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Research plays a vital role in creating economic growth, talent attraction, and youth retention. When properly executed, research investments also directly support provincial priorities. In this episode we explore the different ways research can create economic growth for both new and established companies. Listen as we discuss opportunities to further support research and innovation in local industries and institutions.
Daniel Boyd (0:04)
Research allows us to ask questions, that industry sometimes doesn’t have the luxury to ask and answer, because they’re on a cycle where they got to report quarterly profits. They have to innovate very, very quickly. And that can preclude them from looking at interesting research questions.
Matt Cooper (00:26)
Research is essentially one of the things that we coach a lot of teams through. On a day-to-day basis, it’s really trying to help educate them to understand that research is not a phase of a project, it’s a thing that is continuously evolving, and always on practice.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (00:50)
Welcome to Beyond Research, a podcast brought to you by Research Nova Scotia.
In this episode, we will discuss research and how it can lead to economic growth at home and around the world. We will also explore how research creates direct economic benefit in the form of job creation, new technology, and talent attraction and other related themes including commercialization.
So, how can research translate into tangible economic value?
Daniel Boyd (01:26)
The impact of research in terms of economic development spans short-, medium- and long-term benefits. Short term benefits can be manifest as foreign direct investment for small medium enterprises that’s been out of the university ecosystem. The medium-term benefits relate to partnerships with venture funds and industry to commercialize some of those technologies. And the longer-term benefits get manifest in reduced costs to deliver health care in a province like Nova Scotia or anywhere else on the planet. But we’re also training students to develop and innovate new technologies that will also bring substantial benefits down the stretch.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (02:05)
This is Dr. Daniel Boyd, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Dentistry at Dalhousie University in Halifax Nova Scotia. He holds a cross-appointment in the School of Biomedical Engineering and has mobilized his past research findings to create several successful companies in the biomedical space. He possesses a deep understanding of what it takes to successfully commercialize an idea.
Let’s start with ABK Biomedical. Founded in 2021, ABK is focused on researching, developing, and commercializing breakthrough medical device therapies to improve treatment outcomes and the lives of patients with benign and malignant hyper vascular tumours. The company is impressive but started with a simple research question. Could he develop tiny glass beads, or microspheres, smaller in diameter than human hair, to provide radiation treatments? And could these beads be visible during imaging procedures to allow doctors to confirm if the beads were delivered precisely to the tumor to improve patient outcomes?
Daniel Boyd (03:09)
So, I had that idea. But I didn’t know if it was a good one. I wanted to make sure we weren’t fixing a problem that really wasn’t really a problem. So, I met one of the world’s most fabulous doctors, Dr. Bob Abraham who works at Nova Scotia Health, he’s an interventional radiologist. We quickly learned that if we could make an imageable microsphere that doctors could see on X ray for example, they could standardized personalize and optimize every single cancer treatment that would use this type of technology in a way that up until today just couldn’t even have been imagined. So, we developed the technology. And in 2019, ABK biomedical had a record foreign direct investment round for Nova Scotia, I think the round was around 40 million Canadian dollars invested in Halifax for Canadian jobs for Canadian technologies to bring that technology all the way through to clinical use, which is awesome.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (04:17)
If that isn’t impressive enough, this idea also has the potential to benefit glass science on a world stage. This new body of knowledge indirectly creates value by better positioning future researchers to ask more questions, report new findings, and create technologies that could improve other patient treatments in the future.
Daniel Boyd (04:38)
But I want to emphasize it started with making sure we were asking the right question, because there’s so many cool things we can do with glass science, right? I want to be able to focus on the thing that’s going to bring the most benefit to patients, that’s going to bring the most economic development to our region. And that’s going to advance the field of glass science for the benefit of all researchers interested in this space.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (05:05)
When we hear about research creating spin-off companies and economic benefit, Dr. Boyd has a considerable amount of first-hand experience. Not only did he help create ABK Biomedical, he shared another research idea that stemmed from an experience he had teaching a continuing dental education course exploring the ingredients of toothpaste.
Daniel Boyd (05:26)
So, at the end of that continuing dental education course, I just asked some of those folks in the room, if you could wave a magic wand, what would a really good sensitivity toothpaste do for your patients? And the room taught me and the next Monday, I walked up to my colleagues in dental hygiene. I met with Professor Heather Doucet an absolutely amazing individual. And I pressure tested some of those assumptions with Heather and she said, if you could do that, Denny, that’d be super. And we built about 72 different prototypes. One of them worked. Now we have a company called IR Scientific here in Halifax. And that’s brought in an awful lot of investment to our region. It’s created new jobs in our region, and hopefully a brand-new technology that can be used to treat tooth sensitivity.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (06:16)
These are simply two of examples of ideas, born in an academic setting, can grow into successful businesses that help stimulate the economy. In both examples, highly technical companies emerged, and the local economy benefited from increased investment, talent attraction and retention of highly skilled workers. Dr. Boyd has some personal examples of this through his time with ABK Biomedical.
