R$ Innovation Conversations: Q&A with Gilles Patry, President & CEO, Canada Foundation for Innovation


With the launch of our new website, R$ is adding a new feature for its readers – a regular Q&A with leaders from Canada’s innovation community. The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. So, we thought it appropriate to launch the series by having a conversation with CFI President, Gilles Patry. Dr. Patry has been a practicing professional engineer, engineering professor, entrepreneur, university president, and has been at the helm of the CFI for more than six years. He will be stepping down from his role at the CFI in June 2017. R$ publisher, Dr. Jeffrey Crelinsten, recently spoke with Dr. Patry about the CFI, the challenges of being an entrepreneur and the federal government’s pending innovation agenda.


R$: There are so many different views of what innovation is. How do you look at innovation in your work at the CFI?

GP: First of all, let’s consider why we are talking so much about innovation. Every country in the world is focusing on innovation at the centre of their policies, because we all know that it drives long-term economic growth, creates jobs and improves the quality of life of individuals.

There is the academic definition of innovation — the process of bringing ideas to market in the form of products, services, processes, or we can define social, technology and business innovation. But at the CFI, we see innovation as the desire to make things better.

The process of taking an idea and bringing it to the market, i.e. to people or a business, is very challenging. People think of innovation as invention, but that’s not the case. Then they think they have a product and everything is resolved, and that’s not the case. There are many steps to meet the very challenging goal of making people benefit from those ideas. It’s that desire to make things better.

And research is a key part of the process.

At the CFI our mandate is simple. We were designed 20 years ago to build Canada’s capacity to undertake world-class research in all areas, from social sciences to health to engineering to the natural sciences. We do this through research infrastructure – providing academics with the tools they need to do world-class research, to think big and be competitive. This is so important, because you simply cannot do world-class research without having access to state-of-the-art facilities. Imagine working in the genomics field with a three-, four- or five-year-old sequencer. You’d have to spend five days doing what would take your competitors two hours to do. Innovation can’t happen that way.

R$: The federal government has identified people, emerging technologies and growing companies as three key elements of Canada’s innovation strategy. How does CFI’s mandate to support research infrastructure help build strong people, companies and technology clusters?

Our mandate has four elements. The first is to support world-class research. We don’t have any thematic allocation of funding, so we never say 40% of our funding is going to go to health, 20% is going to go to engineering, 5% is going to this and that. We don’t have any set regional distribution either which means on occasion, we can have competitions where funding is very localized. All this speaks to excellence.

Secondly, we help attract and retain top talent. We do this in a number of ways. The John R. Evans Fund, for example, makes sure that when universities bring in researchers, we provide them with the equipment they need to get off the ground running as opposed to taking five years to become competitive. This speaks to the people side of things.

The third part of our mandate is to train the next generation, making sure that young people are exposed to the best equipment so that when they go out into the work force, they’re much more competitive. Again, this talks to the people side.

And lastly, we help foster innovation and commercialization. When we look at a funding proposal, one of the key things we look at is the benefits to Canada – this can be economic, technological, social, environmental.

So, people, technology and companies sits very nicely into what CFI does, even though our mandate is very narrow.

Photo credit: Rémi Thériault

R$: Going back to your concept of innovation as the desire to make things better – the people doing research who are thinking about how to make things better, they co-create with the outside world in a sense.

GP: Exactly.

R$: It’s not like a technology push, it’s “where are the needs, we have smart people, equipment, we’ll find a solution.” Is that what you see happening? Because, in academia some people are saying “let us do what we want, relevance doesn’t matter and if something comes up then we’ll push it out the door.”

GP: Much of the engineering research that CFI supports is very applied. However, within CFI, a lot of the research we support is curiosity driven. In quantum computing, for instance, there is potential — the curiosity in developing a way of exciting those ions to a certain substrate so that we can have a qubit computer — but the potential may be in 5 years, even 10 or 20 years.

So at CFI, while one of our goals is to support innovation and commercialization, we don’t take a short-term view. Look at SNOLab, for example. We’ve put $50 million and more into it and even more into the Canadian Light Source. Yes, there may be some very practical applications, but a lot of it is discovery-driven.

We have to have that balance – a word that I think needs to permeate this discussion. It’s this balance between discovery-driven and applied research. When you do discovery-based research, you find some applications that you may not have thought about, and vice versa.

When you do applied research, then you say, “I need somebody to help me understand the mechanics or the physics of this process,” it can generate a whole different field of activity than you expected. So this demarcation between the two is quite artificial in many ways. Obviously, when we talk about innovation, this desire to make things better, it relies on the research and discovery that people will have made in all fields.

R$: The federal government will be releasing the first phase of the report by the Expert Panel on economic growth, chaired by Dominic Barton; and the review of support for fundamental science chaired by David Naylor is also imminent. How do we connect the dots between economic growth on the one hand and research capability on the other?

GP: The innovation agenda will only be as strong as the weakest link in the system. You can have fantastic research, but if the government is not able to support the various elements in this ecosystem of innovation with equal potential, with equal ambition, then it isn’t going to work.

