Intellectual property: The polytechnic advantage

Today marks World Intellectual Property Day.  While unlikely to spark a celebratory mood among most Canadians (let’s be honest, St. Patrick’s Day is much more fun), it is a day that warrants the attention of policymakers. 

Intellectual property (IP) refers to the value created by human intellect, something creators often protect using copyright, patents and trademarks.  The effort behind IP is the spark that turns ideas into economic impact and societal improvement.  It can solve some of the largest challenges our country faces – climate change, an aging population or COVID-19.   

With that as background, let me tell you why polytechnic applied research and its approach to IP is a game-changer for entrepreneurs and inventors, small business owners and social enterprises. 

At Canada’s post-secondary institutions, IP is created through research activities, much of which is funded by government.  Government also supports and encourages industry to undertake research and development to unlock economic benefits including job creation and growth.  Understandably, government is keen to see post-secondary knowledge creation complement funding designed to stimulate economic growth via research collaborations.  However, the sticking point in these relationships is often related to IP, with many institutions looking for royalties and licensing fees for their contributions.  For business, this can present barriers to commercialization and broader investment opportunities, discouraging them from undertaking innovation activities at all. 

This is where polytechnic applied research stands apart.  Partners come to the institution with a challenge or idea.  Applied research offices activate faculty and student expertise, along with specialized labs and equipment.  Yet, the IP generated through the research partnership generally rests with the business partner, ensuring value remains with the party best able to exploit the new knowledge, generating economic or societal impact.  For this reason, on World IP Day, governments should be actively looking to Canada’s polytechnics and colleges as a model for business-focused research and development.   

Why not retain the IP?  For polytechnics, the greatest benefits of these research partnerships do not relate to locking IP behind a paywall.  A polytechnic model of education is about providing skills for employment.  When faculty get involved in an applied research partnership, they build a better understanding of a sector’s needs and can fold this knowledge back into curricula.  By sharing their challenges and ideas, business partners also help create an environment where students get exposure to real-world problems and actively apply the skills they are learning in the classroom.  This creates an innovation-enabled talent pipeline. 

Equally, the goal of polytechnic education is to ensure there are employment opportunities for students in a robust labour market.  Putting IP in the hands of partners is the best way to support a strong economy and help generate the employment opportunities graduates need.  In fact, many business partners ultimately hire the students they meet and mentor through applied research, putting that talent pipeline to work. 

As governments of all stripes consider how to better exploit the IP created with taxpayer dollars, Canada’s polytechnics and colleges have a model built for purpose.  By supporting their approach, Canada wins on many fronts:  ideas flourish, companies grow, challenges both incremental and society-wide get solved. 

That’s something to celebrate on World Intellectual Property Day.

About the Author

Cody McKay, Policy Analyst at Polytechnics Canada

Cody focuses on policies and programs relating to innovation and research. He supports the work of member Applied Research offices, bringing together leaders to ensure their initiatives in support of industry innovation and economic development are recognized at the federal level. Cody holds a Postgraduate Certificate in Project Management with a focus on international development from Humber, and a Bachelor Degree in International Relations from St. Thomas University in Fredericton. Prior to joining Polytechnics Canada, Cody worked with the Government of New Brunswick and the Canadian Red Cross.