Daniel Boyd (06:41)
I’m thinking of some folks, for example, we got an engineer over at ABK. Her name is Kathryn Atwell. And Kathryn, I just think embodies everything that’s wonderful about device engineers, Kathryn is unwavering in making sure that the design of our devices are going to be appropriate for the intended use. Kathryn came to ABK from Toronto. And she took a risk on a small start-up company to come work in Halifax, leaving a very large company and a very stable job behind her in order to make really good technologies for patients who really need them. Really good problems, high quality problems, which if solved, bring fantastic solutions to patients tend to do all the talent attraction you need. Because if the problem is right, and the potential solution is right, you’ll find the right people and they’ll come from everywhere. Good people want to work on good problems, and they’ll do it however or wherever they can.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (07:45)
Connecting dots and determining if you’re asking the right questions is paramount. By networking and communicating with others in both academia and industry, Dr. Boyd believes a greater level of innovation can be achieved.
Daniel Boyd (08:58)
It’s on everyone. It’s our responsibility as researchers to stand up and go find people have the conversations with some of those folks in industry to see if there’s overlap in interest. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t. It’s okay. It’s okay if there isn’t an overlap. But you’ve got to get out there and you got to get talking. Having conversations, like innovation comes from conversations to illustrate the point on how important that conversation can be. Let’s go back to Apollo 13.
Three individuals, couple of 100,000 kilometers from home. Oxygen is gone. They make the call. “We’ve got a problem.” What happens next is innovation at an unprecedented level that we have never seen before to get three people safely catapulted around the moon, and back home, when absolutely anybody would have thought there was no way that was going to be possible. But the innovation that happened there, it covered everything. It covered everything from scrubbers for co2 to managing flight trajectories to recovery. The innovation that happened as a result of a conversation that started with, “we got a problem” was unprecedented. So, I try to capture that we’ve got a problem essence, in every project we work on and unless someone can really articulate the problem to me, it’s probably time to move on to someone who has a genuinely real problem that we can start working on.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (09:36)
The countless rounds of trial and error that are typically necessary to create a viable product or idea are not lost on Dr. Boyd. As revolutionary or interesting a project may sound, if it doesn’t address a problem, it isn’t worth pursuing further.
Daniel Boyd (09:51)
If we don’t understand the problem properly. It might take us eight years to figure out we defined the wrong question way back at the start of a research project. So, we spend an inordinate amount of time at the start of every project, making sure we’ve actually got a real problem that’s going to be helpful, if we can solve it, it’s going to be helpful to a patient or a doctor. And look, to be honest, I think I’ve probably killed nine out of 10 of my projects on a yearly basis, because they’re exciting, and they’re cool, but they’re not really fitting a problem. And so, we want to put our efforts into things that we can help with in the near term, it takes 10 to 15 years for new technologies to get onto the market. So, you got to be very judicious about where you spend your time. And I like to spend my time on big problems where there are solutions eagerly being sought.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (10:43)
Not all research projects are created equal. And not all research projects will be commercialized. So, we asked, how do the other types of research projects benefit our society today, and for years to come?
Daniel Boyd (10:57)
Knowledge, often overlooked, fundamental knowledge in how our universe is, what it is, and how we can control things about it are incredibly beneficial. I couldn’t make soluble glasses to treat dentin sensitivity. I couldn’t make soluble glasses to treat osteoarthritis, if it wasn’t for the efforts of nuclear physicists, understanding how glasses wouldn’t degrade, so that they could capture nuclear waste and stored in the ground. knowledge, knowledge, absolutely. The pursuit of knowledge is absolutely fabulous. And I love to pursue fundamental knowledge. Like all of the I’ve been talking about problem-based approaches. Please don’t get me wrong, though. I like to have a problem that I’m focused on solving. But understanding the fundamentals around glass materials and how they can be utilized. That’s really where I get my kicks.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (11:58)
When looking to the future, Dr. Boyd sees endless opportunities for growth in the innovation ecosystem.
Daniel Boyd (12:05)
I think the exciting stuff for innovation is an innovation ecosystem that sees support for the early stages of R&D all the way through to clinical trials here in our province for the benefit of our province, I think that would be absolutely amazing.
