Regional innovation hubs: an untapped potential for Canada

February 21, 2020

Canada is a strong nation with a diverse population located in a broad span of regions.  Whether geographically, economically or culturally linked, urban or rural, large or small, each of these regions plays a vital role in our identity, our economy and the well-being of our communities.

This country has seen many innovation success stories over the years. Think of how research has put Montreal and Toronto on the map for developing technologies in artificial intelligence and precision medicine, or how Vancouver has become a hub for leading-edge advances in genomics. There are many examples across the country, and each can be traced back in part to sustained investments in research and in the infrastructure researchers need to advance their work.

Many of these successes have occurred in major cities. And that makes sense since some 35 percent of Canada’s population is spread among Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and a significant share of research investments over the past decades have gone to their institutions.

We have seen how Waterloo, working with the community, has moved from an agricultural region to an internationally recognized region of high-tech developments that some now call Quantum Valley.

Canada also has 35 communities with populations of 100,000, and many more with fewer inhabitants. We need to ask what we can do to help these regions and their institutions accomplish the same kind of success that we have seen in the country’s largest centres. 

Countries around the world are making major investments in regional research. In the United Kingdom, for example, research investments strategically targeted to build on a region’s strengths have aimed to raise the national standing of various regions. This has led to the creation of an innovation hub in Belfast that focuses on greening maritime travel, and another in Newcastle that looks at healthy aging and independent living. The UK has now announced a new competition that will build on this success with a goal to achieve international standards. In France, the Agence nationale de la recherche has selected three regions for similar special investment and growth.

We need to build this regional capacity in Canada, and it is important that we start today. Too many young people are migrating away from their communities to find employment. Supporting innovative research that underpins regional economic development is one way to curb that migration.

Currently, when a startup or existing business approaches smaller institutions, they can usually access funds for a single piece of equipment to perform specific testing. However, they lack the types of fundamental platforms economic development agents can point to as an attractive tool or service businesses can access. At the same time, to be successful, platforms must coincide with local and regional strategic development plans. 

A case in point is Trois-Rivières, Que., where the community and regional government, along with the local university and college, got together to build the Centre de métallurgie du Québec, with the assistance of the federal government through the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Offering services to more than 200 companies each year, this innovation hub brings businesses from around the world to the region, providing jobs for graduates and attracting PhD and Post-doctoral Fellows from major universities.   

Regional institutions cannot immediately aspire to do all things.  They need to focus on strategic developments in partnership with their region. Successful development needs to be supported on a three-legged stool with business, governments and research institutions all working together.  These institutions need to develop the platforms that will enable them to play more effectively their role in regional economic development. 

Labs equipped with the tools necessary to foster this kind of work are a hive of activity and idea sharing: faculty and industry experts working side-by-side, discovering new processes and techniques, and students learning the skills and knowledge that will make them valuable employees for local industries.

If Canada were to invest in research infrastructure for its regions today, it would help our communities remain strong and vital, provide employment for youth at home and solutions for economic development that make up the fabric of our nation.

Roseann O’Reilly Runte is President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, a non-profit organization that invests in research infrastructure in universities, colleges and research institutes across the country.