Innovation is the bread and butter of chemists. Chemistry is a central science and our discoveries are innovation drivers in almost every field. Yet, many chemistry researchers appear to struggle with how to work in partnerships with industry.
Over the past five years, we at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) have proactively encouraged a strong growth in the number of Canadian companies and researchers working together; more than 3,000 companies every year now do their research and development (R&D) together with researchers holding NSERC partnership grants. We offer a suite of flexible grants that enable companies and chemistry researchers to work together, both at the university and college levels.
One of the challenges is making new connections. NSERC’s dedicated five regional offices facilitate connections through events, or on a one-on-one basis. Located strategically across Canada, they can be a valuable starting place to learn how to foster a relationship that can lead to a partnership. NSERC’s Pacific Office, using Connect grants, has held successful events in collaboration with the Pacific chapter of the Chemical Institute of Canada to connect Vancouver area chemistry departments with local companies. Connect grants can also support travel for researchers to meet with companies across Canada.
The popular NSERC Engage grants program has enabled faculty and companies to begin working together, with no requirements for resources from the company other than time, interest and the identification of a specific problem that needs solving. Companies of all sizes from a range of industries have responded and there is a strong record of success and satisfaction from both the academic and industrial partner. In fact, 94 percent described the project as a success and more than half of the companies who participated have been able to develop a new product or process.
These initial successes lead on to larger NSERC Collaborative Research & Development (CRD) projects where the companies put cash into projects in which they have confidence. As students explore their future, putting them together with companies helps them learn skills beyond research like resource management, communications and project management — all of which help improve their level of job-readiness. As students are hired out of the academic labs, a network is created for faculty in search of future industrial collaborators.
Industrial R&D in chemistry is no longer solely the purview of large corporations. Victor Snieckus of Queen’s University used an Engage grant to begin work with Vertex Pharmaceuticals, which has 75 employees, and has followed up with a large, two-year CRD grant. Mike Organ from York University is a perfect example of both a discoverer and an innovator. He was recently lauded for the “most notable discovery in synthetic chemistry worldwide in 2014” — a new understanding of the Negishi cross-coupling reaction that his lab had been working on for more than 10 years. Organ is also noted for having patented and commercialized a palladium catalyst system, launching two profitable spin-off companies and having had solid funded collaborations with more than 10 companies.
Certainly it isn’t just the established chemists who see the possibilities. Fraser Hof has used the backdrop of the successful Chemistry Department at the University of Victoria to plunge ahead in establishing connections with companies and is enthusiastic about NSERC’s support. At a recent workshop, Hof described how two recent Engage grants have allowed him to expand his research and open up new exciting prospects for his students.
Opportunities for partnerships with Canadian companies are certainly available to chemists and NSERC has the mechanisms and funding to help make them happen. I encourage those interested in learning more about our partnership grants to explore the new Innovate section of our website or get in touch directly with one of our regional offices.
Pamela Moss, who obtained an MSc in analytical chemistry from McGill University, is the Interim Vice-President, Research Partnerships at NSERC, which aims to be a global leader in strengthening the discovery-innovation continuum for the societal and economic benefit of Canada by 2020.