And look, to be frank if we’re not doing that, we’re doing something wrong. Because we got to get there. We got to generate the right kinds of innovation that can manifest change in our healthcare system here. Reduce costs, improve quality of life. And yeah, sometimes it doesn’t start in Canada. There’s business forces and things like that, that maybe require you got to do some studies in the US, or you want to do them in New Zealand or somewhere else. But at the end of the day, it’s all happening here in Nova Scotia first, and it will be manifest here in Nova Scotia.
We have to do better as a scientific community at explaining the scientific process, explaining why it takes so long. When it looks like it happens quickly. We’ve got to explain why that’s happened quickly. But typically speaking in material science Since it can take up to 15 or 20 years for a discovery, to become a real thing for a patient. So, I think that the essence of what I’m saying is we got to do a better job at talking science to the community explaining what it is we do. Doing things like this, having a chat, just shooting the breeze on a podcast, and just talking about how science happens, what’s happening, what’s going on, and letting people get a sense for the people behind the science.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (13:34)
We were curious, so we asked Dr. Boyd how he would define the scientific process.
Daniel Boyd (13:40)
I would describe the scientific process as getting really comfortable with probably being wrong until you’re right. And being comfortable with being wrong allows you to ask lots and lots of questions, not be embarrassed if you don’t get the right answer. But knowing that you’re moving towards it, and then this weird irony happens. Because you’ve been wrong so many times, you eventually get it right, you know what’s right. So, you’re like, it’s a weird thing. It’s a weird thing out of all of those failures, comes the truth. And were then able to use the truth and develop new technologies. So, I think I’d probably speak about vulnerability, getting it wrong in order to get it right. I think, probably quote Einstein, or paraphrase Einstein. ‘No experiment will ever prove me right, but a single experiment can prove me wrong.”
Have some conversations. If it’s a problem worth solving, or you’ve got a solution to a problem that people believe is worth solving. You’re not going to have a hard time garnering support to get your research into the hands of a user, whether it’s policy, whether it’s cool, injectable biomaterials, whatever it is, it doesn’t matter.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (14:51)
So, if we have a research question, ask the right questions to the right people, and determine that we have a problem worth solving, what comes next? What else should the scientific community consider?
Matt Cooper is the Chief Innovation Officer at Volta in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Volta is a non-profit organization that was created by founders for founders to help start-ups navigate the common barriers technology-enabled companies often experience by providing resources and training opportunities.
As Chief Innovation Officer, Matt is responsible for leading initiatives to directly support founders and the growth of their companies and has over 20 years of experience developing and marketing products with start-ups.
If everything we discussed so far is blowing your mind, now would be a good time to grab a pen and paper. Matt breaks down this process of understanding the problem hypothesis into six key phases or questions.
1. Who is your target customer?
2. What is your theory on the initial trigger that makes them aware they have this problem?
3. What is the context if the problem, as in how those impacted describe it?
4. What is the impact of the problem and the root cause of the negative impact it creates?
5. What is your theory on why it happens to begin with?
6. And lastly, what is that future state or progress that you are trying to create with your solution?
Matt Cooper (16:24)
Those six questions help really calibrate how much work do we need to do between this theory that you have a solution, and you want to commercialize it, because actually getting people to pay you for your solution is a function of how, how accurate your theory about the problem is. And so, the methodology is really just constantly iterating on your theory, right, collecting more evidence. And the sooner you start seeing the trends in that evidence, the more it becomes easier to come up, with the marketing, the positioning, the product prioritization, the competitor analysis, all those different things that you would need to do to gain traction and remain relevant in the market that you choose. But if you’re trying to bring a solution to the world, well, the world’s a big place, and there’s lots of people creating really novel solutions out there. So, you have to do your homework before you’re gonna have a chance or, you know, a disproportional chance of competing against every other option people have to solve that problem.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (17:27)
Just like Dr. Boyd, Matt believes there are multiple ways to solve a problem and no one solution fits all. Some methods may be more effective in one situation, but above all else, the need to do your due diligence is critical. Thoroughly research your idea, the scope of the issue you seek to address, and the market you aim to penetrate.
