We must foster collaboration to build back better

Canada’s research community can help businesses survive these challenging times
October 30, 2020

How can we emerge from this pandemic stronger and more resilient? This is a question Canadians in all sectors, including business, are asking.

Today, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce will discuss how to re-ignite the economy at its annual general meeting. And at the Research Money conference last week, the private, public and academic sectors agreed on the importance of Canada having a strong and sustainable innovation system to get us through uncertain times.

In all this conversation about “building back better,” the research community must play an important role in helping Canada and the business community recover and move forward. 

Researchers across the country have demonstrated that they can meet Canada’s needs in times of crisis. They are tackling the pandemic from all angles, and are collaborating with entrepreneurs to bring their efforts to combat COVID-19 to fruition. A Canadian company, for instance, is working with researchers at the University of Victoria to make a coating for public sinks that is resistant to the coronavirus. Innofibre, a Quebec-based centre for innovative biomass products at the Cégep de Trois-Rivières has developed environmentally friendly, made-in-Canada N95 masks from cellulose fibers.

These examples show the benefits of leveraging our research capacity and supporting entrepreneurs and centres of innovation to create home-grown solutions. And they show that Canada’s investments in research infrastructure, in particular, give not only researchers, but also businesses the tools they need to innovate, compete, create jobs and thrive.

A recent report indicates that nearly 50 percent of external users of research facilities funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) — a non-profit granting organization that invests in research infrastructure at universities, colleges and research hospitals across the country — are local private-sector companies, and more than 30 percent of external users are from the non-profit sector. This means that these facilities serve the nation and have a positive impact on the very communities in which they are located.

In addition to giving businesses much-needed access to research spaces and equipment, these facilities are also filled with highly qualified personnel who have the expertise to help businesses compete. Last year alone, close to 17,000 graduate students from across the country expanded their research skills in CFI-funded labs. It has never been more important to promote these valuable resources and the services they can provide to Canadian businesses through important tools such as the Research Facilities Navigator, an online directory of more than 700 labs that are prepared to assist businesses on a range of topics.

While we need to maintain and expand our research capacity to support our country in the future, we also need to establish collaborative research spaces that bring innovators and entrepreneurs together under one roof. We should build on the success of business incubators such as Ryerson University’s DMZ, and the Smartpark Innovation Hub at the University of Manitoba, to name but two. There remains considerable potential in smaller institutions and rural areas where both business and academia often work side by side for the benefit of their community. We rely increasingly on technology, and it can bring Canadian researchers together. To enable this we will need additional digital platforms, data banks and networks across the country, thereby reinforcing the capacity for innovation in every region.

This spring, Canadian Nobel Laureate, Art McDonald, led a team of scientists at SNOLAB, based in Sudbury, Ont., in an international effort to develop a simple ventilator for COVID-19 patients. Health Canada recently gave Vexos Inc. of Markham, Ont., the go-ahead to manufacture it. These are the kinds of made-in-Canada successes we need, and we should strive to replicate it across the country.

The lessons of the pandemic are tinged with sadness for the loss of life and those who continue to suffer, but they are also filled with examples that provide hope for the future. When we bring the country together by sharing knowledge and resources across regions, when we enable and encourage research across disciplines, and when we continue to support the research spaces, laboratories and networks needed to assemble researchers and entrepreneurs, we create an environment that unleashes the positive potential of an educated population, fosters innovation and will result in a future of strong growth.

This piece originally appeared in The Hill Times on Monday, October 26, 2020.