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Richard Bruno wants to get McGill professors wet. In fact, he wants to get them WETT. "We plan to baptize them," he says, and the initial dunkings will take place in the inaugural Workshop on Entrepreneurialism and Technology Transfer, a day-long session to be held on November 16.
Since June 1, Bruno has been the director of McGill's Office of Technology Transfer (OTT), which is responsible for bringing inventions and patents from the university into the marketplace. And while McGill has spun some impressive ideas into the world of commerce over the years, Bruno knows that much more can be done. Part of the process of bringing McGill to the market involves developing a culture of entrepreneurialism among the professoriate in those areas where research often leads to something that can be developed commercially — primarily in the life sciences and pure and applied sciences.
As for the WETT initiative, says Bruno, "Our governing metaphor is that of a play. We'll take two cases from the OTT's files and follow them in two acts." The first case — that is, act one — follows an innovative McGill technology that ended up being licensed to a major corporation, while the second follows the trajectory of academic research that led to one of McGill's most successful spin-off companies of the last decade. Both are presented as short plays, with the parts performed by those who best fit them: thus, a patent lawyer will play the role of "The Patent Lawyer," and the same will apply to the roles of legal services representatives, OTT officers and business people. "The plays will demonstrate how the commercialization process happens," explains Bruno. "They'll give participants a taste of what can go wrong, and what can go right."
After each act/case, participants will be grouped and given another case — also taken from the OTT casebooks, but stripped of details — for which they will develop and act out possible scenarios. After an hour, the participants reassemble to report, discuss and debate their findings. "It's an experiential approach to understanding the nature of technology transfer, as well as the fun to be had," Bruno says. "If the workshop sizzles, we'd like to do them every couple of months."
As Bruno's objective is to interest researchers in commercializing the fruits of their labour, he must also convince them that their research will not be compromised by bringing wares to the market. "We must get them to appreciate that in no way will it diminish their ability to carry out their own projects." The researchers and the university both stand to profit financially, with the shares divided according to McGill's intellectual property policy; investors and the local economy might also benefit, as could those people whose needs the new inventions address, in fields as diverse as cancer therapy and microelectronics.
Few are better qualified to discuss the commercial applications of research. A Montreal native, Bruno graduated from McGill's Faculty of Science in 1967 and earned a doctorate in physics from McMaster, before moving to the private sector, where he worked with companies like Philips-Sony, PRISM Interactive, Digital Frontiers and BI Informatics. In his years with Philips-Sony, Bruno oversaw the development of the compact disc and was involved in pioneering other multimedia technologies, including video conferencing, JPEG and MPEG. In the past 15 years, he has launched seven companies, selling six of them and thoroughly immersing himself in the entrepreneurial waters into which he is hoping to lead McGill researchers.
Bruno returned to Montreal after a career abroad to be with his ailing mother, but on his arrival in town contacted the city's universities in search of projects in which to invest his energy. Louise Proulx, the then vice principal (research), asked him to apply for the OTT directorship, and he has no regrets. "I feel like a kid in a candy store," he says. "I'm having a lot of fun." If Bruno's sense of fun proves infectious, then those researchers getting WETT with him should find it a stimulating experience.