Building on a solid foundation to address Canada’s innovation challenges

April 25, 2012

Ask a contractor how to build a lasting structure and they’ll say you need a solid foundation. Ask anyone involved in the research enterprise how to build a strong innovation system, and they’ll likely say the same thing. With a solid foundation, the possibilities are endless.

Take the intraoperative magnetic resonance imaging system developed at the University of Calgary. In 1996, university researchers, working with the National Research Council, turned an idea into a business. They had developed a system that could take images of the brain during surgery to give surgeons a more accurate view, and created a company in Winnipeg to commercialize the technology.

Enter the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). In 1999, university researchers received CFI funding that allowed them to move their technology into the hospital, where they could further develop it and boost its marketability. Today, the company, IMRIS Inc., is publicly traded, employs 170 people and in 2010 alone, the technology generated sales of $70 million (U.S.). As of last September, 6,100 patients had benefitted from the imaging system.

This health innovation not only improved the safety of brain surgery and increased health-care efficiencies, but it also led to another innovation, neuroArm. Controlled from a remote workstation, this robotic tool allows surgeons to operate with pinpoint accuracy. NeuroArm, also funded by the CFI, has been used on 32 patients in Calgary and next-generation technology is being developed at IMRIS, which purchased the neuroArm in 2010.  

These types of strategic research infrastructure investments made by the CFI and its funding partners in the provinces and private and non-profit sectors are enabling research excellence and fostering innovation. Whether they are developing green mining practices, lighter materials for cars, new forestry products or improved treatments, researchers at universities, colleges and research hospitals across the country are turning discoveries into innovations.

Sustained investments by the Government of Canada through the CFI, along with the research funding agencies, and a number of other federally funded organizations and programs have built Canada’s rich research ecosystem, which is providing the solid foundation we need to boost our standing in the global innovation race.

This kind of support has opened up tremendous opportunities for the research community. It has allowed research institutions to attract and retain top talent from around the globe and has given them the state-of-the-art labs and equipment they need to make discoveries. It has offered researchers venues for exploring the commercial potential of those discoveries and for helping industry tackle their pressing challenges. It has allowed students to work with the best scientists and the best tools to gain the skills they need to succeed by bringing new ideas and innovative approaches to the workplace.

And beyond this, federal support has enabled clusters of expertise to flourish in communities across the country. These clusters are connecting people, organizations and companies and are supporting cutting-edge research that serves society. In Montréal, for example, heart researchers from around the globe converge to share equipment and ideas. The University of Victoria is home to renowned ocean experts and a deep-sea ocean observatory. And in Peterborough, Ont., Trent University and Fleming College researchers are joining forces to build an expertise in water quality.

With its recent federal budget, the Government of Canada recognized the value of continuing to invest in a solid foundation of support that has already had far-reaching benefits for Canadians. This renewed commitment should be an encouraging signal to all players in Canada’s research enterprise, and should be a catalyst for them to collaborate more and actively seek opportunities to build an innovative nation on that solid foundation.

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. This opinion piece originally appeared in The Globe and Mail Innovation Canada supplement, April 25, 2012.