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Technology Commercialization as University Mission
Early Historical Developments at the University of Toronto

Canadian universities are perceived as less vibrant and engaged generators of technologies with commercial value than their American counterparts, and such perceptions have driven science policy for decades. This paper shows that contrary to these prevailing views, Canada’s largest university has a long history of experience in dealing with the technological gaps in national industry and in attempting to work with domestic firms. Three historical periods, particularly critical in shaping these interactions, are identified and discussed. By the time policy initiatives began emphasizing university-industry relationships, the university had already built essential organizational underpinnings for the commercialization of technologies.

In 1906 the Royal Commission on the University of Toronto noted, “In Applied Science, the field of possible achievement is very large and the results may prove of such value in the industrial life of our country that the State will be justified in the necessary expenditure to put the Faculty on such a footing as would enable it to undertake all lines of research work.”1 Seventy years later the University of Toronto Patent Committee Review Task Force indicated, “There seems [to be] little question that both the public and the public bodies which support university research expect that a greater emphasis be placed on such practical solutions in the future.”2 [End Page 119]

A striking continuity is apparent in the relationship between university research and technological development in Canada, along with a remarkable lapse of historical memory. The continuity is in the recognition, inside and outside of universities, of the importance of science-based technologies for the Canadian economy, along with the role of academic institutions in harboring and nurturing useful inventions. The lapse is in the recurring alarm with which the issue has been treated over several decades as the problem of the day. Universities are, time and again, chastised for lacking strong connections with industry and for failing to capitalize on public investments in science. It is not unusual for policy analysts and commentators to pontificate on the “sorry state” of technology commercialization in the country’s universities, underscoring what they perceive as an academic culture removed from the commercial realm, and universities as less entrepreneurial than their American counterparts.3 Indeed, for the better part of the last thirty years, government policy frameworks have consistently called for greater engagement between universities and firms and for more deliberate efforts at commercializing research discoveries.4 Moreover, unleashing greater inventiveness and business acumen in academic science has become paramount for federal research councils and provincial ministries in charge of economic development.5

If the policy debate is unsurprisingly mired in the present, previous studies on academic-industry linkages likewise have little to say about earlier developments in Canadian universities. Studies on the topic typically focus on relatively recent events such as the advent of industry liaison offices and government-sponsored university-industry networks.6 This literature frames university research and development (R&D) activities as a reaction to public demands for industry cooperation that emerged largely since the 1980s turn in science and technology (S&T) policy toward the emphasis on innovation.7 Missing from this scholarship is a stronger [End Page 120] recognition of how universities as research organizations have engaged with technology commercialization over time, even before the 1980s.8 To be sure, Canadian universities have long figured in national research, industry, and science policy, and academic scientists have long been known to have participated in industry-related research and other applied research efforts.9 Nonetheless, Canadian campuses have hardly figured as sites of historical inquiry on technology commercialization. While Canadian scientists have contributed to technological advancement since the early twentieth century, how universities have handled the commercialization of technologies arising from academic research remains largely ignored in the literature on Canadian higher education and in contemporary policymaking.10

In this paper we explain how and why the University of Toronto, Canada’s most prolific research university, assimilated technology commercialization as an institutional commitment.11 We identify university engagements with commercial activity years before they were an expected feature of campus cultures. Contrary to present policy discourse, the university has long confronted the technological gaps in national industry by seeking ways to work with domestic firms. Successive generations of scientists and university officials tackled the challenge of bringing academic inventions to the marketplace, guided by the mores and dispositions of the day. Through the decades, difficulties in commercializing scientific discoveries through Canadian firms influenced university actions, which became more deliberate over time. Before the wave of S&T policy initiatives starting in the 1980s to encourage technology commercialization, the university had already built the essential organizational underpinnings to guide such activity.

Situated in the country’s largest city and wealthiest province, the University of Toronto is at the center of ongoing national efforts to bolster the commercialization of academic research. Founded by royal charter in 1827 as King’s College, it was the first institution of higher learning established in the province of Ontario and has since grown into a research university of international stature. In 2012 the university was ranked twenty-first and [End Page 121] twenty-seventh, respectively, in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and the Shanghai Jiao Tong Academic Ranking of World Universities. The university consistently leads all other Canadian universities, often by wide margins, in research funding and is second in industry-sponsored research.12 With ten affiliated partner hospitals, the university also boasts one of the world’s largest health research complexes.13 The university and its affiliate hospitals also lead Canadian universities in research commercialization indicators, averaging just over 337 new invention disclosures, 99 new licenses, and about 10 spin-off companies per year between 2006 and 2009.14 The scale of public and private investment in the institution and of its outputs makes it a critical center of R&D in Canada.

Our focus is on the formalization of technology commercialization: How did organizational structures and policies emerge and evolve to govern the handling of intellectual property? What internal and external forces were influential? To address these questions, we drew on archival sources and documentary analysis. The University of Toronto’s Archives and Records Management Services holds a large collection of materials that address the development of such activities. We accessed records dating back to 1914, including the meeting minutes of various administrative bodies and committees, reports, correspondence, and various other materials generated during commercialization activities. We also draw from hundreds of archived invention files, each containing a disclosure form, and in many cases, correspondence and meeting minutes generated in the course of assessing the disclosure, assigning invention rights, and licensing the invention to a company. Canadian policy documents, news articles, and a variety of campus reports and publications were also consulted, among other relevant sources.