Matt Cooper (17:48)
From an economic standpoint, if you’re thinking about a start-up as that context, there’s lots of great methods that you can use when researching a start-up. Some teams decide to do that research in the form of building the product. Others choose to kind of do that discovery in the beginning and try and unearth the types of evidence that they think are true before committing to those, so there’s definitely no one specific way to use research in that context. But I think… the teams that that I’ve been exposed to throughout the last 20 plus years that I’ve been doing this, it’s an incredibly effective way at understanding your customer. So that the solution you build is just got that much better chance of adding value than any other option that they can use, right? So, from an economic standpoint, that obviously means that you survive the you become one of the 10% of start-ups that actually don’t fail. And when you use that research, whether or not it’s the primary, secondary or or just kind of doing it on a continuous basis in your start-up, it, it drastically improves your odds of survival and success.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (19:03)
Understanding this, we asked, in his opinion, what is the biggest problem facing start-ups?
Matt Cooper (19:09)
The biggest problem that I think start-ups face is that they have overwhelming odds stacked against them. It’s depending on what research you looked at. It ranges from 70 to 90% of start-ups fail and I think the number one problem within that 90% have to do with building a solution that people don’t feel compelled to use, right? They’re not willing to pay for, or they’re not willing to change behavior and start adopting your product. So, I think that’s, that’s kind of the key pothole that a lot of start-up founders face, right, is they fall into that trap of building a solution, and then kind of looking for a problem afterwards. So, I think that’s, that’s the primary day to day that we solve for.
Narrator: Rhys Waters (19:48)
Matt and his team at Volta support a diverse group of start-ups. That said, there are some pieces of advice that ring true regardless of your work and industry. One of these ideas is to embrace the concept of the need for continuous research at all stages of the innovation pipeline.
Matt Cooper (20:06)
Research is essentially one of the things that we coach a lot of teams through. On a day-to-day basis, it’s really trying to help educate them to understand that research is not a phase of a project, it’s a thing that is continuously evolving, and always on sort of practice. So, some teams do it. Some teams don’t. In SAS, or software as a service. In a b2b context, the vast majority of teams don’t do research, or they don’t talk to their customers. They’re doing research from the discrete roles that the members of the team do, but I don’t think they think about it as day-to-day research. So, my argument to most teams that I work with is you’re doing it, you’re just not necessarily benefiting from getting the results of that research out to the rest of the team and communicating it. So, sales is a form of research, marketing is a form of research, product development, and execution is a form of research. So, there are much more effective ways than building it and bringing it to market and then finding out where you’re wrong. I think that’s the core areas that we help with on a day-to-day basis is help them understand there are different ways than just bringing that product to market research is slower in the, in the initial stages of building the solution, and trying to bring it to market and uniquely positioning against other options. But it is a lot, lot faster than building the wrong thing.
Narrator: Rhys Waters (21:38)
If we fundamentally believe the need for continuous research is great, how much time and money should start-ups be investing in research today, tomorrow, and in the future? Matt told me that this is in fact the number one question he gets asked. And at the end of the day, new start-ups only have so much money and operating bandwidth. So, how can a start-up maintain a consistent level of research focus and output while juggling other priorities?
Matt Cooper (22:04)
The way I like to kind of frame it is how much research you do is really a function of how much risk the team is willing to tolerate, right? So, every product, every start-up has a few different areas of risk. The biggest one, I think early stages has a lot to do with the value risk. So, are you sure that what you’re going to build is going to deliver value to the customer? And the earlier you are, you’re the earlier you are in that phase, the higher that risk is right, because you don’t actually have any evidence to support your theories, but whether or not your product can add value. How much research we put into any given initiative, I think is really in the worst-case scenario, it’s how much you can afford to given your knowledge of the problem and what you’re trying to do. In the best-case scenario, you’re basically having proactive conversations with the entire team to discuss what risk we’re willing to take, so that value risk at the beginning is really, really big, right? It’s the highest potential for failure.
Narrator: Rhys Waters (23:09)
This scientific process still applies in the context of a start-up. However, Matt explained how it can be less of a controlled environment, even thought the methodology remains the same.
Matt Cooper (23:19)
It’s obviously going to be much more measurable than then you get into a messy start-up context. But I think the practice is the same. So, if I were defined to define it, it’s, it’s basically defining a hypothesis about something you think is true. Coming up a way to test your assumptions and collecting results, observing what they are, and driving your decisions based on the data that you collect.
Narrator: Rhys Waters (23:40)
Matt and his team are committed to removing barriers and providing resources to start-ups in hopes of creating an environment of innovation and economic growth. But how do they go about doing this? There are four key areas they focus on to helps organizations reach their potential:
1. funding growth;
2. finding talent;
3. education and advice;
4. and community.
In essence, they help you bring your idea or solution to life. And when looking ahead to how we can get a wider integration of research in industry, he sees great potential, but there are some potential challenges.
