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A Conversation With Steven Woods, Engineering Director At Google Canada

University Affairs: Canada ranks near the bottom of the OECD in terms of the proportion of businesses that collaborate with universities on R&D. I’ve heard universities say many times that they are ready and willing to do so but companies just aren’t stepping up. They don’t seek out the help and expertise that is available to them at Canadian universities the way their U.S. counterparts do. What do you think could be done about this?

Dr. Woods: In the world of science, engineering, mathematics – the world I live in – this university here and some other Canadian universities, the University of Toronto comes to mind, are very highly regarded. Kitchener-Waterloo for example is one of the top 10 worldwide areas for successful startup activity. Certainly Silicon Valley is the leader in all of these things, but I think we are starting to see that Kitchener-Waterloo is mentioned in the same breath as places like Boston or Seattle. So when it comes to name brands – the University of Waterloo, the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto – I think you would see that smart organizations are very well aware of the talent, and I don’t just mean of the students, I mean the faculty, and are very well aware of the value of joint research efforts. If one was to suggest what we could do better, I think there’s a certain degree of responsibility on both parts [to improve how we] organize and project manage. What’s the coordination point between a university and an organization like us? We both have to find ways to work together structurally day to day. There’s a fair bit of overhead in organizing meetings and creating reports and summaries and presentations. It just takes time and effort. And both universities and corporations have a responsibility to find ways to create structures to make it possible.

University Affairs: What else do you think that universities can do to foster innovation?

Dr. Woods: I’m a big fan of intellectual property freedom. I think this attracts a very interesting, different kind of graduate student and faculty member. I seem to be pushing the University of Waterloo more than I need to, but they are a great example of this. Their researchers and in fact their grad students, of which I was one, are the sole owners of the intellectual property they produce. The university has no specific rights to it. They have the opportunity to provide you with supporting services if you wish in exchange for some of it but the reality is you can walk off campus and create a startup and many faculty members from the University of Waterloo have been heavily involved in startups. I myself at the end of my PhD worked for my supervisor’s startup for a while on some work that we had jointly done. So I think this is a great thing. It spins out companies. It creates a dynamic interaction between faculty members and industry as they look for partnerships in the community. It attracts a very entrepreneurial type of student.

As for other things, I think you can argue that lots of universities are trying incubators and spinoff organizations with varying degrees of success. … There’s some successful companies in town, small and growing, that have come out of [the Velocity program at U of Waterloo] in just a few years. We recently acquired a company called BufferBox which actually was a company spun out of a fourth-year engineering project. Three fourth-year [students] in mechanical engineering had an idea about improving the way consumers receive packages. It is a really cool product. They managed to get it to market themselves. They went down to the U.S. to raise money … then they moved their company right back here. [At] a student symposium where they were presenting … I talked to them and left them my card, and sort of kept in touch and tracked their progress. We were fortunate enough to acquire them about a year and a half after they got their company going. But I think none of that would have happened without the open exchange between the university and the industry. Also, it wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t able to take that intellectual property and create a company.