Products, Programs, Processes, and Policies: Talking Innovation with Deborah James

We sat down with the new Associate Vice-President (Innovation) to talk about her big-picture strategy for the Innovation portfolio.

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When Deborah James moved from Vancouver Island to Edmonton to attend pharmacy school at the University of Alberta, she didn't expect that she'd stay at the university to complete two degrees and one postdoc, then work in several academic roles within the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

But immediately after starting into her undergraduate degree, she knew she was interested in a career that would have her studying and strategizing about the bigger picture. For that reason, her role in the newly-created position of Associate Vice-President (Innovation) is one of the most fulfilling yet.

"The U of A is in my blood, I love this university," Deborah tells The Quad. "My passion is in delivering on innovation in its broadest sense: bringing big ideas to faculty members and stakeholders, getting people on board, making things happen, and building things that create new value."

We sat down with Deborah, who has been in the role since October 1, 2019, to talk about her big-picture strategy for the Innovation portfolio.

What are some of the changes you have seen at the U of A over your time here?

"Universities in general have changed, and are working at becoming much more socially responsive. They always have been, but now there's more of an awareness and deliberate strategy around that, which brings us to this innovation office. I think it is a bold move on behalf of the university to embrace innovation in its profile, fabric, and mandate. I think innovation means a lot of different things to different people. But to me, in its most simple terms, it means extracting the value out of the research that we do here and translating that into its social and economic impacts for society. The university has become a lot more deliberate about innovation in that way."

How will your previous work in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry (FoMD) inform your work in the office of Research and Innovation?

"I led the development of the Precision Health signature area along with former Dean Richard Fedorak. Precision Health is founded on the concept of a new paradigm shift in health and using different innovations to provide more precise diagnoses and treatments. It's a broad and strategic framework and involves closing the loop on the health innovation cycle from ideation to adoption of new technologies as well as new ways of doing things aimed at solving problems.

I also spent a lot of time supporting our companies in FoMD to help them advance down the pathway to commercialization. We built the U of A Health Accelerator program which now has 18 participating companies - six of which are outside of medicine. It's growing to serve other faculties and also bringing in the inter-disciplinary side to innovation. I also led building an incubator space in Enterprise Square to house our companies. Plus I've worked with others in FoMD to create a Real-World Evidence Unit that sits under the university's clinical trial infrastructure and helps to support companies by generating the evidence that they need for validating their technologies.

There is a lot to do in this portfolio, it's very broad. The biggest challenge I think is creating a culture shift toward celebrating innovation and trying to incentivize and instill an entrepreneurial spirit into our students and academic staff. We also need to profile innovation a lot more than we do. This role is looking at coordinating and aligning the entrepreneurship and innovation services and programs that are already happening on campus, and building more. The university currently has about 130 active spinoff companies, and that's something that the outside world can easily understand and appreciate. It really highlights the value of the research happening here."

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What are some of the big-picture opportunities for the Research and Innovation office?

"There are opportunities to create some really interesting partnerships in both public and private sectors. Innovation applies to what I like to call production of the 4 Ps - products, programs, processes, and policies - and that's inclusive of most everyone at the university. There is room for a more proactive approach to facilitating innovation within and across those domains by bringing together people and partnerships across disciplines to foster new ideas and approaches.

There are also opportunities for venture science - I want to create a program for undergraduate students, graduate students and post-docs that gives them exposure to entrepreneurship, and the ability to work with mentors to look at their work from a venture perspective. Graduate students in particular need to be prepared for career choices outside of the traditional academic pathway. We have a social responsibility to be training our students for the workforce and for the future, and many of them might not be training for academic professions."

How did your view of innovation change when you met with faculties other than Medicine and Dentistry?

"Bringing together an innovation environment within a traditional academic environment is not simple. Commercialization activity is not always compatible with scholarly activity. It also became more obvious to me that we need to expand the definition of innovation to meet the needs of our university - and society. It's more than only working with people interested in filing a patent and taking a product or service to market - which of course is paramount to innovation in its commercial sense. In addition to language and programming around entrepreneurship and commercialization, I am starting to use the term 'community innovation.' We're also looking at how to pull together our social science innovators and create a community innovation platform. This is an open innovation concept: bring the appropriate people together from many disciplines plus the appropriate partnerships, and by virtue of the diversity and assets in that environment you're able to foster innovation and solve complex social problems. Creating such a platform is another initiative on my desk."

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What does the next year look like for you, what are some of your first priorities?

"We want to increase the number of technologies and other innovations leaving the university, so the first step is to change the culture and the profile around innovation at the university. We need to make known all of the entrepreneurship opportunities that already exist on campus as well as the supports for creating small businesses - and we need to create more such services and educational opportunities. Our inventors need more information about protection of intellectual property and the commercialization process, for example. I've started coordinating our assets across the university around entrepreneurship and commercialization, and I've also started on the social innovation idea and bringing people together. We also need to make the university more inventor-friendly so that inventors are motivated to go down the path of technology and company creation, and investor-friendly so that there's a greater chance of commercial success. The first step, is revising our licensing agreements. Watch for that in the New Year."

What keeps you busy outside of work?

I like to work out a lot, I do a lot of yoga. My family of five adult children is very important to me. I like writing creative non-fiction stories and oil painting - seems that my life is a collision of art and science - maybe that's why I'm drawn to innovation.