The formalization of technology commercialization occurred incrementally over the twentieth century, punctuated by three periods when organizational structures and policies were invented, questioned, reshaped, or adapted. The first happened during the decade marked by World War I, when the practical utility of university research was demonstrated in the war effort. During this time, the patenting and licensing of inventions by university researchers was an unfamiliar practice that was met with suspicion and required extensive justification. Nonetheless, enterprising individuals were willing to go against the grain and led to the initiation of commercial engagements within the university. This state of affairs remained in place until the decade after World War II, when the university was prompted to address crucial questions about how to govern technology commercialization on campus. The movement toward a greater role of the university in patenting and licensing faculty research developed further [End Page 122] in the 1960s when nationalistic sentiment animated a series of social and political changes that had ramifications on how the university faced the commercialization of technologies. High levels of Canadian-U.S. economic integration garnered opposition from Canadian nationalists concerned with the strength of American influence on Canadian culture and institutions.15 Pressure arose during this period, not just for Canadian universities to be economic engines, but to also take special efforts to ensure that they supported domestic industrial development and didn’t serve as sources of technical advancement for U.S. corporations.16 It was in this environment that university administrators felt compelled to establish formal administrative responses to the growing number of new university inventions with commercial potential—ad hoc administrative structures and decision-making were replaced by a permanent forum to adjudicate invention disclosures and a patent policy for guiding and standardizing procedures. Despite the formalization of organizational structures and policies for dealing with the patenting and licensing of faculty inventions, the rules governing these activities continued to evolve as circumstances warranted. In the third period, encompassing the 1970s, science policy in Canada legitimized the involvement of university scientists in the commercialization of discoveries, leading the university to embrace such activity as a formal university mission embodied in a dedicated organization. The organizational and policy changes in each of these periods are discussed below.

Inventing Commercialization

At the University of Toronto, early experiences with the commercialization of scientific discoveries were unfamiliar and generally objectionable. The view that activities such as patenting or manufacturing products based on university research compromised the academic scholarship and mores was prevalent not just in Canada but in other jurisdictions with which Canada held physical and cultural proximity, such as the United States and Great Britain.17 The university’s first formal engagement with research commercialization was in its support for the establishment on campus of Con-naught Laboratories in the mid-1910s for the production of vaccines and antitoxins. This constituted a breach in the institutional arrangements that had prevailed at the university until then, creating a space for new activities and research orientations. The university’s handling of Connaught Laboratories established precedents that would be used to guide future actions in Toronto and in other universities outside of Canada as well.

The establishment of Connaught Laboratories begins in the fall of 1913, when a young and ambitious associate professor of hygiene named [End Page 123] John G. FitzGerald set in motion a plan to produce vaccines and antitoxins. His personal initiative set the stage for the University of Toronto to become a leading institution in health and medicine internationally. However, this eventuality would have seemed unlikely at the time. At the turn of the century, Canada was far from an international reference in medical science and pharmaceuticals, and depended to a great extent on American investment and technology. The Canadian economy was in the midst of a period of expansion buoyed by a global demand for wheat and the abundant domestic supply of this staple.18 While agriculture continued to play a major role in the Canadian economy, the decades leading to the 1910s saw an increase in the importance of the manufacturing sector.19 Thanks to foreign capital, industries connected with manufacturing began to grow, although generally not in the same technologically advanced electrical, chemical, and motorized machinery sectors that were driving the so-called second industrial revolution in the United States. While there was significant industrialization in Ontario specifically, domestic manufacturing chiefly provided for the national market and was buttressed importantly by American branch plants.20 Thus while FitzGerald’s initiative did not take place in a technological backwater, neither did it emerge from a known center of science-based industrial innovation.

After spending the previous three years in Europe learning how to make rabies, diphtheria, and smallpox vaccines, FitzGerald returned to Toronto in 1913 and proposed to the university’s Board of Governors that he be supported in manufacturing a diphtheria antitoxin.21 At the time, the treatment of diphtheria required a prohibitively expensive antitoxin imported from the United States. FitzGerald proposed to manufacture a treatment in Canada to be distributed free or at cost to health boards, doctors, and pharmacists across the country.

The university’s Board of Governors was at first hesitant to support FitzGerald’s research because of prevailing negative perceptions toward university involvement in commercial aspects of manufacturing and distributing pharmaceuticals. The notion that an academic institution be united with the commercial manufacturing of a biomedical product was viewed as “unprecedented and radical.”22 FitzGerald pushed ahead in the absence of institutional support, using several thousand dollars borrowed from his wife’s inheritance to found a small-scale production facility on his own. While the university eventually endorsed FitzGerald’s plan in May [End Page 124] 1914, when the University of Toronto Anti-Toxin Laboratories were officially christened, the facility was modest and operated in a small basement space in the university’s medical building.

It was the onset of World War I that first thrust FitzGerald’s lab into prominence. As Canadian soldiers were sent overseas, the lab was quickly overwhelmed by the demand for preventive medicines to protect against the ravages of trench warfare. With the donation of land and financial support by local philanthropist Albert Gooderham, the facility was able to grow to meet demand. At the request of Gooderham, the laboratories were renamed the Connaught Antitoxin Laboratories in 1917, named after Prince Albert, the Duke of Connaught, who had served as governor general of Canada from 1911 to 1916. By the end of the war, the lab was producing major quantities of pharmaceuticals, which included a tetanus antitoxin, an antityphoid vaccine, a diphtheria antitoxin, and an antimeningitis serum.23 The successful use of these medicines for the war effort, and the scaling of their production that it required, further cemented the place of the lab within the university.24 After the war, the lab shifted to provide domestic supplies of these life-saving medical products, many of which had been previously available only by import.

Despite its early success, the lab’s place as part of the university was not accepted without reservations. In the year after its founding, the director felt compelled to remind the Board of Governors that although the lab manufactured and distributed pharmaceuticals, it nevertheless “constitute[d] a non-commercial science institute created and operated for medical public service.”25 Moreover, Connaught Laboratories was established at arm’s length, located off campus and outside the normal university structure—the Board of Governors indirectly controlled Connaught through a standing committee.26

Hand-in-hand with the desire to improve the science of medicine in North America was the perceived need to rein in drug companies, many of which were marketing unproven, unregulated, and potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals to the public and to scientifically unsophisticated physicians.27 The progressive period saw the ideals of pure research and a general disdain for business become dominant ideas among academics and in particular within the arena of pharmaceuticals.28 Thus, as the University of Toronto leadership decided how to manage its newly prominent pharmaceutical enterprise, Connaught Laboratories, it did so against the backdrop [End Page 125] of common negative perceptions of private sector pharmaceutical ventures and the encroachment of many U.S. firms into the Canadian market.29 The approach taken was to maintain control of Connaught Laboratories and thereby ensure that it remained in service of the public good, while simultaneously building a firewall around it so that the university image would not be tainted in the eyes of the academic community.

Connaught Laboratories was not the only early instance of the University of Toronto dealing with issues that called into question the ethics of commercializing science. Further illustrating the unconventional and controversial status of commercial dealings at the university are the circumstances surrounding the hiring of T. Brailsford Robertson. One year after the christening of Connaught Laboratories, the university hired Robertson—a biochemist from the University of California, Berkeley—as chair of the biochemistry department. Robertson had a history of commercial leanings, the most prominent example of which was patenting a biomedical discovery called Tethelin.30 Although he assigned all rights to Tethelin to the Regents of the University of California for the creation of an endowment funded by any proceeds or profits accrued from granted licenses, the patenting of Tethelin was viewed with suspicion and Robertson was hired at the University of Toronto only after “an unusually careful review process.”31 At least one scientist considered his decision to patent improper, and even those supporting him felt that “he was ‘misguided’ and ‘injudicious’ not to have paid more attention to scientists’ longstanding apprehensions over the ethics of patenting.”32

The reluctance and suspicion of becoming involved in the commercial aspects of research were founded on a concern that the university’s status as a public institution would be compromised. Robertson faced opposition because the governors were concerned for “the ‘specialness’ of biomedical discoveries in relation to public health; they believed that such discoveries should be viewed in quite a different light than, say, inventions in engineering or chemistry.”33 Robertson’s appointment as chair was short-lived, as he left the university after only one year.34 However, the process for vetting him again exposed the university to precedent-setting debate regarding the appropriateness of activities such as patenting, which had been alien to the university prior to this period.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, exceptional activities arising from discoveries in biomedical science forced the university to confront [End Page 126] and accommodate new ethical concerns. Entrepreneurial faculty members in the life sciences saw cause to apply their research discoveries in ways that demanded their university exceed the traditional boundaries of its engagement with society and commerce, which generated significant discord among many in the academic community. The Board of Governors and president of the university dealt with such undertakings idiosyncratically. These decision-makers considered that the university, as a publicly supported organization, had an obligation to ensure that the public’s interest was protected in the development and dissemination of discoveries made at the university. However, despite the perceived risks of engaging in pharmaceutical production or of harboring a high-profile faculty member known for his commercial leanings, the university did not eschew such opportunities altogether. Rather, the institution appeared to become something of a pioneer in these early days.

Patenting and Licensing Discoveries as University Policy

While the circumstances surrounding the appointment of Robertson and the creation of Connaught Laboratories undoubtedly influenced the trajectory of the University of Toronto’s approach to commercializing technologies, the events tied to the discovery of insulin only a few years later had an even greater impact. Insulin was an extract composed of an antidiabetic hormone that had the potential to save the lives of diabetics around the world. Until the discovery of this revolutionary therapeutic in 1921, diabetes was almost always a death sentence for those diagnosed with it. It was in dealing with the production of insulin that new questions arose requiring the elaboration of institutional policy.

The initial position of the insulin researchers toward patent protection was one of reluctance. Encouragement to patent came under pressure of competition by Eli Lilly, which had been interested in partnering with the university in the development of insulin and had suggested the company would consider developing insulin on its own if the group of Toronto researchers continued to rebuke the company’s solicitations. Encouragement to patent also came from E. C. Kendall—who isolated thyroxin at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in 1914 and reached an agreement with the clinic and the University of Minnesota that the patented discovery be assigned to the university, which subsequently devised a special committee to manage patent licensing.35 To ensure the safe development of insulin and the widespread dissemination of the drug (should others attempt to make and distribute it or in case a pharmaceutical company patented first), and perhaps convinced that the patent could be entrusted to the university, the researchers decided to file patent protection on the drug insulin and a method for making it in May 1922. [End Page 127]

