We need to make better connections to attract global investment

October 3, 2011

Today’s global innovation race involves a complex web of connections. Researchers collaborate across disciplines, institutions, and borders to exchange ideas and share resources. Funding partners support research that has merit. And private-sector leaders lend their entrepreneurial spirit to the entire research enterprise.

To succeed in this race, nations need to foster these connections through a strong innovation agenda backed by consistent, strategic government investment.

For more than a decade, the Government of Canada has systematically invested in research at post-secondary institutions as part of its national strategy to boost innovation.

A key part of that strategy has been to invest through the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) in the state-of-the-art tools, equipment and facilities researchers need to think big.

The CFI has transformed the research capacity of universities, colleges and research hospitals across the country, and in the process, has connected people and sectors to achieve a common goal: to attract and retain the world’s top research talent and give them the support they need to translate ideas into innovative solutions.

Canada has gone a long way to meeting this goal. CFI funding has enabled clusters of expertise to flourish in communities across the country. These clusters—big and small—are connecting people, organizations and companies regionally, nationally and internationally, and are conducting cutting-edge research that serves society and acts as a driver of economic development.

In Montreal, for example, cardiology researchers from around the globe converge to share equipment and ideas. At the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, brain researchers do the same. Dalhousie University in Halifax is home to renowned ocean experts and the new global-scale Ocean Tracking Network, and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia is building on its research strength in nanomaterials.

Companies see great value in these hubs of knowledge. They are setting up shop and working side-by-side with bright research minds to access both their expertise and their equipment. This simply makes good business sense. Working in these hubs, companies can field test new products, build brand recognition, attract new customers and create trusted relationships with institutions and researchers who are on the leading edge in their fields. It also allows them to look beyond Canada’s borders and reach into promising global markets.

According to a recent study, companies, governments and non-profit organizations, both foreign and domestic, contracted almost $2-billion worth of research from Canadian universities and affiliated teaching hospitals in 2008, up from $1.15-billion in 2006. The private sector alone is responsible for approximately $1-billion of that total. The study suggests that investing in a university or college for creating specific knowledge is a highly effective means of fostering innovation and the commercialization of research results.

Supporting these valuable connections between academia and the private sector are crucial to sparking innovation and driving the economy. Take Québec City. The region has become a global player in the field of optics and photonics largely thanks to the cluster of expertise developed at Université Laval. The university is home to unique, internationally renowned optics, photonics and laser facilities that are supported by all levels of government. Strong research collaboration with colleagues in other provincial institutions and the business community has allowed the region to become a photonics hub, with more than 40 companies employing more than 2,500 people and generating $350-million in annual revenue.

But today, building a strong national economy bolstered by innovation requires global connections. Knowledge-based companies, and the talented, creative workers they employ, have the freedom to go where there is a critical mass of expertise—anywhere in the world.

Our vibrant research clusters are already creating jobs and training the next generation of innovators. Investing in state-of-the-art infrastructure has also allowed Canadian institutions to attract key international researchers to their campuses. In fact, every year some 4,500 researchers come to Canada from around the world to use CFI-funded infrastructure in their work. Connecting with this international pool of research talent on challenges that are affecting people on a global scale opens up a vast potential for Canada to attract international business.

Combine this with the fact that Canada is the lowest business tax jurisdiction among the G7 group of advanced economies, and the potential for foreign investment is even greater.

The time is right for us to capitalize on the investments we have made in Canada’s research enterprise. These investments have enabled research collaboration and creativity, and have attracted highly skilled, entrepreneurial minds. Now, let’s leverage these investments to attract more global capital and businesses by connecting them with Canada’s rich human knowledge resources. In doing so, we will generate wealth and jobs in communities across Canada, and we will go a long way to becoming a more innovative nation.

Dr. Gilles G. Patry is president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation.