By Roseann O'Reilly Runte
Roseann O’Reilly Runte is President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation.
Innovation is about new ways of thinking, doing and living. When we reflect and act innovatively, we can improve not only the economy, but also our communities.
When we speak of innovation, it is important to distinguish it from discovery. While locating a gene is discovery, creating a new way to pinpoint genetic information is innovation.
Innovation is not just about taking ideas to market. It is also about improving the process of discovery and about applying new concepts and improvements to business, technology, services, manufacturing, and commercialization.
New discoveries may have the potential to lead to a novel treatment for a disease, for example, but they will translate into successful innovation only if the new treatment is less expensive, easier to produce, or offers other significant advantages over its predecessors. One well-known example is the case of Heparin. Initially shelved by researchers looking for a blood-clotting agent, Heparin became a remarkable innovation when used to treat strokes and blood clots.
Having the right conditions in place to support innovation is also critical. One way to nurture innovation is to create bridges to bring together scientists and entrepreneurs. These bridges may be virtual, like the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s (CFI) Research Facilities Navigator, which offers businesses an online directory of more than 800 state-of-the-art facilities that open their doors to collaboration with users from all sectors. In these facilities, innovators and entrepreneurs find cutting-edge equipment and expertise that otherwise are often out of their reach.
But there is an even more valuable benefit. In these facilities, businesses can find students who were trained using the latest technologies, have practical skills and understand the research environment. Their expertise helps companies to develop and commercialize new products and technologies to compete and succeed globally.
These bridges may also be physical infrastructures that encourage people to gather and share ideas. One such model hails from France where the Agence nationale de la recherche has funded a small number of laboratories specifically designed to house industry and research on a similar topic under one roof.
Across Canada we have several examples of successful incubators, technology hubs and R&D centres. They include Toronto Metropolitan University’s DMZ, which is recognized on its website as “the top incubator in the world with 3,000 global investors, seed and pressed startup funds, coaching, professional services, a community of support.”
There are also specialized R&D centres like Innofibre — which focuses on applied research in bioprocesses and bioproducts — and the Centre de métallurgie du Québec, both located in Trois-Rivières, Que. Another successful model is the Southern Ontario Network for Advanced Manufacturing and Innovation (SONAMI) that brings together facilities with a range of expertise, from manufacturing dental implants to harvesting crops, and from automation to process optimization.
Outreach is vital to innovation
Thinking innovatively also includes outreach. For example, the Technology Innovation Management master’s program at Carleton University in Ottawa has supported the launch and growth of several small businesses, including in ethnically diverse communities, harnessing their cultural knowledge, perspectives and linguistic skills to access international markets.
At the other end of the spectrum are large-scale projects involving significant investments such as Montréal’s Mila – Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute, which attracts business and research in the field of AI.
Looking at the Kelowna Innovation Centre in British Columbia, one might assume that the central location of its operation would be the key to its success. But Lambton College in Sarnia, Ont., demonstrates that a central urban location is not the only means to success.
Wherever they are located, these centres draw in visitors and harness creative energy. They might include a restaurant like the one at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., where a graph of the flow of ideas would surely peak at noon!
They might cluster about a welcome centre like the one at TRIUMF, Canada’s particle accelerator in Vancouver, B.C., where school groups assemble and share the inspiration and passion that drive science and industry alike.
Today, there is much talk about discoveries and ways to bring them to market. Many of these conversations are taking place in innovation zones, networks, and hubs across the country.
These innovative spaces have several characteristics in common. The first is the energy and vision that created them. The second is the buzz of activity that fills their spaces. The third is the way every participant is both a learner and a mentor.
These are powerful drivers of innovation, and we should not underestimate the value of such labs and their people to help create wealth, solve pressing environmental and health issues, and contribute to the high quality of life of Canadians. In fact, they underpin our country’s capacity to innovate.