The university’s dealing with the patenting of insulin was based on the idea of safeguarding the public interest. Patents for insulin were requested by the Board of Governors—with the inventors’ encouragement—on the basis that the “patent [would] not to be used for the purpose of restricting the preparation of this or similar extracts elsewhere, or by other persons.” Moreover, the Board of Governors claimed to hold the patents for insulin “for the sole purpose of preventing any other person from taking out a similar patent, which might restrict the preparation of such extract.”36

By the time insulin was first produced, Connaught Laboratories was already distributing pharmaceuticals throughout Canada.37 The laboratories thus provided an ideal production and distribution platform by which to disseminate the benefits of the diabetes treatment. Moreover, the Canadian pharmaceutical industry was still relatively underdeveloped at this point and was dominated by foreign-owned firms.38 Connaught Laboratories would thus allow the manufacture and distribution of insulin to remain in Canadian hands. It soon became clear, however, that the laboratory’s facilities were not sufficient for making insulin at a large scale. Subsequently, the university entered into a contract for cooperative research with the American firm, Eli Lilly, which had previously shown interest and goodwill in the production and distribution of the Toronto researchers’ discovery. The arrangement with Eli Lilly provided the company with a temporary exclusive license to develop and scale up the process for manufacturing insulin and had the added benefit of allowing the university to distance itself from the marketing of insulin, lest anyone accuse the university and its researchers of seeking profits.39

To administer the insulin patents, issue licenses “to suitable organizations,” collect royalties, and operate a testing laboratory, the university’s Board of Governors established a committee to act on behalf of the university. The “Insulin Committee,” as it became known, became a standing committee of the board and was housed within Connaught Laboratories, which manufactured insulin for distribution in Canada and the United States.40 This decision followed careful inquiries, including advice of university-based scientists with patenting experience in the United States on how to administer the patents under university control in order to best minimize controversy regarding the ethics of such actions.41 [End Page 128]

The University of Toronto’s experience with patenting and licensing insulin was relatively successful in terms of the degree to which the academic community had accepted it as appropriate. The actions of the university, and the logic behind them, established a precedent for other researchers. The “Toronto plan” for handling patentable biomedical inventions became something of a model that several scientists in the United States would attempt to follow.42 When University of Wisconsin biochemist Harry Steenbock sought to patent his process for increasing the vitamin D content of milk and other foods, he referenced the University of Toronto’s rationale for patenting insulin as an appropriate justification.43 George and Gladys Dick similarly intended to follow the approach taken at the University of Toronto in dealing with intellectual property resulting from their research at the University of Chicago into a potential immunization for scarlet fever.44 In addition, the successful collaboration between the University of Toronto and Eli Lilly provided credibility in subsequent solicitations to other universities for cooperative research and the commercialization of research discoveries.45

As the situations involving commercialization presented themselves, the University of Toronto handled them as exceptions, with careful concern for protecting the public good. Patenting and licensing activities were not regularized or codified in standard practices and routines. The university’s ad hoc approach of dealing with patentable inventions was not seriously debated until the mid-1950s. This lack of structure allowed other entrepreneurially minded actors to lay a claim on the patenting of university-generated technologies. In 1956 the Household Science Alumnae Association informed the university president that they had decided to establish the University of Toronto Household Science Alumnae Research Foundation, the purpose of which was to raise funds for research in the Department of Household Science. The foundation committee requested from the president information on the necessary steps for patenting of gluten-free bread developed by Elizabeth Upton, a student within the department. The president put the request before the university’s Board of Governors, and after considering the request the board deemed it undesirable to permit any group other than itself invention assignment and patenting authority. If it were considered desirable to take out a patent in connection with gluten-free bread, it would only be taken out in the name of the governors of the University of Toronto.46 The board’s response thus set boundaries around such activities, retaining responsibility over the management of academic inventions. [End Page 129]

To further codify the university’s authority over the commercialization of research, the Board of Governors authorized the president to appoint an Advisory Committee on Patents in 1959.47 The committee was to define a general policy governing the interest of the university in discoveries made by its faculty members and “to recommend the means for providing advice on patent procedures, servicing and financing projects deemed to be patentable and arranging for licensing and receipt of royalties.”48 Upon the recommendation of the advisory committee, the authority of the Insulin Committee was enlarged to include all matters pertaining to patent applications, patents, and license agreements resulting from discoveries made by any university staff member. To reflect this expanded mission, the Insulin Committee was renamed the Scientific Development Committee and was directed to consider the actions necessary to obtain patent control of the gluten-free bread project, which was one of only two projects known to need attention—the other was related to Wilfred G. Bigelow’s research on hypothermia and hibernation.49

In the fall of 1961 the Scientific Development Committee proposed the university’s first patent policy, which was subsequently adopted by the Board of Governors as “The Policy on Discoveries and Inventions.”50 The Scientific Development Committee’s responsibility for patenting was short-lived, though. In 1965 a new body called the Patent Committee was created under the auspices of the Research Board of the Office of Research Administration. The new committee was created and made responsible for the processing and management of inventions and patents. Like the Scientific Development Committee, the Patent Committee’s primary function was to determine what, if any, interest the university had in an invention created or discovered using university facilities or funds.

