UBC Reports | Vol.
51 | No. 7 |
Jul. 7, 2005
But it’s about much more than money, says the guiding force behind Canada’s most successful technology transfer office
By Lorraine Chan
Gliding would strike any sane soul as a pastime rife with risk. But somehow it makes sense that flying an engine-less aircraft features high on Angus Livingstone’s favourite to-do list.
“To understand it, you get in a sail plane and you get hooked behind a power aircraft and they tow you to 2,000 feet and they release you,” explains Livingstone, managing director of the UBC University-Industry Liaison Office (UILO), who describes himself as “a good reasoned risk taker.”
“You’re looking to find areas of lift, where the air is rising. You want to get yourself to an altitude where you can set out and move abroad, and eventually land, typically at an airport, but sometimes in a farmer’s field,” says Livingstone, who with a laugh recounts how he once landed “falling out of the sky like a lawn dart” in the middle of some unimpressed golfers in Salmo, B.C.
Soft-spoken and articulate, Livingstone draws parallels between gliding and his mandate to translate great ideas into marketable ventures.
“The ability to be out there, to take a calculated risk, to read the air currents and yet still find your way forward so you get from one point to another is probably very similar to the kinds of things I’m doing now.”
Livingstone joined the UILO in 1988, only four years after he had earned a UBC computer science degree. Since then, he has helped UBC established the premier technology transfer office in Canada, gaining a worldwide reputation for innovative research incubation and company spin-off.
“Angus has an almost unique and very valuable capability to understand and build bridges between the researchers in academia and investors in the financial world,” observes Basil Peters, co-founder of BC Advantage Funds and Fund Manager of the BC Tech Fund, an early-stage investor in UBC spin-off company Sunnybrook Technologies.
Livingstone says he joined UILO because of his “vicarious pleasure in the research achievements of others.” This in no small part has been one of his strengths coupled with a principled approach to business.
“I’ve always thought of Angus as the heart and soul of tech transfer in B.C.,” says Dr. Donald Rix, chair and one of the founders of MDS Metro Laboratory Services, the largest independent community laboratory in B.C.
“He asks very good questions, difficult questions about conflict of interest. It’s a small community here and he’s always very good at reminding us to keep on the right path,” says Rix, who was an investor in UBC spin-off company QLT and the recent donor of $4 million that will help support UBC medical students.
“Everybody knows he’s fair, but also they know he’s not a push-over. He defends the university side, he’s a good negotiator,” says Dr. Rix, a B.C. entrepreneur and medical professional who over the past 15 years has served on several biotech company advisory boards with Livingstone.
Livingstone agrees that he has a knack for building consensus among venture capitalists, government and academia. He lives by the tenet, “We’ll all win, if we create a bigger pie for everybody.”
One such bigger pie is Genome BC, a large-scale research organization that has garnered $173 million in federal, provincial and other funding for projects and core facilities. Genome BC founding president Roger Foxall says that Livingstone brought welcomed expertise on setting up a framework to manage intellectual property rights.
“With input from Angus, Genome BC put forward the clear management terms under which the Genome Canada funds would flow through us to the institutions,” says Foxall, new Genome BC’s executive vice president of corporate development.
“There was concern across the country regarding intellectual property rights and we were the first to tackle the problem, and to an extent, acted as a model for other centers,” he says, explaining that since its creation in 2000, Genome Canada has distributed $386 million among five regional centers.
“I’ve got a great mind in terms of puzzling,” reflects Livingstone. “I can take a relatively complex mix of emotions, facts and situations and see my way clear to a resolution, and then put it out in a non-confrontational way. That way people can feel like their needs are honoured, instead of being challenged.”
Fractal Capital Corp President Haig Farris, a well-known venture capitalist and investor, praises Livingstone for his canny pragmatism.
“Angus has a good sense that there are way more ideas at UBC than UBC has the money or time to commercialize. History shows that rich graduates give more money back to the university so you might as well license technology out to graduates who are starting new businesses.”
But Livingstone says he always looks at the greater value when backing a new venture.
“If there were a money-making scheme just to see how much cash we can crank out of this and I don’t see an innate advancement for society, or quality of life, or any kind of benefits that we can think of, I’m just not interested in it.”
Livingstone refers to a utopian vision of Earth shown in the Star Trek television series — “not in the original series, but in The Next Generation.
“They’ve eradicated hunger, and they’ve eradicated disease. We’re no longer warring with each other, and we’re not producing just to consume, but we’re producing to meet our needs in some sort of harmony with the environment.
“Those are pretty noble goals — probably not going to get reached in my lifetime,” says Livingstone, “but if I can make a contribution towards that then that’s really the ultimate in personal fulfillment.”
Five of the largest public traded technology companies in B.C. are UBC spin-offs. Another two are based on UBC-developed technology. The total market capitalization of these companies is $5.8 billion.
A 2003 survey showed that UBC spin-off companies employed 2,000 people, and had a combined revenue of more than $300 million.