Matt Cooper (24:15)
The hard part is, is corporations really understanding the problems they’re trying to actually solve and organizing around that. Do they actually have an innovative culture? There’s a lot of organizations that that want to innovate, but architecturally, they’re not actually set up to take those sorts of risks. Their systems and processes are meant to be designed to find anomalies like risk and crush them. So that doesn’t happen all that often. I think that’s probably one of the bigger challenges is that there isn’t what lean start-up methodology would call innovation accounting. So, how do you take risk in in an environment that’s actually designed to optimize risk out of the out of the organization? So that takes willpower; that takes leadership; that takes individuals that understand that there’s a different set of metrics and KPIs that you need to assess risk through when you’re trying to innovate and bring novel solutions to the market.
Narrator: Rhys Waters (25:19)
When he looks for companies taking the right approach to fostering innovation in the corporate world, Matt points to a company called Bounty Board.
Matt Cooper (25:28)
I was talking to a start-up called Bounty Board, for example, and they’re basically trying to do just this. They’re trying to organize corporations so corporate innovation can take place by creating these things called Bounties. And that’s an example of a structure that you can add, that actually helps understand what the problem is, and understand how the research can help solve those problems.
Narrator: Rhys Waters (25:58)
According to their website, Innovators get revenue by solving so called “Bounties” for corporations. Corporation get their problems solved. And Startup hubs get revenue for hosting the two. Interesting? I thought so too.
So, it’s not surprising that Matt sees start-ups as a proven way that government can support research and foster innovation in local markets.
Matt Cooper (26:20)
Start-ups are an incredibly efficient way at the province investing in innovation and generating a return on that investment that, out paces a lot of other types of investments. So, it’s a really great way to monetize, to commercialize research. I would encourage any provincial stakeholders that are listening to continue to encourage that sort of partnership with Volta, with other organizations, not just with us, because we’re all trying to do the same stuff. We’re all trying to help founders bring novel solutions to market and the spin off benefits to that are well, well defined and hard to argue against.
Narrator: Rhys Waters (27:10)
Matt and Dr. Boyd both emphasize the need for researchers and innovators to get out there and network with industry and the public. Ask questions. Gain a deeper understanding for where there is opportunity for innovation. And find the right people or organizations to partner with to help realize research potential.
Matt Cooper (27:29)
If you’re a researcher, spend some time trying to find out what resources are available for you and know that there are a ton of people here in this community that’s forming and continuing to evolve, that have your best interests in mind. Find the people that can help because we’re out here, and we want to hear about your ideas, and we want to help you learn the actual skills that you need to bring your innovation to market.
Narrator: Rhys Waters (28:01)
We just heard how research happening today is translating into tangible economic benefit through new and established companies. From attracting and retaining talent and young people, to better connecting the research community to industry, we can see how research can help stimulate our economy at home and around the world.
Research investments, done well, directly support our regional priorities and will help ensure we retain highly skilled students after graduation, attract significant investments, and continue to keep our industries competitive at home and on an international stage.
Even our so-called research failures create valuable knowledge that will only benefit future research endeavours and researchers. There are many paths to innovation and ensuring breakthroughs are implemented in a way that they effectively benefit society. Innovative thinkers like Matt Cooper and Dr. Daniel Boyd, as well as organizations erected to support a thriving start-up community, are poised to continue to make waves in our innovation pipeline to help ensure a more prosperous future.
Dr. Daniel Boyd (29:10)
Researchers like me, are in the enviable position, where we have the opportunity to get a little bit of oxygen into the room, breathe a little bit, take our time, think about things properly, and develop solutions. In developing the solutions, you’re solving problems that the larger companies can’t solve. But you’re training the next generation of innovators while you do it for the longer term. So economic benefits come in the form of enhanced health care procedures from my perspective as a biomaterials and medical device engineer, we get better use of funds in the healthcare system. We train better people to develop new, better technologies. And we support a critical pipeline of technology development that larger companies can’t really focus on right now.
Matt Cooper (30:00)
So, I’d say that’s a gap. Internal perceptions about how research can be used and, perceiving it to be a tool or a method as opposed to something that can and should be woven into the fabric or the culture of how the team thinks about adding value to the market.
It just hasn’t been widely adopted, right? And I think that’s changing. I think it’s changing rapidly.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (30:24)
Thank you for listening to Beyond Research brought to you by Research Nova Scotia.
We would like to expend a special thank you to our guests Dr. Daniel Boyd and Matt Cooper.
To learn more about the research heard on this podcast visit researchns.ca/beyondresearch.
I’m your host Rhys Waters and we’ll see you next time.