Many successful business developments in Canada have come from the collision of scientific inquiry and entrepreneurship. Creating clusters of expertise, where researchers and entrepreneurs work together to solve major challenges, is a promising area for growth, and one where there are ample possibilities right here in Ottawa.
Health research, for example, is being transformed, thanks to significant progress in genomics, medical devices, personalized medicine, epidemiology and biotechnology. Think of Andrew Pelling’s Laboratory for Biophysical Manipulation at the University of Ottawa, where researchers are turning science-fiction into science-fact by asking questions as audacious as “Could we grow nerve cells inside stalks of asparagus to repair damaged nerves, or even heal spinal cord injuries?”
Communications is another area that is rapidly growing in importance with smaller, faster, easier-to-use devices with stronger, better and farther-ranging signals. Today we talk of 5G, but 6G and next generations cannot be far away. And these developments will have significant implications in every industry. At Algonquin College, for example, a research group is applying better communications technologies to the construction industry to enhance project decision making and on-site collaboration using mobile technology.
Environmental remediation, reduced energy consumption and renewable energy sources will also depend on new technologies and means of extraction. Anyone heading downtown from the Ottawa airport can see an example of research in action at Carleton University’s Urbandale Centre for Home Energy Research, the red-shuttered house on the north end of campus along Bronson Ave. Here, researchers are putting new heating and cooling methods to the test with a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the housing sector.
But how do you bring together research and development? How can we provide the spark that will ignite the engine to drive promising research like this and connect it to the businesses that will commercialize innovative products and services?
There are many theories on how to do this. Fill the skills gap. Improve policies around intellectual property. Offer more tax support — or less. Increase private sector investment, and venture capital too.
But let us move from theory to reality. Educational opportunities abound. Nearly every university in Canada now offers entrepreneurship courses. Possibilities for partnerships are also legion. There are over 1,500 companies located in 26 university research parks that employ 65,000 people and generate nearly $4.3 billion in GDP annually. But there are more than 100 universities in Canada. That means three-quarters of them still have the potential to generate additional jobs and revenue. In Ottawa, where institutions and cities work together with Invest Ottawa, there is great potential for success.
At the Canada Foundation for Innovation, we have created the Navigator, a free, online tool that connects researchers and labs with entrepreneurs and manufacturers. A company that needs an expensive, specialized piece of equipment has only to type in a few keywords to connect with labs across Canada willing and equipped to help. Companies can remain in their region and prosper while accessing the state-of-the-art research facilities and expertise they need.
But more can be done. Exploring new, international opportunities will increase sales and grow beyond the local market. It will also create networks and partnerships, including regional versions of Canada’s Innovation Superclusters – the federal program that brings together innovators and researchers to develop bold and ambitious strategies to boost innovation in various sectors across the country. Finally, it enables companies to take advantage of the many business-development opportunities offered through most levels of government.
We can also consciously build a culture of collaborative exploration that encourages the talented researchers and students, business and industry leaders to come together, as they do for “Tech Tuesdays” in Kanata, to network, to imagine and to build on the discoveries they are making.
In the end, it comes down to supporting talented people with big ideas. The Ottawa region has a highly educated population, universities, colleges and research hospitals. We are an ideas incubator. Let us work to be not just the nation’s capital, but also a national inspiration.
Roseann O’Reilly Runte is president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation.
This piece originally appeared in the June 2019 edition of the Ottawa Business Journal.