Spin-off know-how helps fuel economy

by Stephen Forgacs

Staff writer

When Westport Innovations Inc., a UBC spin-off company, unveiled its first modified transit coach it marked another branch in the tree of success that is UBC's University-Industry Liaison Office (UILO).

The bus, powered by a diesel engine converted to operate using a unique natural gas injection system, emits half the pollutants and costs close to half as much as its gas-guzzling counterparts. Over the next decade, the company hopes to transform the diesel industry worldwide from diesel fuel to low-emission natural gas.

The Westport story, and those of many other UBC spin-offs, has helped place UBC third in North America in the creation of new companies, behind only Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to survey results published in the Report on the UBC Spin-off Company Formation and Growth, released today by the UILO. The Westport example is just one of a growing list of UBC spin-off companies and UBC-licensed technologies.

"UBC has been very successful in supporting the creation and development of spin-off companies, and the licensing of UBC-developed technologies," says the report's author and UILO Associate Director Angus Livingstone. "The challenge now is not only to continue to link UBC technologies with industry partners for further development, but also to promote and accelerate the growth of the existing companies."

Included in the report are the results of surveys conducted in 1994 and 1997 of UBC's spin-off companies, which paint a vivid picture of the rapid growth in the number of spin-off companies, now at 71, and the growth experienced by the companies themselves.

More than 1,500 jobs created by UBC spin-off companies boost both the provincial and national economies -- 96 per cent of these jobs are in B.C.

The companies are also generating returns for the university including $17.5 million in cumulative research funding to UBC, $3.4 million in royalties, and, on paper, $5.6 million in equity shares held by UBC in 1997.

Growth in returns to UBC is most remarkable in cumulative research funding, which has more than doubled from $8.2 million in just three years, and in the paper value of UBC's equity shares, from $1.6 million in 1994.

In the last year alone, UBC received $3.5 million in industry-sponsored research funds from UBC spin-offs.

"We are seeing rapid growth in a number of the spin-off companies that have matured in the past few years," says Livingstone. "This is due, in part, to the fact that increasingly sophisticated private investors are recognizing the opportunities these companies offer, the value of the technologies they are developing, and the services they provide.

"While government support of our spin-offs has grown by about $6 million since 1994, private investment has climbed dramatically from $249 million to $634 million."

As investor support has grown, so have the companies' revenues. In 1994, UBC's spin-off companies reported combined annual revenues of $20.9 million. By 1997, annual revenues had jumped to $42.4 million.

The range of technologies and services offered by UBC's spin-offs is vast. The majority of companies (45 per cent) operate in the life sciences sector, with 39 per cent based in the physical sciences, and 15 per cent in information technology.

The number of UBC spin-off companies is growing at a rate of five to seven companies per year and, according to a 1997 National Research Council review, UBC alone accounted for more than 20 per cent of university-based spin-offs created in Canada.