The Imperative for non-inventor CEOs

By Hari Venkatacharya

Why are we not better in Canada at producing successful, global companies? Our track record to date has been spotty at best. While governments have invested billions in basic research, only about 20% of this amount is invested in the commercialization of these technologies. In addition, there is a dearth of experienced entrepreneurs who are able to take a company from concept stage to market acceptance.

Traditionally in Canada, start-ups have been university-based, with IP being shared with the university, professor and company. In addition, most founder-CEOs are professors, who on a part-time basis try to commercialize their inventions, without fully understanding the enormous range of skills that are required to launch a company. Many academics feel that since they have successfully created a technological breakthrough, they can also lead a company!

In Canada, the University of Waterloo currently has the best track record for successfully commercializing technologies; however, as a country, we still have much work to do in organizing and supporting commercialization.

The MIT Centre for Entrepreneurship has made it mandatory that an inventor cannot be the spin off’s founding CEO. This is a revolutionary approach to commercialization that has worked extremely well over the last two decades. MIT has the distinction of being the world’s most successful academic commercialization organization, measured by funding that companies have received number of people employed and patents filed. A similar model must be implemented in Canada.

However, we must also ensure that the ecosystem is in place to fully exploit these new inventions. The ecosystem needs to be broadened to include serial entrepreneurs/company builders, investors and access to global markets. This is the microcosm that was so successfully created in Silicon Valley in the 1990s, and has been replicated to an extent in the Waterloo region, as well as Bangalore, India.

While we are very successful in developing new technologies in Canada, our track record is very inconsistent in launching successful companies. By focusing more resources on the market-facing side of innovation, we have a much higher probability of creating successful ventures that have global impact.


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