Canada’s Patent Powerhouse

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 12 | Dec. 6, 2007

By Hilary Thomson

The year was 1984.

Apple computers introduced the Macintosh, John Turner became Canada’s 17th prime minister, and UBC’s University Industry Liaison Office (UILO) was established as Canada’s first university technology transfer organization.

The office commercializes research by negotiating sponsored research agreements, patenting and licensing discoveries, facilitating development of prototypes and creating spin-off companies. Profits from licensing, in the form of royalties or equity, are distributed amongst the inventor, the inventor’s faculty and the university.

In its inaugural year, UBC attracted $49 million in external research funding and the three-person UILO staff handled 27 technology disclosures.

In 2006/07, external funding is at $400 million to support more than 6,600 projects. There have been 262 patents filed and the total number of spin-off companies has reached 125. The staff now numbers 38 and serves UBC and its affiliated teaching hospitals and UBC is ranked first in Canada, and among the top 10 in North America, for its commercialization success.

“This has been an amazing time,” says Angus Livingstone, a UBC alumnus and UILO managing director since 1999. “We’ve seen a huge increase in funding for academic research, and the last decade can be viewed as a golden era. With increased investment comes added responsibility to demonstrate a valuable return, and technology transfer is one important measure of this value.”
By the end of the 1980s, external research funding had almost doubled to $90 million, 83 patents were filed and a total of 29 spin-offs had been created.

By the mid-1990s, things were taking off.

In 1994, the university received more than $1 million in royalties. The 1996 construction of the Gerald McGavin Building on the Point Grey campus established UBC’s first “incubator facility” to help grow new technologies. Among UBC’s  spin-off companies were Westport Innovations, now a global leader in clean-burning alternative fuels, and Neuromed, developed from Prof. Terry Snutch’s research into new pain medicines. 

“We were well on our way to fostering an environment that incubated ideas and connected researchers and industry,” says John Hepburn, UBC Vice-President, Research. “UBC was a leader in commercializing university technology by that time. And those technologies were already making contributions to society, to business, and to the health of individuals and communities.”

QLT, a company that develops and commercializes therapies in the fields of ophthalmology and dermatology, was spun off in 1981 and in 2000 launched Visudyne™ to treat age-related macular degeneration. The product has been used to treat more than half a million people. The royalties to UBC from sales of Visudyne™ alone far outweigh those from any other licensee.

With external research funding steadily increasing, the office saw a corresponding rise in the number of patents filed. In 2001/02,152 U.S.patents were filed and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recognized UBC as a leading academic holder of U.S. patents issued. In addition, the value of UBC’s equity portfolio had reached almost $12 million.

By 2003, research funding hit $376.8 million and the UILO was recognized with BC Biotech’s Lifetime Leadership and Achievement Award for outstanding contribution to B.C.’s biotechnology industry. And virtually all of the then 113 spin-offs were based in B.C., boosting the province’s economy with the creation of approximatley 2,000 jobs.

Advancing innovation has led the UILO to develop innovations of its own along the way.

The Prototype Development Program was the first of its kind in Canada and is now used as a model for other universities. Launched in 1989, the program serves as a “springboard” to increase technologies’ commercialization potential by creating working prototypes, preparing business plans and other activities.

UILO launched another innovation in 2003  — Flintbox™ — an online tool that helps distribute and license early stage, non-patentable research, exchange intellectual property and start collaborations between researchers. It is used by universities in North America and Europe.

The office launched the New Ventures Program in 2004 to increase the quantity and quality of technology with potential for commercialization. It also helped establish the Centre for Drug Research and Development, launched in 2005 to advance promising therapeutics. In addition, there was a renewed focus on International Business Development to search out international opportunities and partners.

In 2005/06, there were 94 U.S. patent applications. A report in the June 2005 issue of The Scientist recognized UBC as a patent powerhouse. In a measure of impact, originality and growth of U.S. patent activity in the life sciences sector within North American universities, UBC was ranked first in Canada and ninth in North America.  In 2006, the Milken Institute, a U.S. economic think tank, ranked UBC 8th in North American and first in Canada for its commercialization and technology transfer activities.

This year UBC was the first Canadian university to break the $100 million mark in cumulative licensing revenue. And building on the Trek 2010 vision, the UILO has developed guidelines for global access to appropriate technologies, especially for those in developing countries. UBC is the first university in Canada to develop such strategies.

For more information on the UILO, visit