The Patent Committee crafted a revised patent policy in 1966.51 In discussing this new version of the patent policy, committee members expressed their belief that university scientists had a moral obligation to disclose [End Page 130] inventions to the university whenever these held economic potential.52 Nonetheless, at this point the committee shied away from making it mandatory to patent after the disclosure of inventions, noting that most researchers preferred to keep their findings in the public domain and that they should be allowed to do so. One member stated his belief that the university was not like a business and therefore had no need to patent. Another noted that in his department, the involvement of attorneys in the patenting process was enough to sour many faculty members on patenting altogether, and the university should take a laissez-faire approach.53 Nevertheless, some patents on faculty inventions were licensed to companies. The general approach was to grant nonexclusive licenses. In defense of this practice, one member of the Patent Committee argued, “the university had to make sure that it was not in a position of creating a monopoly to the detriment of the public.”54 The reputational implications of such a scenario were a cause for concern: “It would be unfortunate if word were to get around that research in the University of Toronto can be anybody’s domain.”55

The activities of the Patent Committee, like the Scientific Development Committee before it, remained relatively circumscribed—both committees typically received one- or two-dozen disclosures a year. Furthermore, although the Scientific Development Committee noted that the staff and administrators generally considered the patent policy as reasonable and effective, many faculty members were not familiar with it or the existence of the committee.56 In addition, the Scientific Development Committee reasoned that because its activities “would not be of interest to members of many departments in the university,” “it does not appear to be within the responsibilities of the Committee to notify staff members of this policy.”57 Thus, while commercialization processes were increasingly endorsed by the university, institution-wide promotion remained outside the realm of possibility.

From the highly publicized discovery and patenting of insulin in the early 1920s until the end of the 1950s, the university’s approach to dealing with patentable inventions was ad hoc and subject to deliberation by the Board of Governors. A decade later, activities such as the assignment of intellectual [End Page 131] property, patenting, and licensing were sanctioned through a new university policy. Nonetheless, the appropriateness of some procedures and conventions was not yet widely shared. The patenting and licensing of inventions made by university faculty were tolerated as long as they reinforced academic missions and served the public interest. As the deliberations of the Patent Committee illustrate, the financial implications of these activities still required elaboration. However, the pecuniary implications of commercial entanglements could not be ignored. If it could be shown that the requirement of service to the public good was satisfied and a lucrative deal was struck nonetheless, then the university was content to take new efforts to ensure that it would benefit financially from such an agreement. Committees charged with guiding university policies and procedures for commercializing faculty inventions and discoveries continued to debate appropriate forms of action as they elaborated a framework for making patenting and licensing activities legitimate and routine university activities.

An Entrepreneurial University—for the Good of the Country

The 1960s have been referred to as the golden age for Canadian science policy.58 Throughout this decade and into the next, numerous high-level committees and advisory councils were established to analyze and provide recommendations on the state of S&T in the country. A series of commissioned reports criticized Canada for failing to support industrial R&D and for failing to coordinate publicly funded research activities around clearly articulated priorities.59 In response, the Science Council of Canada produced an influential document, Towards a National Science Policy (1968), calling for university-industry-government research partnerships.60 The report advocated that major government programs in areas such as transportation, urban affairs, and elsewhere be leveraged to better harness Canadian science and technology efforts and thereby meet social and economic goals.61 Perhaps even more importantly, the report called for the redistribution of Canadian R&D activities from government labs to those of industry and to the country’s public universities. In response, the government soon transformed the Science Secretariat into the Ministry of State for Science and Technology, which subsequently began a push to contract [End Page 132] government research needs to universities or industry rather than national laboratories.62 These initiatives created a climate that was favorable to the mobilization of academic science toward national economic interests. Over this and the following decade, the role of the university in nurturing technological innovation was rationalized and magnified.

In 1970, through the efforts of the University of Toronto’s Committee on the Allocation of Research Funds, the Patent Committee standardized revenue sharing. The aim was to “ensure that the bulk of the proceeds of any invention [was] returned to the area of research of the university in which the invention was originally developed.”63 The Patent Committee had already been disbursing portions of the revenue generated from patent licensing agreements to the departments from which inventions or discoveries were developed. However, the division of royalties between the university, academic department, and researchers often varied. The formalization of revenue sharing ensured that potential revenues of academic inventions were appropriately apportioned to the university. Members of the Patent Committee openly expressed concern that the reputation of the university would suffer if the public perceived that the university did not adequately capture revenues arising from discoveries made in its laboratories. Underlying such concern was belief in emerging public expectations that the financial benefits accrued from commercializing research should remain with the public (i.e., the university), rather than accruing to industry. During discussion among committee members about policy regarding the disclosing of inventions by university faculty to the university and any subsequent patent activity, the committee unanimously agreed that all faculty had the responsibility to disclose inventions to their department head and the Board of Governors. Despite this requirement, the committee hesitated to set any requirements regarding faculty patenting or to endorse particular approaches to commercializing intellectual property, at least to some extent because the Patent Policy was not incorporated into staff employment contracts and therefore was not binding.

Shifting attitudes toward technology commercialization resulted in large part from the growing conviction that successfully exploiting university research for the benefit of Canada, through Canadian industry, required greater involvement in invention development. The Patent Committee frequently encountered complications and disappointments when attempting to license inventions to Canadian firms because of their lack of capacity to develop and market advanced technologies.

