May 6, 2013 9:34 am
Updated: May 6, 2013 10:05 am

New institute designed to turn Alberta research into commerce

Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk

Leah Hennel , Calgary Herald
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EDMONTON – A new institute that will help colleges and universities commercialize their research in partnership with private companies and other agencies is underway, Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk says.

The institute, as yet unnamed, will be open to researchers and students from any campus in Alberta, and serve as a major vehicle for diversifying the economy. It should eventually generate a stream of royalties for campuses and businesses, Lukaszuk said.

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“It has to be a win, win, win,” Lukaszuk said. “Private sector needs the professors, but also there must be value for the institution and the individual researchers. The benefits have to be shared three ways in this kind of public-private partnership.”

The institute, which will be associated with Campus Alberta and under Advanced Education, will eventually spin off companies and “help start a new economy for Alberta,” said Lukaszuk. In future, royalties streams could also help fund the budgets of post-secondary institutions, he added.

Lukaszuk did not provide details of the institute’s funding. Some money will come from three of four government research agencies under the Alberta Innovates banner, with more than $160 million in funding this year, that are now under Advanced Education and will move into the new institute.

In this spring’s budget, Alberta Innovates Tech Solutions got $98 million, Bio Solutions got $17 million, Energy and Environmental Solutions $22 million, and technology commercialization got $28 million.

“They’ve done a good job, but they haven’t been totally satisfying,” Lukaszuk said.

In April, he moved the fourth agency, Alberta Innovates Health Solutions, with its $79-million annual research budget, into Alberta Health Services to help fund research to deliver more efficient health care.

Companies from around the world find Alberta attractive for research because the single-payer health-care system and centralized health authority provides an easily accessible, unified database of thousands of patients, he said.

Also, the province’s four million people are genetically diverse and considered a good sample size, said Lukaszuk.

“They are also impressed with our first-class facilities and labs, and we want to leverage those advantages.”

New Democrat MLA Rachel Notley worries funding for the new institute will come from cuts to other areas, including more cuts at universities “where research is already being done in an independent setting.”

“It may not be a bad idea if it’s not being done at the expense of other programs or at the expense of pure or basic research” that is necessary to innovation, Notley said.

“Also, the minister will have to make sure that handing out the research grants is transparent,” she said.

Donna Wilson, head of the U of A Faculty Association, said there are serious questions in these commercial partnerships. Private companies may not like the results researchers come up with, or might want to keep negative results under wraps.

In a university setting, researchers are not beholden to a company or agency that might be looking for a certain outcome, she said. There would have to clear rules around conflicts of interest to protect researchers, she added.

Wilson said the government would be wiser to spend its money supporting independent, university-based research instead of starving post-secondary schools.

“Is this why we were cut by $147 million, so the government could go ahead with this stand-alone research institute?” she asked.

While earning more royalties from inventions sounds attractive, Wilson said the government can’t be trusted to get a fair share of the royalties for the public and the researchers.

“Given their track record on royalties, I’d have to be concerned about the royalty agreements,” she said.

Lukaszuk said the institute will provide a forum where academics from different campus can come together. Currently, co-operation is limited because campuses compete for research grants.

The institute resembles a proposal by the University of Alberta for its proposed Alberta Institute of Advanced Technology that was sent to the government. But Lukaszuk said the government’s vision is “more ambitious” and hopefully will evolve into something similar to the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Redford government is undertaking this major re-organization just four years after the Stelmach government also revamped publicly funded research agencies in search of more “wealth creation” and diversification.

In 2010, the province closed the Alberta Research Council and an Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research program funding scientists, two agencies at arm’s length from government with independent boards.

In their place, the Stelmach government set up the four Alberta Innovates agencies inside Advanced Education, with budgets of $20 million to $70 million each to fund short-term, applied research projects geared to priorities set out by government. Those reforms caused concern and consternation in the research community.

© 2013 The Edmonton Journal

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