdocs (CAPS 2016 Survey). Yet, Canada lags other OECD countries on science entrepreneurship. In fact, no dedicated scientist-entrepreneur postdoctoral training framework is currently in place in Canada. This missed opportunity leaves entrepreneurial R&D hinging on postdoc supervisor support. As this type of research negatively impacts traditional research output metrics (disclosure via peer-reviewed publication may negatively impact IP protection), the existing framework is unsuitable.

Science-based entrepreneurs face high technology and market uncertainties over extended periods of time while requiring substantial capital investment (Maine and Seegopaul, 2016). Combine these challenges with findings of the Naylor report including: (1) the “valley of death” funding gap between early career scientists and more established researchers; (2) the lack of support for high-risk, high-reward research and (3) the urgent need for a strategy to encourage, facilitate, evaluate and support innovative, multidisciplinary research – we find ourselves in a perfect storm. Suffice to say, early-career scientist-entrepreneurs based in Canada are likely forced to abandon their ideas entirely - if they remain in Canada.

How can we better utilize our postdocs in Canada and support those interested in growing our knowledge economy through science-based university spinoffs? Well, we could learn from the innovative “hard-science” accelerator Cyclotron Road – a joint initiative between the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the US Department of Energy. In this program, carefully selected scientist-entrepreneur postdocs are empowered with the resources required to bring an invention to market. The framework consists of: a two-year fellowship allowing scientist-entrepreneurs to focus 100% on their projects; access to world-class research facilities and expertise; training, mentorship and networking. Within this framework, scientist-entrepreneurs are ideally positioned for market identification / penetration. The first cohort (2015 – 2017) consisting of 9 scientist-entrepreneurs (many of which recently graduated PhD students and postdoctoral fellows) has already founded 6 companies which have created 30 high tech manufacturing innovation jobs (Cyclotron Road 2016 Annual Report).

What are potential next steps? In chapter 7, the Naylor report recommends the creation of an additional 50 postdoctoral fellowships. We suggest allocating at least some of these fellowships to high-potential scientist-entrepreneurs at Canadian universities. As part of a wider framework similar to Cyclotron Road, these fellowships could provide the crucial initial salary-support necessary to focus on moving an invention towards commercialization. In addition, partnerships with national research institutions such as the National Research Council could provide access to leading research facilities and expertise. Moreover, a specialized training curriculum needs to be offered to ensure our scientist-entrepreneurs have the necessary skills to overcome the unique challenges associated with hard-science innovation. Such a curriculum has recently been developed at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University as the “invention to innovation” graduate certificate program. During a year-long, part-time program, scientist-entrepreneurs are provided with the theory, frameworks, skills and network to commercialize their inventions.

A clear opportunity exists to cater to our early-career scientist-entrepreneurs within the federal science funding framework. Providing this group of currently underserved researchers with the necessary funding and training will not only improve HQP retention (merely 38% of graduating international PhD students are employed in Canada according to the UBC PhD Career Outcomes 2005 – 2013 Survey), it will help create sustainable, knowledge-based career opportunities. In parallel, complementary know-how and/or services necessary to bring a product to market will contribute towards the creation of innovative research clusters. Therefore, tending to the needs of our early-career, innovative scientist-entrepreneurs will help create a thriving knowledge-based economy and national innovation system.

 

References:

Advisory Panel for the Review of Federal Support for Fundamental Science, 2017. Investing in Canada’s Future: Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research, 243 pp.

CAPS 2016 Canadian National Postdoctoral Survey: http://www.caps-acsp.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/2016_CAPS-ACSP-National_Postdoc_Survey_Report.pdf

Cyclotron Road 2016 Annual Report: http://www.cyclotronroad.org/journal/2017/3/16/2016-annual-report

Maine, E., Seegopaul, P., 2016. Accelerating advanced-materials commercialization. Nature Materials 15: 487-491

UBC PhD Career Outcomes, 2005-2013 Survey: http://outcomes.grad.ubc.ca/docs/UBC_PhD_Career_Outcomes_April2017.pdf