At the time, the university had no mechanism for contacting the business community in order to find corporate partners, willing entrepreneurs, [End Page 133] or the necessary venture capital to commercialize university inventions.64 Recognizing this issue, the Research Board appointed a Patent Committee Review Task Force in 1976 to advise on how the university should respond to growing public expectations for university research to emphasize practical applications, as well as to consider possible changes to the university’s Patent Policy.65 The task force’s 1977 report recommended that “the university encourage researchers to find practical applications for their inventions and that the university provide assistance, where practicable, in the development of inventions.” Toward this end, the task force composed a framework for a dedicated unit to develop university inventions. In the process of drafting the proposal for an entity to support the development of inventions, a small committee was set by the vice president of research and planning to review the licensing operations of universities in Canada and the United States. The committee concluded that the approaches of Canadian universities were “lacking in effectiveness.” The structures supporting commercialization in place at MIT, Stanford, and Wisconsin were more influential models. The committee observed, “[t]he apparent success of [these] type[s] of organization appears to be associated with an ability to bring together inventor, venture capital, and entrepreneur.”66 It also looked at the practices of other American institutions, such as Arthur D. Little, Research Corporation, and the Battelle Institute.67 After this review, the committee introduced a proposal for an “Invention Development Corporation.” Such an entity was deemed “essential to improve the interaction between universities and the sources of entrepreneurial expertise and business capital to bridge the gap between scientific discovery and practical applications of such discoveries.”68

In the final report of the task force a new rationale for the university’s engagement in technology commercialization emerged. The task force report indicated a newfound consensus around external perceptions that sanctioned university participation in addressing technological gaps in industry: “there seems [to be] little question that both the public and the public bodies which support university research expect that a greater emphasis be placed on such practical solutions in the future.”69 Evidence for this new sentiment also comes from other initiatives, such as the establishment [End Page 134] of industrially oriented research centers. In 1976 the university had entered into a contract with the Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Commerce to establish a Bio-medical Instrumentation Unit. The unit was noted as unique at the time for developing biomedical research for commercial manufacture.70 The university also became active in developing a proposal for the Ministry of State for Science and Technology’s 1978 Research-Industrial Research & Innovation Centres initiative. The ministry was apparently motivated to implement an initiative resembling the U.S. National Science Foundation’s early university–industry research center programs but had no prior experience with it.71 The proposal recommended that the centers support education in entrepreneurship, provide advice and assistance in commercialization, and provide industry access to university expertise.72

Inasmuch as the initiative for the Invention Development Corporation emerged from the university’s intention to better transfer inventions to Canadian industry, external factors provided powerful inducements. In 1975 the National Research Council (NRC) made a decision requiring recipients of grant support to refer all resulting invention disclosures to Canadian Patents and Development Limited (CPDL)—the government’s technology transfer agency—for first consideration. University inventors and members of the Patent Committee disapproved of the NRC’s decision, citing long-standing criticisms toward CPDL for its handling of inventions. They argued that the agency was largely ineffectual, lacking “connections with the pertinent industry, with the local business community and with the local financial community.”73 In addition to vocalizing their displeasure with the NRC’s decision, the Patent Committee decided to send CPDL a draft of the committee’s plan for Invention Development Corporation, which the committee hoped “might be a pressure to help improve the situation at CPDL.”74 Thus, the university’s initiative to establish the Invention Development Corporation had the added benefit of being a solution to an external contingency.

The Research Board backed the creation of an Invention Development Corporation, claiming that “[s]ince Canada has special problems related to its educational and industrial institutions, we believe a new departure for the development of technology is warranted.” They proposed the establishment of the corporation with the aim of stimulating invention and [End Page 135] innovation.75 The Invention Development Corporation proposal echoed the argument of the federal government that Canada lagged behind similar countries in its innovative capability, and that such a corporation would support domestic industry.76 The envisioned corporation would prevent “take-over [of discoveries] by larger and technically stronger foreign multi-national corporations.” Behind this concern over foreign control was the considerable presence of American corporations in the Canadian economy.77 Building on decades of experience with finding more suitable partners for the commercialization of technologies in the United States, the task force recommended, “inventors should be encouraged by the university to find practical applications for their inventions and to ensure that, if possible, the invention is practiced in Canada.”78 The assumption was that if the university helped inventors develop their inventions to be more market-ready, licensing to Canadian companies would be more successful.

At this juncture, the university articulated technology commercialization as a separate endeavor from academic science, tied to the narrative of contributing to the Canadian economy. The Patent Committee Review Task Force confronted the suspicion around exclusive ownership of academic discoveries by making the case that patents and licenses “do not restrict information, but only the commercial use of such information.”79 The task force continued this argument that without guarantees of exclusive rights or ownership, the public benefit of inventions would be unfulfilled because there would be no incentive to encourage any investments in the development and distribution of the invention.

Similarly, the task force’s recommendations signaled increased weight for faculty and staff inventors. Whereas in the past, ownership of inventions was assigned to the university on behalf of the public, the task force now suggested that if the university sought to encourage innovation “and to share in the proceeds of inventions made by staff members, it must also take cognizance of these demands of the inventors’ time and energy.”80 The task force thus suggested raising the share of revenue to inventors who became involved in the development and marketing of their inventions or discoveries.

