Above: Barbara Eccles, Manager, Technology Transfer Lakehead University
"It's a bit like being Simon Cowell." That's how Barbara Eccles, manager of technology transfer in Lakehead's Economic Development and Innovation Office (EDIO), describes her job. Which is odd, because, at first blush, Eccles comes across as the polar opposite of the cranky American Idol judge. In contrast to Cowell's dour abrasiveness, Eccles practically radiates enthusiasm and positive energy. A self-described "people person," she punctuates her sentences with laughs and pokes fun at herself relentlessly.
What Eccles and Cowell do have in common, however, is a steely eye for potential. But while Cowell seeks out pop music's Next Big Thing, Eccles is on the lookout for Lakehead University's next big promising technology. It's her mandate to help spot the inventions created by the University's researchers, picking out the ideas with commercial viability, and helping translate them into income-generating businesses. Unlike Cowell, however, the least favourite part of her job is letting people down. "You need to be very honest with people, and say, ‘You know what, wonderful idea — and, unfortunately, somebody had that idea five years ago.'"
The EDIO provides the services Lakehead University researchers need to license their technologies and develop industry partnerships and sponsors. As a lawyer, Eccles helps handle the myriad legal issues involved in starting up a business: intellectual property management, business and labour contracts, raising capital, corporate governance set-up and monitoring, employment contracts, equity and debt financing transactions, grant applications, lease agreements, negotiating with universities, and more.
Thus far, Eccles has had an impressive track record for identifying winners. She's been on board since Lakehead began its technology transfer program approximately a dozen years ago. During that time, she's helped shepherd a half-dozen or so companies from idea to reality, and helped to develop the University's profile as a research institute. In the process, she’s also helped to put Thunder Bay — and, by extension, Northwestern Ontario — on the map as a growing hub for biotechnology and business development.
Take, for example, her first project: Mitomics Inc., founded in 2001 as Genesis Genomics. Eccles's relationship with the company began when two professors walked into her office looking for some advice on a confidentiality agreement. She was intrigued by their concept; within a year Mitomics had incorporated and raised a couple of million dollars from angel investors. Today, it employs 30 people in Thunder Bay, Colorado, and Newcastle, England, and was recently selected by "Canada's Top 10 Competition" as one of the top 10 companies in the life sciences sector for 2010/2011. Eccles stayed on with the company until 2005 as general counsel and secretary, participating in every aspect of its incorporation and development.
"Barb brought best practices to the table in terms of legal expertise and knowledge of the technology transfer world," says Bruce Labelle, special advisor and past chair of the Mitomics board, and vice president and senior investment adviser, BMO Nesbitt Burns. But, he says, she also brought a necessary optimism and tenacity to the process. "It's a grind," he says, of starting a business from scratch. "It takes a lot of time and effort and persistence. Barb has the ability to look past challenges and find solutions."
Richard Khoury, assistant professor, software engineering, and Dr. Arnold Kim, lead hospitalist with the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, discuss their startup company Bitcold Technology Inc., with Barb Eccles
"I found Barb to be an extremely outgoing and helpful person, a real facilitator," says Professor Butcher, chief scientist of MEAGlow Ltd., another, more recent Lakehead technology transfer initiative. "She helped us establish ties to granting agencies and recommended many other contacts needed to establish the business." Today, the company employs seven engineers and physicists (including two graduate engineers from Lakehead), with plans to add another ten to fifteen staff members.
Perhaps Eccles is so suited to the business of technology transfer because she very nearly ended up on the other side of its equation. A Lakehead alumna, she earned an undergraduate degree in physics, with a concentration in energy and fuel science. "My career plan was to get my PhD in physics and then come back to Lakehead and be a professor," she recalls.
As a master's student in physics at McMaster University, though, Eccles discovered that she wasn't suited for life in the labs. "Research is a wonderful profession, but I found that it was fairly isolating. I saw myself as more of a people person. I needed more human contact."
Law, Eccles decided, would be a better fit. She graduated from the University of Toronto's law school and was called to the bar in 1996. In 2009, she was awarded a Master of Laws with distinction in international commercial law, from Northumbria University in the U.K.
Her current position, she happily admits, offers the best of all worlds. She has direct access to some of the most exciting and innovative scientific discoveries coming out of Lakehead's laboratories, satisfying the research-oriented part of her personality. Then, the "people person" in her gets to connect those discoveries to the wider community. Add to the mix the fact that she teaches law to students in Lakehead's business faculty, and the job seems tailor-made for her. "I've got the law, and I can mix that in with the science and the business, with the teaching thrown in. It's a true generalist job, and that really appeals to me, being able to mix all those different pieces together."
