21 February 2013

The future of innovation is bright: Business Innovation Summit recap

The Conference Board of Canada convened the Business Innovation Summit these past two days, which featured a lot of great discussion on how Canada can step up its game in terms of encouraging firms to invest in productivity and innovation. The Honourable Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology and the Federal Economic Development Agency of Ontario (FEDDEV) opened the conference with a keynote address that focused on skills development and encouraging students from K-12 through to college and university to embrace innovation in their skills and entrepreneurship. This was an important theme of the conference.

Doug Watt and Dan Munro of the Conference Board picked up the theme of skills with an overview of their updated Innovation Skills Profile and the newly created Commercialization Skills Profile. These are important tools that can aid educators and firms alike to assess and develop the innovation and commercialization skills people need in order to enhance and engage in innovation and commercialization. A couple of years ago I put together a study to measure innovation literacy in students engaged in applied research; Doug and Dan and the Conference Board were partners in this. Our plan was to use the Conference Board's General Innovation Skills Aptitude Test (GISAT) to assess the innovation skills in order to start unpacking outcomes associated with how we foster innovation literacy in our programs and applied research with industry. I am pleased to say that we will relaunch this effort. Part of George Brown College's commitment to Enabling the innovation economy in our Strategy 2020 Balanced Score Card is to create an impact measure that will enable us to asses the downstream effects of our programs and applied research projects. Our Innovation Advisory Board has been very instrumental in helping to move this work along, and we are ready to relaunch the Measuring Innovation Literacy study. Stay tuned for more details.

Another notable element of the conference was a talk about Deloitte's study on The Future of Productivity. This contains prescriptions for industry, government and academia. For the latter, this includes the need to "Align curricula with business and industrial needs for scientists, engineers and leaders" and "Develop, protect and exploit intellectual properties developed at the post-secondary level." Colleges and polytechnics, as well as professional programs in universities, are well attuned to the first point. Canada does a deplorable job on the second. As I've said before, ideas emerging from Canadian basic research seem to be just another raw resource we extract and give away without adding value (i.e. commercializing). It's time to rethink the ways in which we promote basic research and university tenure to foster greater value-added R&D.

Latent in the first point about aligning business needs to curricula is the idea of public-private partnerships for R&D, or what I call P3RD. Taken together - fostering innovation skills throughout the education systems, linking industry needs to curricula, and taking an instrumental approach to aligning R&D outputs and input - are all part of taking a managed approach to innovation and outcomes. On the topic of P3RD, NSERC president Suzanne Fortier announced the results of their mid-term evaluation of their partnerships program at the Summit. The news is good: Sixty Percent Increase in Businesses Doing Partnered Research and Innovation with Universities and Colleges, an increase that can be strongly attributed to the success of the College and Community Innovation Program that funds colleges and polytechnics to work with firms on applied research.

The future of innovation is bright when you see the kinds of outcomes associated with applied research we conduct with industry partners. I convened a session at the Summit on How Colleges Support Business Innovation and Commercialization, featuring Carlos Paz-Soldan, president of Tenet Computer Group and a GBC Research partner, and John-Allan Ellingson, a student in our Mechanical Engineering program. Carlos, who also chairs our Innovation Advisory Board, told the audience about Tenet's Pandemic Planning Toolkit for Mobile Devices product that GBC Research worked on, and outlined Tenet's new Green Rack Service (coming soon to a conference near you) that we are now supporting through applied research engagement. Carlos talked about the value of engaging in collaborative applied research as it enabled him to extend his own R&D and commercialization capacity while being a conduit for recruitment of full time and co-op students.

A real highlight for me was our student, John-Allan Ellingson, who spoke about applied research work he is doing on industry partner SOS Customer Service's crane project. The project is being led by Professor Jamie McIntrye of the Centre for Construction and Engineering Technologies, who is also the innovation lead for our Advanced Prototyping Lab. SOS Customer Service Inc. (SOS) is an Ontario SME that specializes in the design, development, sales and services of cranes, hoists, process automation and handling devices. SOS is collaborating with the George Brown College and Jamie McIntryre’s group to design, prototype and test a novel, lightweight and portable crane to lift windows into place for installation during construction of low-rise commercial and residential buildings. SOS has developed an innovative and simple design concept for the prototype. The new crane is expected to have significant advantages over technologies and approaches and has potential to significantly impact the return on investment (ROI) at building worksites. John-Allan is part of the team that is working with SOS to develop, prototype, test and commercialize their innovative design.

John-Allan spoke about the kinds of skills he is learning as a result of this applied research project, and how the project is giving him cumulative experience encompassing not just the engineering skills, but also design skills. This is an important point, as it relates to the need for both STEM and nonSTEM skills, and that innovation literacy and adoptation - the ability to adopt and adapt - demand a combined skillset. Chad Gaffield, President of SSHRC, put this well during another session on partnerships when he said that firms have the opportunity to partner with the whole campus when we engage all relevant fields, from the natural sciences and engineering to the social sciences and humanities. Not every faculty member in every department at universities or colleges wants to or is interested in engaging with firms on innovation challenges. But for those that do there is a lot of value: for the firms, the faculty members, and most of all, the students who, like John-Allan, demonstrate the kinds of innovation skills that will drive Canada's future productivity. Discussion on these important issues such as was enabled by the Business Innovation Summit gives me optimism about our future.

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