For the first time, people at the university were suggesting that the university encourage the creation of inventions and their transfer to the marketplace. Whereas practices in the past sought to harness beneficial inventions created in the course of routine academic activities, technology [End Page 136] commercialization was now spoken of as a complementary mission of the university. The following excerpt of the task force report illustrates this perspective:

Invention and innovation are important corollaries to the creation of knowledge and should be encouraged. This is true not only because the results of research can be financially rewarding to both society and to the university and inventor, but because the University has an obligation to ensure that the knowledge it produces is both useful and relevant.81

The Patent Committee, working with the Office of Research Administration, made several attempts at familiarizing the university community with its activities, even publishing an Inventions Handbook in 1977 to showcase discoveries. In the handbook, the office’s director noted the logic guiding institutional commitments in this area: “the patenting and licensing of inventions can be regarded as another aspect of publication, for it allows the findings of University researchers to reach in an appropriate way the industrial sector of Canadian society.”82

In 1980 the proposed Invention Development Corporation was established as the University of Toronto Innovations Foundation. Founded as a nonprofit organization, it was responsible for promoting the commercial development of academic inventions. The foundation was separately incorporated and placed off campus. The decision to place the Innovations Foundation on the edge of the university community might be taken to reflect long-standing institutional rhetoric that “the commercialization of University research should be an enterprise as separate as possible from the normal operations of the University.”83 At this point, however, the view that the university needed to be shielded from commercial activities was no longer the only, nor dominant, view. Executive members of the Research Board had deliberately sought to place the foundation off campus, not because of academic concerns with its mission, but rather as a business decision. Board members assumed that an off-campus location would allow the foundation to operate autonomously, under market-oriented management.84 With the Innovations Foundation, the university formalized technology commercialization as an institutional mandate.85 [End Page 137]


Existing literature points to the emergence of technology commercialization in Canadian universities occurring with the surge in provincial and federal programs and policies in the late 1980s and even later.86 However, much earlier than commonly recognized, the University of Toronto confronted issues surrounding how to ensure that scientific discoveries could be adequately commercialized. Some of these issues remain current in policy discourse: the lack of domestic R&D capacity, the role of multinational companies in technological development, and the flight of new companies and technologies to the United States.

Notwithstanding these issues, the University of Toronto was in some ways a pioneer in technology commercialization. As early as the 1910s, when patenting and licensing new drugs, let alone manufacturing them, were not considered desirable activities for an academic institution, the establishment of Connaught Laboratories and the widely referenced “Toronto plan” set precedents for universities elsewhere seeking to bolster commercialization.87 Such early experiences provided the university with the first formal avenues to channel information and activities related to intellectual property, laying the institutional foundations for later developments.

Proximity to the United States played an important role in the long-term evolution of technology commercialization at the university. Common to the history of the university’s engagement with industry has been a concern that such activity often involved large American corporations that had well-organized R&D labs, unlike most of their Canadian counterparts. Recall that the establishment of Connaught Laboratories was supported in part to limit Canada’s dependence on imported pharmaceuticals. Yet early ties with American companies were often necessary to bring about the commercial development of university inventions. Thus, many of the discoveries made by faculty at the University of Toronto during the first half of the twentieth century were commercialized through American firms.

During the second half of the century, the motivation to protect the public good took on a particularly nationalistic tone as the desire to transfer inventions to Canadian firms and subvert U.S. corporate penetration of the Canadian economy emerged as a major driver. An ideology of “technological nationalism” provided a powerful symbolic rallying point for why universities should support Canadian industry and helped legitimize commercial activities in academia.88 At the University of Toronto, this brought about a more concerted effort to rationalize policies and structures [End Page 138] guiding commercial undertakings. With this push for greater cultural and economic independence in the 1950s and 1960s, new policies were established, aimed at improving the capacity for university research labs to contribute technology to Canadian industry.

In the subsequent decade, increased public expectations that universities contribute to national priorities and industrial innovation, together with a series of financial incentives to do so, encouraged the university to expand on efforts to commercialize academic inventions. At the same time, the university’s own realization that successful licensing of inventions to industry required greater institutional efforts led to increased organizational commitment. The Innovations Foundation, like the university’s Biomedical Instrumentation Unit, were established to combat the licensing of nascent university technology to U.S. firms by supporting invention development to the point that it could be licensed to Canadian companies. Meeting a new sense of urgency in Canada about the country’s failure to better translate science into successful technological industries, the university embraced the mission to contribute to innovation. Clearly, at this point the university was neither reinventing itself nor becoming alert to commercial undertakings. Rather, as shown in this paper, it was building on structures and policies that had been developed previously in its earlier experiences with technology commercialization.

Creso M. Sá

Creso M. Sá is professor of higher education and director of the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.

Andrew Kretz

Andrew Kretz earned a Ph.D. in Higher Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. The authors are grateful for the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


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1. Report of the Royal Commission on the University of Toronto (Toronto: King’s Printer P., 1906), xxxix.

2. “University of Toronto Patent Committee Review Task Force Report” (1977), in the University of Toronto Archives (hereafter UT Archives), A1980-0023, box 007, file Research Board 1976–1977. We thank the anonymous referee who suggested this contrast.

8. A short historical overview of spin-offs at the University of Waterloo is available: Jen Nelles, Allison Bramwell, and David A. Wolfe, “History, Culture, and Path Dependency.”

12. University of Toronto, “By the Numbers 2012.”

13. University of Toronto, “By the Numbers 2010.”

14. University of Toronto, “University of Toronto Performance Indicators 2011.”

19. In 1870 agriculture was the largest economic activity in the country, accounting for 37.1 percent of GDP. By 1910 agricultural production had dropped to 21.7 percent of GDP, and the services sector had risen from 36 percent in 1870 to 50 percent of GDP in 1910. See Kenneth Norrie et al., A History of the Canadian Economy, 191.

