Nearly two years ago, Marie-Claude Héroux and Grégoire Dorval, the founders of Champignons Advitam Inc. in Saint-Ours, Que., were looking for a way to expand the product line of their mushroom business. A chance encounter with Université de Montréal biology professor Mohamed Hijri, an expert in fungi, was the beginning of a partnership that has helped Héroux and Dorval test an innovative production method that allows the cultivation of new, high-value mushroom species in Canada. Hijri’s expertise combined with access to his state-of-the-art laboratory helped the entrepreneurs break into new markets and boost their bottom line.
This is one example of what can happen when business and research come together. And this is innovation — when a company uses research to find an inventive way to improve their business model. While this is innovation on a small scale, businesses of all sizes – from entrepreneurs to small and medium sized enterprises to large corporations – benefit when they can find the right research expertise.
Supporting innovation of all kinds is at the core of the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s (CFI) three-fold mandate. We make sure that Canada’s best researchers have access to the state-of-the-art infrastructure necessary to conduct world-class research across all disciplines, and from discovery to applied research. Having the best research facilities and equipment in turn helps to attract and retain the best talent from around the world and provides a vibrant environment in which to train the next generation of researchers and innovators.
Collaborations like that between Champignons Advitam Inc. and the CFI-funded labs at Université de Montréal are evidence that we are succeeding in meeting the third part of our mandate — that the CFI will enhance the capacity of Canada’s universities, colleges, research hospitals and non-profit research organizations to support private-sector innovation and commercialization.
According to a recent report by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, this kind of mutually beneficial partnership is happening across Canada. Our universities conduct almost $1 billion worth of research in collaboration with the private sector annually which provides “the intellectual raw material that drives innovation and builds prosperity.”
But collaborations aren’t necessarily easy. It can be challenging for companies to tap into the research resources at post-secondary institutions. They are either not aware what resources they can access or they don’t know what kind of labs or expertise are available. At the CFI, we believe this needs to be remedied. After all, there are research facilities across Canada that are equipped with top-notch tools and the bright minds to use them. That is tremendous R&D potential across virtually every discipline, ready and willing to work with business.
This is in large part a product of the more than 8,000 projects the CFI has funded since its creation in 1997. These projects have helped Canadian researchers make their mark globally. While Canadians make up only 0.5 percent of the world’s population, Canada’s researchers are producing almost 5 percent of the world’s highly cited research papers. And in a recent assessment by the Council of Canadian Academies, Canadian research was ranked sixth in the world for overall impact. It is clear that when it comes to the research capabilities in our universities, colleges and research hospitals, it’s no longer about playing catch-up for Canada; it’s about leading the pack. And now it’s time to lead the pack when it comes to research collaborations with the private sector — a process the CFI aims to facilitate.
Tapping into Canada’s incredible storehouse of research capability to open up a company’s potential is a notion that comes naturally to companies like Champignons Advitam, and one that has repeatedly been proven in institutions across Canada. Making sure these connections continue and new connections are created has always been a priority for the CFI. Finding new ways to make this happen will take innovative thinking from research institutions, businesses and organizations like ours.
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 Hill Times on November 18, 2013.