Meet Foresight’s newest Board Member – Elicia Maine

Meet Foresight’s newest Board Member – Elicia Maine

This week we interviewed Foresight’s newest board member, Elicia Maine. Elicia is
a Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Simon Fraser University. She is also the founding Academic Director of Invention to Innovation, a graduate certificate program aimed at giving PhD Scientists and Engineers the skills to lead in Science & Technology Commercialization. Professor Maine has published her technology innovation research in top science and technology journals, including Nature Nanotechnology and Nature Materials.

You work at the nexus of innovation and entrepreneurship. What is the focus of your research?

I’m an action researcher, drawn to in-depth case study observation, and my research has always been very problem driven. Processes that enable or constrain radical innovation have always interested me, so my research has focused on analyzing these processes in more than 100 advanced materials firms and other science-based ventures. I’ve looked at large and small firms, but it tends to be startups that are particularly adept at radical innovation. Now, in this era of Open Innovation, the role of science-based university spinoffs is more important than ever in developing radical innovation.

What were some of the influences that shaped your approach to teaching innovation and entrepreneurship?

Two formative experiences stand out in my mind. I attended a month-long summer program at SHAD Valley in Waterloo when I was 17 that focused on entrepreneurship and system design engineering. They taught us to solve problems by thinking about them holistically. My group actually won the class competition with a relatively simple rain cover for bikes. The underlying lesson? The technology is not necessarily the most important thing; the functionality and how you pitch the solution are as, if not more, important.

MIT’s Technology Policy Program, which I took as a graduate student, was also a big influence. Their courses still shape how I program my curriculum today, and how we developed the Invention to Innovation program. We take into account policy, ethics and broader societal considerations in our teaching, and we encourage our students to arrive at their own conclusions through action research and case studies.

It is often said that Canada has a commercialization problem, particularly when it comes to clean technologies. How do you teach your students to address this challenge?

In 2009, 5,000 CEOs from medium- to large-sized companies across Canada were surveyed about innovation. The results showed that the biggest barrier to innovation was their perception of risk and uncertainty, which led to missing out on opportunities that are on the flip side of risk. Our goal is to equip our students with greater confidence as well as the tools to realize the upside of uncertainty and manage the downside.

What other observations have you made with respect to technological innovation in Canada?

Canada’s national innovation system also tends to hold us back when it comes to innovation. Contrary to popular belief, the US is not a free-market economy when it comes to science-based ventures; it “picks winners” and directly subsidizes those inventions through to innovation. In Canada, we have a generous model when it comes to indirect support of research and development, which favours incremental innovation and larger firms. When it comes to startups and technologies that have a longer timeline to commercialization, the US model would be more helpful. Programs like the US Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) have played a large role in nurturing the formation and growth of biomedical and clean technology ventures.

There are certainly programs and resources that startups can access in Canada to give them a better chance: accelerators like Foresight, for example, as well as their ARCTIC sprint program – that’s a great way to determine the demand and value of your solution. SDTC’s Tech Fund has also been very helpful for Canadian clean tech ventures.

In SFU’s Invention to Innovation program, we try to foster good early-stage prioritization decision-making in our students. Thinking through patenting and alliance strategies, and the initial market strategy, can give startups a better chance to succeed.

What are the things that excite you the most about working in the technological innovation field in Canada? What are our greatest opportunities?

We punch above our weight in terms of invention: our scientists and engineers are often world class. We also do very well in terms of forming new technology ventures, such as ventures commercializing software solutions. However, we underperform in the number of science-based ventures we found and grow. Science-based ventures are those commercializing products and services from emerging science: they might have developed a new form of clean-energy generation, a new process for treating mining or petroleum wastewater, or a new therapeutic for cancer patients. A key currency for these science-based ventures is their patent portfolio, and – despite our strong track record in invention – we underperform in the number of new ventures formed that file patents within their first five years.

This disconnect could be the result of a number of things, including the fact that patenting costs are not eligible for government grants, the risk perception of potential scientist-entrepreneurs, university technology-transfer policies, and/or too little venture capital. There’s certainly an opportunity to align the incentives and the financial capabilities of science-based ventures with our regional and national innovation system goals, so that we create more high-quality jobs locally.

What brought you to the Foresight board?

A number of things. I’ve studied fuel-cell ventures since 2002 and the growth of cleantech ventures for 15 years. I’ve been impressed with the work Foresight has been doing – up until now, it’s been the only provincial accelerator program that’s provided a home for science-based ventures. I’m passionate about the positive impact that scientist-entrepreneurs can make in addressing global challenges, and Canadian cleantech has enormous potential to be a part of the solution.

What’s your call to action?

Universities worldwide are increasingly a source of breakthrough inventions that are addressing global challenges. I’d like to encourage students in Canada – particularly PhD students and postdocs that are working on cleantech advances in their labs – to consider taking the leap to becoming an entrepreneur. Programs like Invention to Innovation and organizations like Foresight can help. We are at a promising time, provincially and federally, for cleantech, and I think we have the talent and ideas to deliver exciting and transformative solutions.
For more information on the services and support Foresight provides to cleantech startups: