This article originally appeared in The Hill Times, issue dated February 17, 2021.
With Canadians’ mounting frustration and the dwindling prospects of exiting this pandemic any time soon, it is vital that we unite as a nation to innovate. How Canada continues to respond to the pandemic will also define how we respond to future global challenges. Leading the development of new vaccines, more effective personal protective equipment, and new and improved systems of distribution and administration of the vaccine are just some instances of what is necessary now. This pandemic has highlighted our societal inequalities and our fractured innovative landscape.
The university, one of Canada’s cradles of innovation, must continue to innovate out of this crisis and future crises. With innovation more critical than ever, how do we increase collaboration, coordination, and access to salient data and information during prolonged isolation?
Intellectual property (IP) is a powerful legal tool to foster innovation. It merits a context-specific approach on when, and whether, to protect assets from the inventor/ startup stage to the scale-up phase. However, COVID-19 has amplified the challenges faced by our brightest researchers and innovators. They are unable to access laboratories, have limited access to funds to start up a company, lack the know-how and support, and do not know where to go to obtain the needed help to protect their inventions. Under these conditions, IP can go undetected until it is too late. Patents, trademarks, and copyrights protecting valuable work are not well understood, and often never see the light of day. Finally, when IP is detected and advised to be protected, the innovation costs are prohibitive, starting with the patent pro- cess costing upwards of $20,000 to protect a single patent.
It is no wonder then how Canada, a country with so much talent and potential, is still playing catch up to other countries’ patent filings and, importantly, commercialization successes in the form of licensing deals, startups, and scale-ups from their own valuable IP.
As a response, closer partnerships between universities and industries are becoming commonplace. Take as an example the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca trailblazing partnership to tackle the global pandemic with a COVID-19 vaccine. While these university-industry partnerships can help, they also risk a power imbalance between Canadian universities and multinational companies. There is no guarantee that Canadian jobs will be generated and retained in Canada, even though they may be founded on Canadian science and innovation.
Another promising mechanism is the use of university commercialization clinics such as the IP Innovation Clinic at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School. The clinic is the first of its kind, where law firms supervise law students who work directly with clients to formulate an IP strategy. This initiative accounts for more than 6,000 hours of pro-bono work, saving innovators close to $2-million to date during a nascent stage where resources are scarce.
One of the clinic’s success stories is Skygauge Robotics, a drone robotics company that landed a $3.3-million funding deal, and did so during a pandemic through the clinic’s support. Skygauge’s ambition is to build a company that keeps people innovating and working in Canada — a perfect example of how providing a friendly and supportive innovation ecosystem can be a game-changer to Canada’s innovation economy.
Seeing the need to continue innovating, especially during the pandemic, the IP Innovation Clinic, seized on the possibilities of artificial intelligence (AI). Enter Isaac Pewton, the IP Innovation ChatBot that can now answer any number of intellectual property questions. Powered by AI, the ChatBot learns and becomes smarter the more questions are asked of it. The goal is to balance the informational asymmetry in the innovation ecosystem and make valuable IP knowledge accessible to everyone for free.
This ChatBot is more important than ever to underrepresented communities, including women and Indigenous peoples who have typically not fared well in our in- novation ecosystem, and whose conditions are exacerbated from the pandemic. The ChatBot empowers these disenfranchised and remote communities with valuable information and direct access to the clinic for further services for free.
The ChatBot itself is an innovative example of a successful university-government-private partnership. Funded by Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Canada’s IP Clinics Program, pursuant to the federal government’s National IP Strategy and developed by a team of lawyers and technical experts at Norton Rose Fulbright Canada LLP, and Osgoode Hall Law School, the AI-powered ChatBot, by providing highly valuable IP information, can help Canadian entrepreneurs scale and learn quickly to innovate us out of this crisis and help future proof Canada against the next one.
Prof Giuseppina D’Agostino is a senior fellow with CIGI’s International Law Research Program (ILRP), effective November 2016. She is the Founder & Director of IP Osgoode, the IP Intensive Program, and the Innovation Clinic, the Editor-in-Chief for the IPilogue and the Intellectual Property Journal, and an Associate Professor at Osgoode Hall Law School.