Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Commercialization is about products

Startup entrepreneurs may not spend a lot of time worrying about commercialization support policies, but governments at both the federal and provincial levels allocate tens of millions of dollars for programs they hope will support the development of small, technology-based businesses.

Within government, "commercialization" has become as hot a buzzword as "nanotechnology" or "Web 2.0" in tech circles. One quality shared by all three terms is that there's some doubt whether many of the people who use them really know what they mean.

One of the challenges for governments is that they don't want to give money directly to companies (fair enough), but they really want to support the commercialization of technological innovations.

So what can they do?

Typically, the answer has been that they give money to universities and hope that it somehow translates into commercial success. And that's unfortunate, because it's placing resources about as far as possible from the markets that are going to determine whether a commercialization effort is successful.

Successful commercialization depends on technologies being embedded into products that solve market needs. Yet you can read and listen to policymakers and academics discuss commercialization for hours without ever hearing products mentioned.

Instead, they tend to talk about "building receptor capacity" and "facilitating technology transfer" and other concepts that support an inaccurate model of commercialization, suggesting that technology is something created in a university and then "transferred" to a company that has built the capacity to "receive" it.

You might be able to make those concepts fit with a shoehorn, but they fundamentally miss the mark. Commercialization depends on creating winning products targetted at defined markets. I think "productization" would be a much more instructive term than commercialization. Companies have demonstrated nearly unbounded "receptor capacity" when it comes to technologies they believe can be incorporated into successful products.

VCs regularly bemoan "technologies in search of a market," but that's exactly what many government commercialization policies encourage.

Startup technology companies in Waterloo would benefit greatly from easier access to market research, prototype development, business plan development, mentoring, seed funding, and other factors that universities were never designed to provide (although they may be willing to say it's their role when there's money being handed out).

Right now, government policy only provides limited support for those activities.

With tens of millions of taxpayer dollars at stake -- and a technology community that could put those resources to good use -- we can only hope that the wonks will soon realize that there's a lot more to commercialization and building successful technology companies than passing research from universities to companies.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Google in Waterloo?

For months, there have been rumours about Google coming to Waterloo. In November, Google seed investor David Cheriton donated $25 million to the UW School of Computer Science -- now the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science -- and the behind-the-scenes preparation for that was likely the source of some of the Google scuttlebutt.

But now there's a job posting on Google's site looking for a mobile wireless application developer. "Position based in Waterloo, Canada."

There's just the one posting, and Google just announced it was opening an engineering facility in Pittsburgh, so I don't think we have to prepare for an invasion ... but this should keep the rumour mill alive for a while.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The commercialization bandwagon

When the Perimeter Institute was unveiled five years ago, it was described as "a Canadian institute dedicated solely to the study of theoretical physics." But, according to a group called the Toronto Region Research Alliance—yes, they say Waterloo is in the "Toronto Region"—PI is now in the commercialization business.

According to a TRRA news release, PI is "working to translate foundational ideas in physics and quantum computing into commercialized applications" along with UW's Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC). And it says PI wants additional money from the government to do this.

I hadn't heard that PI was underfunded, or that it was in the business of creating technology-based products. I'm not sure that it would make either claim, but when there are tax dollars to be handed out, organizations become very flexible in how they present themselves. "Commercialization" is the colour governments are buying this year, even if it's not clear that they even understand what that is.

The local representation in the TRRA consists of UW president David Johnston, Open Text chairman Tom Jenkins, and Kitchener mayor Carl Zehr. U of G president Alastair Summerlee is also a member. We can never get organizations in this region (other than UW) to use the "Waterloo" brand, but apparently we can get people behind the idea of promoting the area under the "Toronto Region" banner.

Also see "Commercialization is about products"

Can Windsor use a non-snub to energize a focus on innovation?

OMG, did you hear? There's a new $100 million "Innovation SuperCorridor" initiative from the province introduced in the budget...