Creating a space for innovation in Canadian communities

December 7, 2012

The Canada Foundation for Innovation started 2012, our 15th year, with a refreshed brand and a new tagline — research builds communities. We think this tagline captures not only the ultimate goal of federal investment in science, but it also speaks to the aspirations of the universities and colleges the Government of Canada supports. These institutions have become critical assets for helping boost our national competitiveness, and we have seen that when communities come together around these institutions, success follows.

This success is about more than economic competitiveness and GDP growth, although those are critically important factors. It is about improving quality of life. It is also about finding Canada’s place and purpose within a global knowledge economy.

In its latest report on the state of science and technology in Canada, the Council of Canadian Academies highlighted the country’s relative productivity in science and research. It pointed out how Canada generates five percent of the world’s most heavily cited papers with only 0.5% of the world’s population. The report also indicates the role that this scientific proclivity has on Canada’s international reputation, citing the country’s global status as contributing to a net “brain gain” of scientific talent.

The report suggests that “Canada is part of a network of international science and technology collaboration which includes the most scientifically advanced countries in the world.”

This international network of science-producing nations is Canada’s new global marketplace. This is where we now compete for jobs and economic opportunities and where, according to the Council of Canadian Academies, Canada is doing exceptionally well.

We know that Canada is facing real challenges in converting our scientific innovation into success in the marketplace. Canada still receives failing grades in many comprehensive analyses of our national productivity, and there is a growing recognition that the private sector needs to expand its role in our research and development ecosystem.

Despite this, we are seeing bright spots that are confirming that it is actually a good time to be in the innovation game in Canada. Our global reputation is driving international collaborations and partnerships that are benefiting Canadian communities.

The new Fraunhofer Project Centre for Composites Research at Western University in London, for example, has brought together an international research team to develop market-ready lightweight composites for the automotive sector and other industries. Based in Germany, Fraunhofer is one of the world’s top applied research organizations. They operate a series of self-sustaining research organizations across the globe that provide research services to industry and create the partnerships necessary to access funding, talent and knowledge.

What brought Fraunhofer knocking on the door at Western? And what can it tell us about Canada’s place in our global research system?

The answer is several fold. Western offered Fraunhofer a landing spot with access to a lucrative Ontario-based automotive market, as well as the people and infrastructure needed to deliver results. Western is home to top talent. They have a proven track record of success in publications, patents and other traditional measures of research productivity. Western also has a fertile culture of international collaboration that is necessary to succeed in a partnership of this sort.

It is beneficial for Western’s community to have this international endorsement and investment, and in the end, Canadian industries will reap the rewards from accessing a top composites research centre in their backyard. This will support innovation in the automotive industry and ensure that high-quality, high-paying jobs continue to develop in Canada.

Western is showing the leadership necessary to build a world-class research institution and it is paying off for southwestern Ontario. The university is building on its strengths and seizing opportunities, and the Fraunhofer case is just one example.

Having established itself as a hub for wind research with a number of wind-related research facilities and a growing roster of experts in the field, Western decided to seize the opportunity to add to its capabilities. Industry partners lined up to express their interest in a new facility and funding partners, including the Canada Foundation for Innovation, came to the table. The WindEEE Dome, the most advanced facility in the world for simulating actual wind systems in a controlled environment, is set to open in the new year.

It is a similar story for the new Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative. The opportunity created by Canada’s oil sands, combined with the expertise at Alberta’s universities and colleges has motivated Helmholtz to invest in the province. With so many of the world’s experts in bitumen extraction in one place, along with teams working on perfecting reclamation technologies, Alberta is at the forefront in a series of technologies and processes that could change our impact on the global oil supply while ensuring the environment is protected. 

These international collaborations are being driven by a global hunt for excellence — a hunt that is increasingly leading to Canada. With the right mix of talent, world-class institutions and facilities, Canada’s communities are proving themselves to be competitive on the global stage and are attracting the attention and investment that goes with being at the head of the class.

We can see examples of this across the country, from a cluster of optics and photonics research in Quebec City to a hub of water expertise developing in Saskatoon to ocean technologies being tested and commercialized on our coasts.

At our annual public meeting earlier this month, Elyse Allan, President and CEO of GE Canada, spoke on the topic of taking innovation to enterprise. GE Canada recently opened The Calgary Innovation Centre, a facility to assemble GE’s resources ready to deliver solutions for the local oil and gas industry. They have a similar facility, focused on smart grid technology, in Markham and are now working to build a global network based on this Canadian model.  In Saudi Arabia, Korea, Japan and Europe, GE is creating a network of innovation centres ready to provide access to global experts and collaborate on solutions to local problems.

According to Allan, they have created programs to “give people needed time and space to pursue high-risk big ideas.” In one of the world’s most competitive and innovative companies, their leaders have the vision to create spaces where ideas can incubate and innovation can flourish.

I believe that our universities, college and research centres are playing a similar role in Canadian communities.

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.​