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Take it from the top – strong leadership means better results

The Board of Directors for an NCE network or centre often reads like the Who’s Who list of a particular sector, featuring top experts and prominent figures from industry and academia. Pulling together that room full of heavy hitters is an important part of the innovative approaches to governance and best practices adopted by NCE-funded organizations to achieve their goals.

Take GreenCentre Canada and the Canadian Centre for Regenerative Medicine (CCRM), for example. Both of these Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research (CECR) work in exciting new sectors – green chemistry and regenerative medicine respectively – with vast economic potential. But promising breakthroughs and technologies don’t get to market by themselves, and both centres rely on their Board members to ensure a targeted, expert-driven approach to managing innovation.

Populated by committed, engaged, influential and experienced people who buy into each centre’s mandate, the GreenCentre and CCRM Boards provide marketing expertise, business connections and an instinct for the best strategy to develop products and processes that may become the Next Big Thing.

That synergistic relationship starts with recruiting the right people. For commercialization centres, that means finding people with strong industry ties, but who also understand the public sector environment. The checks and balances on the Board include a conflict of interest policy to help ensure unbiased decision making.

CCRM CEO Michael May

“As we started to put the plan together for the centre, we realized very quickly that a commercialization centre needed to have very strong industry validation, support and participation,” says CCRM CEO Michael May. “That drove the need to bring on senior management who had entrepreneurial and industry experience, but who were also comfortable with one foot in the academic environment. You really need this kind of hybrid makeup.” Fortunately for CCRM, many of the necessary industry connections had already been established thanks to work done by the Stem Cell Network, formed a decade before CCRM opened its doors in 2011.

Dr. May adds that CCRM’s planning phase identified another crucial type of strategic expertise needed on his centre’s Board: investment capital. “If we weren’t able to attract risk capital over the first five to seven years, then all the work we had done to move technology forward would come to nought and we would orphan these technologies.” As a result, well-known venture capitalist Greg Bonfiglio now chairs CCRM’s Board.

Remarkably, not a single prospective CCRM director turned down the invitation to serve as a Board member.

GreenCentre Executive Director Rui Resendes

For GreenCentre Executive Director Rui Resendes, the recruitment process followed logically once the centre had defined its business model. “We established relationships with people who believe that GreenCentre is doing something important,” he says. “These organizations stepped up to the plate to support us financially. They were also more than willing to elect one of their senior leaders to sit on the Board of Directors to make sure that we govern this organization in a way that will continue to see its expansion and success.”

On paper, the Board of Directors’ job is to provide broad oversight for a centre by setting its strategic direction and ensuring financial accountability. In practice, CCRM and GreenCentre’s Boards offer help that goes beyond that required mandate.

Among other things, they help boost the credibility of the new technologies the centres are trying to build markets for, thanks to their industry connections, a solid understanding of the marketplace, and a rigorous demand to focus on top priorities.

“When you have an early stage technology, you think you can conquer everything with this one technology,” says Dr. Resendes. “The task quickly becomes determining what are the market opportunities, or in our case what are the environmental problems that this technology can address. We have the benefit of companies that have been successful for the last 50 years helping us define and execute our commercialization strategy.”

Dr. Resendes says the need for focus was apparent from GreenCentre’s beginning. Its first start-up company, Switchable Solutions, commercializes chemical technology with the potential to make processes in a wide range of industries cheaper and more environmentally sustainable. Advice from the centre’s Board helped triage the opportunities and concentrate efforts in a direction that leads to maximum value. 

Tapping into Board members’ network of top industry contacts helps too. “It’s incredible how well connected we are to the global chemicals and materials community, and it’s due to these relationships.”

“We have a Board full of people who have spent their careers focussing on how to do something and not just talk about something,” explains Dr. Resendes. “Their input into governing this organization has caused us to focus and yield results. As we start to generate results, it’s starting to excite these people even more and the end result is that they get even more engaged.”

Strong, committed Boards also bring energy and expectations. “The quality of the Board means the quality of the input they give you and the kind of pressure they put on us to produce,” says Dr. May “These are all very successful leaders in both industry and academia. They set the bar high for themselves and they’re setting the bar high for us.”

In keeping with the CECR program’s goal of centres ultimately becoming self-sustainable, Board members also encourage long-term thinking. For CCRM, Dr. May says that means they ask questions about what the centre needs to do to develop a sustainable pipeline for new ideas, and to decide how many and what kind of deals to make.

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