Turning innovations into successful products

Research Innovation Office gets scientists thinking commercially

By Katherine Gombay

Erica Besso can overwhelm you with information. “I love my work,” she said, smiling. And it shows. It’s clear that she’s as passionate about communicating what she does as she is about helping scientists take their discoveries from the research phase to the product-development stage.

A first for McGill

Trained as a polymer chemist, with a PhD from McGill, Besso is the Faculty of Science’s first Research and Innovation Officer. It was while working as a research chemist at DuPont Canada in Kingston, Ont., that she began to rethink the direction her career was taking. “Research is a very slow, solitary exercise,” said Besso. “I was feeding polymer materials into an extruder, all alone on the noisy plant floor except for the technician who occasionally came to help, changing one factor and then measuring the results. After a while, I realized that even though I like understanding why things happen, the work wasn’t meeting my deepest needs. I’m more interested in the big picture; in discussion, planning, working in teams and implementing discoveries.” But what to do with her years of training as a chemist?

The answer came in the form of a job as a partnerships officer at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), a position where she was able to combine her knowledge of science with her interest in bringing scientific applications into real-world use. This combination of qualities eventually brought her back to McGill and led to her appointment at the Faculty of Science’s new Research Innovation Office (RIO). Her work here involves encouraging scientists to explore whether their ideas haves any commercial potential. If so, Besso helps them through the patent puts them in contact with existing companies or gives them some direction in creating start-up companies for themselves.

From the lab to real-world

The existence of the office, which is now just five years old, marks a shift in the way universities conceive of their relationship with the outside world. “Martin Grant [the Dean of Science] is a visionary,” said Besso. “He’s realized that it’s important to say to scientists that thinking commercially – which isn’t something that researchers are used to doing – isn’t going to hinder their academic careers. In fact, it’s going to help them. He’s saying to them, ‘this is good for your image, it’s good for your people, and it’s going to energize them.’ And that’s what we see.”

Besso is unable to give exact figures for the numbers of innovations that RIO has fostered from the idea to the product stage, simply because the process is so long and complex, and so much is going on. Apart from any commercial benefits McGill may reap from the product commercialization, one of the major incentives for RIO’s work is job creation. “We want to create companies as a way of keeping our graduate students in Montreal,” said Besso. “But it’s challenging, because what often happens is that we grow something here and then, when the company’s successful, it is bought out and moves. We see that a lot.”

Despite this, whether McGill scientists are creating a better soybean or new fetal health detectors, Besso is there with all her enthusiasm and knowledge to help them move ahead and commercialize their ideas.

And she’s having a great time doing it.