Building relationships

November 19, 2012

In September, Site Selection, a prestigious American trade publication aimed at business executives who determine the location for new production facilities, ranked Hamilton as the top Canadian city for companies interested in launching new industrial development projects or expanding existing ones.

When commenting on the ranking, Mayor Bob Bratina pointed out how his city’s “legendary affordability is rolling together with the growth of our research sector and our creative sector and our health care sector.” Recognizing what many see as completely separate spheres, his observations highlight the fact that today’s knowledge economy is driven by the convergence of areas of economic and human activity.

McMaster Innovation Park, the centrepiece of Hamilton’s industrial revival, is where these kind of dynamic interactions are happening. The Innovation Park not only houses facilities designed to support research and development in key industrial areas that are considered strengths at McMaster University, but it also provides a meeting place for entrepreneurs and researchers. It is a place where they can work together to develop new products and services and bring them to market — a place where they can innovate.

In today’s technologically driven, highly competitive and connected world, these types of innovation hubs are breeding grounds for great ideas. Full of creative and highly trained individuals, using the most advanced technologies and equipment, they are crucial for translating ideas into new products and services. The central challenge for governments is developing the policies that foster these types of convergent and mutually beneficial relationships. What can we learn from Hamilton’s model? How do we get people to come together to innovate?

Federal investment in university and college R&D has helped establish the foundation on which flourishing private sector innovation can be built. The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), along with the federal research granting agencies, Canada Research Chairs Program, Networks of Centres of Excellence, and a variety of graduate fellowship initiatives, have been central policy instruments in making this happen. Other initiatives, such as the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research (CECRs), have been specifically designed to foster collaboration between university and private-sector researchers and to facilitate the transfer of ideas and people from public institutions to private companies.

As is the case with Hamilton’s industrial revival, federal investments have the biggest impact when federal funding agencies and programs work cohesively — when the full range of people, and the equipment they need, is brought to bear on crucial knowledge needs. Take the Industrial Research Chair program funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, a program that has supported 184 researchers whose endeavours benefit industry. Close to 120 of these chairholders have also received funding from the CFI for the construction and outfitting of their research facilities and labs. This has allowed researchers like Sophie D’Amours from Université Laval to work with partners ranging from Bell Canada to Domtar to improve the business practices and planning tools used by the forestry industry. Or others, like Jeffrey Dahn of Dalhousie University, who with 3M Canada, is advancing lithium-ion battery technology used in everything from laptops to electric vehicles.

This kind of convergence fits within the CFI’s mandate — to support private sector innovation and commercialization. State-of-the-art facilities and equipment funded by the CFI are being put into service to help the private sector right across the country. At the British Columbia Institute of Technology, the Internet Engineering Lab is working with industry to solve cyber security issues. And researchers at the National Audiology Centre at Western University work side-by-side with hearing aid manufacturers, using a suite of unique labs to improve products. Without the infrastructure that underlies and supports Canada’s research enterprise, these kinds of activities would simply not be possible.

Canada’s universities and colleges serve another vital role in the innovation cycle — they are the training ground for the next generation of innovators. In the past year alone, more than 27,000 graduate students used CFI-funded infrastructure as a key resource in their research training; almost 40 percent have gone on to work in the private sector. These are the leaders that will foster Canadian innovation, economic development and social progress in the years ahead.

It is an exciting time to be in the innovation game in Canada. We have all the key elements to boost our standing in the global innovation race. In the end, however, the central question is not what public organizations like CFI are doing, but whether Canada has the right mix of resources and policies to effectively support innovation and do as Hamilton has done — bring the right people together to turn research into innovation and innovation into enterprise.  

Dr. Gilles Patry is President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the country’s only organization dedicated to funding state-of-the-art research infrastructure. ​