Five (and a half) lessons from London
Lesson 2.5: how jellyfish can change your perspective on R&D
Lesson 2.5: how jellyfish can change your perspective on R&DBy Chris Wilson-Smith University Relations
British and Canadian leaders met at the Canadian High Commission in London, England in February for the Waterloo Innovation Summit, which examined how deep research and commercialization are meeting challenges in the era of disruption. From political leaders to visionaries behind some of high-tech's most exciting startups, a number of key lessons emerged for those wondering where opportunity lies amid the relative chaos.
Over the past decade, startups have seen a marked improvement in their ability to raise capital. Velocity, a Canadian startup incubator based at the University of Waterloo,recently announced that the companies it has incubated have raised more than $1 billion, but the ability of early startups to attract the funds they need is still not where it needs to be. Panellists at the summit who founded or invested in high-tech startups said their challenge often lies in finding investors who understand their idea. "It may be a great idea, but people just didn't get what we were doing," said Sam Pasupalak, who co-founded Maluuba, a startup that combined artificial intelligence and language understanding to provide voice-activated results – sort of like Siri on steroids. He was finally able to find financing for his business – and sold it to Microsoft in 2017 for $200 million – but not after being rejected by more than 300 potential investors. Katarina Ilic, cofounder of Voltera, which invented a means of digitally printing electronic circuit boards, said the problem isn't so much a lack of investors, but ensuring companies find the right match.
We live in what Dominic Barton, Waterloo’s chancellor and global managing partner emeritus at McKinsey & Co., calls "the most disruptive era in 200 years," featuring geopolitical strife and technological advancements touching every organization on the planet. The need to seek quick fixes to big problems and continued iterations of existing consumer products will be tempting, he said. But now more than ever, we must invest in basic science and in the kind of research that doesn't necessarily have an obvious practical application. Professor Donna Strickland, Nobel laureate in physics, agreed, saying the work like hers sets the stage for advancements decades later – and often in unanticipated fields.
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Barton told the story of a scientist obsessed with the mathematics behind the physiology of jellyfish – and how proud he was that his body of work had no practical application. It was not inevitable at the time the knowledge was created, Barton said, that this discovery would eventually play a crucial role in angioplasty, a minimally invasive procedure to widen narrowed or obstructed arteries or veins. "Curiosity-driven research can lead to places we didn't expect to go."
The world is aging more rapidly than ever before. This means policymakers are confronted with increasing healthcare and pension costs, among others. It is a problem that requires urgent attention from policymakers, said Feridun Hamdullahpur, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Waterloo, but it is also one that shows how we must help move research more quickly through development and commercialization. Work being carried out at the Schlegel-UW Research Institute of Aging, which sees research being turned into practical use in live time, could be used as a model for other organizations.
Access matters, too. Kristine Boone, a PhD candidate in the field of quantum physics at Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computingand a researchers at the startup Quantum Benchmark, said her group would not exist without easy access to top scientists across other disciplines. In Waterloo’s Mike and Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre her team is able to work with other researchers (and, importantly, use their labs), saving them both time and money. "If I didn't understand something from a new paper, I could just walk down the hall and talk to the author," she said. That convergence of disciplines and resources gives startups from that area a head start, said Randall Howard, an angel investor who has built a successful career funding global firms based on deep technology.
Science and technology are at the heart of a new memorandum of understanding between Canada and the U.K., said Janice Charette, the high commissioner to the United Kingdom. But in agreeing to take steps to ensure a strong, shared future in additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing, progress only comes with further advancements in equity among gender and racial lines, she said. Doing so will ensure not only our economic success, "but also in developing and commercializing life transforming and world-changing ideas." In an interview, Joanna Newman, president and secretary-general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, said it is especially important that universities help support early career researchers in emerging countries.
The next event in the summit series heads back home to Waterloo in the fall where business, government and academic leaders will find out how technology will have an impact on the future of human health.
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