TWO HEADS ARE BETTER THAN ONE
PRIVATE-PUBLIC RESEARCH PARTNERSHIPS CREATE INNOVATION SUCCESS STORIES
BY STAN BLADE, P.Ag.
In October, our faculty participated in an announcement that represented the culmination of the ultimate collaboration between a university research group and a private sector company.
Ceapro is a company that sells high-value extracts from a number of grains that are used for cosmetic and other purposes. Ceapro has just opened a $14-million processing facility in Edmonton, which produces a range of products for global customers. A key technology used at the new processing facility was exclusively licensed from the research program of Feral Temelli, a food scientist who works in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta. Ceapro has made it clear that it had many potential sites worldwide for its facility, but having direct access to the research program at the U of A motivated its decision to invest here. The story gets better, as the company has employed the PhD student responsible for the creation of the new technology as its chief scientist. Ceapro is also supporting several other graduate student projects within our faculty.
Much has been written about the complex nature of partnerships between public research groups and private companies. There has also been a great deal of discussion about how little the private sector invests in innovation in Canada— the Conference Board of Canada’s “How Canada Performs: Innovation” report ranked Canada ninth of 16 surveyed countries. There are obvious challenges when private-public partnerships are developed. The university collaborator needs to consider the opportunity to generate new science (that may be publishable), the resources needed to fund graduate students and research activities, and whether there is a fit between the project and the longterm direction of the researcher. Meanwhile, the private sector partner is looking for a specific answer to a question that presents an opportunity or a challenge to the company. The company expects to use scientific insights to improve its products and receive a competitive edge in the marketplace. Our faculty’s experience has shown that it is possible to align our interests in such a way that everyone benefits from the partnership.
In the agriculture and agri-food sector, we have punched above our weight with respect to how we, as a public organization, collaborate with the private sector. To provide some perspective, our faculty has received an average of $45 million in annual investment from our external partners over each of the past five years. This success is mirrored by many of our peers at other Canadian research institutions. These partnerships are motivated by the fact that collaboration makes us better. We are able to gain valuable insights into the issues facing the industry. Our graduate and undergraduate students gain hands-on experience by participating in the scientific inquiry required by our partners. We are able to use our state-of-theart infrastructure (labs, growth facilities and 25,000 acres of farms and ranches) more effectively through intensive links to our agri-food sector.
Of course, this requires the commitment of our private sector partners. We collaborate with companies in many different ways. Companies can make long-term investments in a variety of research areas, such as plant breeding programs. We also put out requests to seed companies for bids on exclusive rights for specific cultivars. We have similar arrangements for new technologies that companies may wish to license (either exclusively or non-exclusively). There is another category for spinoff companies, which are initiated due to a research opportunity that is commercialized through partnerships with investors and/or technology partners.
The recent spate of mergers in the agri-food sector has created both opportunities and challenges. It has been my experience that multinational companies based in Canada face significant challenges to find internal company resources to invest in research here. It is possible that companies that are increasing their capacity might be able to allocate more resources to investment in public sector work. However, reducing the number of potential partners might create issues for public research in Canada and beyond. The Canadian agri-food sector could face new challenges in the future due to this consolidation. What is absolutely clear is that investment in innovation has enhanced the competitiveness and profitability of our industry. With that in mind, we will need to work even harder to ensure the continued success of our public-private partnerships.