One of the things that we’re hoping the Barton committee is going to come up with is that focusing on research is key, but that the support for growing businesses is also there. In Canada we’re always asking ourselves if we are the farm team for the big companies outside of Canada? So we have to make sure that we’re able to grow companies within the country.

R$: How did your company get started and what happened to it?

GP: When I was at McMaster University, I had an idea. I wanted to develop a simulator for a wastewater treatment plant. I went to see a private water company in France and I presented the idea of building a simulator. At the time, we had flight simulators that were starting on PCs. I wanted to build a flight simulator, but for a wastewater treatment plant, so that you could understand the dynamics of that system and then try to save money from the operation of that facility in real time.

They gave me $80,000, which I brought back to Canada. I was able to get another $240,000 from a government program at the time so we began to develop the concept and started the company, Hydromantis, which still operates today in Hamilton almost 30 years later.

The company was launched in 1991 and sold in 2001 when I became President of the University of Ottawa. Part of the company was later sold to an American company but it still continues to operate the software side in Hamilton right now. But it’s a very small company, a boutique, niche company. The issue is: how do you make that company grow and become a lot more competitive?

Photo Credit: Sabrina Daniel

R$: The Governor General launched his Innovation Awards last year to recognize and celebrate successful Canadian innovators. How can we build on this important initiative to support our innovators as role models for the next generation of innovators?

GP: These awards were set up to celebrate Canadian innovation. They have been structured so partners nominate from their pool of stakeholders the best people they feel are eligible to receive one of the six Governor General’s innovation awards per year. I think the idea of wanting to celebrate is key, because this will help us develop a culture of innovation.

The Governor General is also publishing a book on Canadian innovators. People are going to be flabbergasted to see the Canadian innovations that are out there. Just this week, two young B.C. women are in the Forbes Top 30 Under 30 in recognition of their innovations. One is trying to harness the heat from a coffee cup to power a smart phone.

R$: They say it takes a village to raise a child. For Canada to excel as an innovation nation, what role do communities have to play in making this happen?

GP: I think communities are critically important. You just have to look at where excellence in innovation resides right now in Canada. Everyone points to the Waterloo area, but there are also places like Quebec City, which is thriving in the photonics area. People look to the Waterloo region because it is a great example of what happens when you have a community that’s behind the institutions, supporting the universities, and supporting the industry — it makes for a much better dynamic. When you have to fight your community, it doesn’t work. When your community sees you only as a revenue source for taxes or whatever, that doesn’t work. So when you look at success, I’m sure you’ll find this chemistry between communities and innovators.

I was always amazed when I was university president in Ottawa and I was looking at what David Johnston was doing as president of the University of Waterloo. He was able to bring together not only the region of Waterloo and Kitchener, but also Cambridge; and they were contributing real assets – dollars, space, land for development. That was fantastic. Then that encouraged the private sector to come along and to participate in those initiatives.

As part of our 20th anniversary, we’ve been talking about how “Research builds communities.” For us that’s critically important because yes, research builds communities, but communities also support the institutions. It’s this virtuous circle — these linkages between the research, the community and industry — that create a robust environment for innovation.

R$: What advice do you have for politicians and policymakers for improving innovation and competitiveness in Canada?

GP: If we look at where we are right now from the perspective of the research community first, we’ve come a long way. The research environment in Canada is fantastic. Yes, we need a bit more support, a bit more investments, but the system is fine. In the advice we sent to the Naylor panel, the first paragraph says: “the system is not broken.” It needs a few tweaks from the research and development perspective. So that’s number one.

Number two: we have to take a long-term perspective. I think this government is very cognizant of that. I’ve heard Dominic Barton a few times saying that he’s not been given instructions to solve this in a year or two but to have a far-reaching strategy that will set the foundation for years to come. So I think that’s going to be very important.

Going back to what I was saying at the very beginning, the innovation agenda is going to be just as strong as the weakest link in the system. So we have to make sure that we don’t create bottlenecks or these weak elements. If we want to grow companies, we’ll have to have mechanisms to ensure that they can grow and are supported, whether through direct investment, tax credits, procurement policies, venture capital models, whatever. We have to make sure that the ecosystem is strong and has all of the elements, obviously recognizing that this is highly competitive, and that we’re in a global environment.

This means that we’d better identify areas where Canada is strong and has a competitive advantage. We don’t want to waste our efforts and investments in areas where our chances of competing are minimal.

I think there’s an opportunity, but there’s not a lot of time. We’ve been talking about this for years. We’ve made some major progress from the research side. But again in that area we’ve been stalling in the last few years. The reason is not because the investments have gone down — they have been stable — but the number of full-time graduate students has been increasing. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of full-time Master’s and PhD level students has doubled. So while the investments have gone up significantly, when you account for inflation and normalize the investments by constant dollars divided by the number of graduate students, you see a significant decrease.

So, yes, we’ve done extremely well. At CFI, on average we’ve invested almost $400 million annually over the last 20 years. Because we fund 40% of the infrastructure funding and the institutions come up with the rest, this translates into a billion dollars per year of new infrastructure at institutions across the country. All this is great and something to celebrate, but the people resources are critically important.

Now the same type of effort needs to be put in on the other side of the system, towards the business and economic development sides.