And mixing different people together is really what it comes down to. A key piece of the technology transfer industry is the ability to connect the right people and companies and — hopefully — watch the sparks fly. "They talk about technology transfer as a contact sport," says Eccles. "It's all about building the networks."
Another key partner in the EDIO's network-building project is Bruce Holm, the office's manager of industry liaison. Holm, also a Lakehead alumnus, brings decades of entrepreneurial, sales, and marketing experience to the table: In 1989, he founded MicroAge Computer Centres in Thunder Bay, growing the business from three to seventeen employees and becoming the largest supplier of computer hardware and services in Northwestern Ontario. One of Holm's particular roles at the EDIO is to establish and manage relationships between faculty, industry partners, and funding agencies. "Bruce is wonderful at finding the right companies and industry contacts and bringing them to the table," says Eccles. "He's also a very, very awesome keyboard player."
It's not a throwaway remark. The two are members of two industry bands: The Infringers, made up of members of the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM), of which Eccles is currently Canadian vice president; and Final ACCT, where members of the Alliance for the Commercialization of Canadian Technologies come together to jam. Ever the generalist, Eccles plays bass guitar, keyboards, and flute, as well as contributing vocals. Each year, The Infringers play AUTM's annual conference — "some Beatles, Van Morrison, CCR — wedding music stuff," Eccles laughs. "If it were American Idol, we'd be voted off. It sounds like such frivolous activity: getting together and jamming. But the really funny thing is that I've had two fairly good leads come out of it."
One of those leads has led to Green Concrete, a technology developed by Lakehead professors Lionel Catalan and Stephen Kinrade. Eccles thought that the technology might be a good fit for GreenCentre Canada in Kingston, Ontario, one of several centres of excellence for commercialization and research (CECRs) set up by the federal government four years or so ago to fund Canadian innovation. Bandmate Rui Resendes (bass guitar) happens to be executive director of the Kingston, Ontario-based centre, which brings together academic researchers and industry partners to develop environmentally friendlier alternatives to traditional chemical products and manufacturing processes. Eccles put the two parties in touch, and "today, Green Concrete is one of the premier technologies in their portfolio," she says.
"The kind of work that Barb and Bruce are doing is critical," says Lionel Catalan. "Without an office of technology transfer, it's just a paper published or a thesis written, but it doesn't make an impact in real life. With technology transfer, [university researchers' work] can actually make an impact."
And that impact resonates. Mitomics, for example, says Labelle, "was in large part responsible for the emergence and successful development of the biotech industry in Thunder Bay." The very existence of Mitomics in Thunder Bay, he says, paved the way for other biotech companies and institutions to attract capital and high-quality personnel and set up shop in the region. He cites the Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute, in particular its relationship with industry partner Philips Health Care: "When Philips came on, one of the deciding criteria was that Mitomics was located here. The University can be more successful in attracting top researchers because they see that there's depth here. It helps the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre attract high-quality physicians who are interested in cross appointments with research and medical practice. So Mitomics' footprint is quite small, but its influence is big. I don't think you can overestimate the impact of having it in Thunder Bay."
"The University doesn't live in a vacuum," agrees Rui Wang, Lakehead's vice-president of research, economic development, and innovation. "It's a member of the community it serves." But that community, Wang notes, has changed dramatically in recent years, the result of shifts in economics and demographics in an increasingly connected, globalized world. Today, the University's role in community and economic development must take both local and international perspectives.
"Lakehead University's initial mandate was 'from the North, for the North,'" says Wang. "Now, Lakehead must be 'from the North, for the North, but far beyond the North.' Today, our academic excellence serves the North, yes, but it also serves the world."
And serving both the region and the world is precisely what Barb Eccles, with colleagues like Bruce Holm, is doing: helping to create local companies with worldwide impact, and retaining Lakehead's highly qualified graduates in ventures that compete on a global stage. Simon Cowell, eat your heart out.
Rui Wang, Barb Eccles, Rui Resendes, Lionel Catalan, Stephen Kinrade, Bruce Holm, and Brian Stevenson celebrate Lakehead’s first external technology license agreement for a cement additive that shows potential to strengthen concrete and reduce greenhouse gas emissions