22. Ibid., 66.

23. Ibid., 66.

25. Letter, R. D. Defries to University of Toronto Board of Governors, 6 June 1939, UT Archives, A1970-0024, box 027, p. 32.

26. “University of Toronto Patent Committee Review Task Force Report” (1977), UT Archives, A1980-0023, box 007, file Research Board 1976–1977.

28. Ibid., 166.

31. On Robertson’s time at Johns Hopkins, see Derek Bok, Universities and the Marketplace, and on his hiring at the University of Toronto see Weiner, “Patenting and Academic Research,” 52.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid.

38. There were only a handful of Canadian firms in existence, including E. B. Shuttleworth’s operations in Toronto, which had been launched in 1879, and Charles E. Frosst and Company, which would become one of the most important domestic drug firms after its launch in 1899. Gordon and Fowler, The Drug Industry, 34.

40. Letter, A. M. Fisher to H. J. C. Ireton, 9 January 1961, UT Archives, A1975-0004, box 006.

46. “Minutes of the Meeting of the University of Toronto Board of Governors” (1956), UT Archives, A1970-0024, box 042, p. 163.

47. Letter, W. W. Small to J. A. Kelly, 23 September 1959, UT Archives, A1973-0025, box 008.

48. “First Report of the Advisory Committee on Patents” (1959), UT Archives, A1973-0025, box 008, file Scientific Development Committee.

49. “First Report of the Advisory Committee on Patents”; letter, W. W. Small to W. A. Osbourne, 2 October 1959, UT Archives, A1973-0025, box 008. Although Wilfred Bigelow’s research on hypothermia and heart metabolism contributed to the development of the artificial pacemaker and the use of hypothermia in medical surgery, the initial promise of his research in isolating a surgically useful “hibernating chemical” proved unsuccessful. See University of Toronto, “Great Discoverers.”

50. “Minutes of the Meeting of the University of Toronto Scientific Development Committee” (1964), UT Archives, A1973–0025, box 040, file Board Committees – SDC – meetings 1964–1965/University patent policy.

51. “Minutes of the Meeting of the Executive Committee of the Research Board” (8 November 1965), UT Archives, A1975-0004, box 023, file Correspondence – G de B. Robinson Oct.–Nov. 1965.

52. Ibid.

53. Ibid.

54. “Minutes of the Meeting of the University of Toronto Patent Committee” (20 October 1970), UT Archives, A2004-0007, box 003, file Etkin/Goering.

55. “Minutes of the Meeting of the University of Toronto Patent Committee” (1969), UT Archives, A1975-0004, box 006, file Patents 1969–1971.

56. “Minutes of the Meeting of the University of Toronto Patent Committee” (27 June 1979), UT Archives, A2004-0007, box 010.

57. Nevertheless, the Scientific Development Committee suggested that “reference to [the patent policy] might be made in such booklets or other pieces of information [that] the University may provide to new staff members.” “Minutes of the Meeting of the University of Toronto Scientific Development Committee” (n.d.), UT Archives, A73-0025, box 40, file Board Committees – SDC–meetings 1964–1965.

63. “Administrative Assistant Memo at the Office of Research Administration” (1970), UT Archives, A1975-0004, box 024, file John G. Lockwood Correspondence July–Dec.

64. “University of Toronto Patent Committee Review Task Force Report” (1977), UT Archives, A1980-0023, box 007, file Research Board 1976–1977.

65. “University of Toronto Patent Policy and Procedure” (1977), UT Archives, A1980-0023, box 007.

66. “Invention Development Corporation Draft Proposal IV” (1975), UT Archives, A1979-0025, box 019, file Research Board – executive – 75–76.

67. Letter, G. Adamson to A. May, 24 November 1982, UT Archives, A2004-0007, box 009, file May AD “Double Polarization Laser.”

68. “Minutes of the Meeting of the University of Toronto Research Board” (30 March 1976), UT Archives, A1979-0025, box 019, file Research Board ’75–6.

69. “University of Toronto Patent Committee Review Task Force Report.”

70. Letter, T. C. Clark to G. E. Connell, 24 March 1977, UT Archives, A1980-0023, box 007, file Research Board 1976–1977.

71. Letter, Stadelman to Ham, 2 November 1978, UT Archives, A1982-0007, box 009, file Research-Industrial Research & Innovation Centres 77–78.

72. “Industrial Research & Innovation Centres Proposal” (1977), UT Archives, A1982-0007, box 009, file Research-Industrial Research & Innovation Centres 77–78.

73. “Invention Development Corporation Draft Proposal IV.”

74. “Minutes of the Meeting of the University of Toronto Patent Committee” (11 December 1975), UT Archives A2004-0007, box 010, file Jorgensen.

75. “Invention Development Corporation Draft Proposal IV.”

78. “Minutes of the Meeting of the University of Toronto Research Board.”

79. “University of Toronto Patent Committee Review Task Force Report.”

80. Ibid.

81. “University of Toronto Patent Committee Review Task Force Report.”

82. Ibid.

84. Letter, H. C. Eastman to G. R. Slemon, 1975, in UT Archives, A1979-0025, box 010, file Research Board – executive – 75–76.

85. Later in the 1980s and 1990s most other Canadian research universities established similar offices for commercializing research and connecting with industry. See Philip Enros and Michael Farley, University Offices for Technology Transfer; Jérôme Doutriaux and Margaret Barker, “The University-Industry Relationship.”