26 November 2012

P3RD and Mapping Innovation in Canada

Last week I attended a couple of interesting talks that provided good inputs to our ongoing discussion about innovation in Canada. The first, by the Honourable Jim Flaherty, Minister of Finance, spoke at the Toronto Board of Trade. In his address, Minister Flaherty outlined some of the government's priorities going into the next election. Budget consultations are set to start this week, and Minister Flaherty offered a reasoned approach to where the government sees potential for reducing debt and fostering growth. He also mentioned kick starting the venture capital fund, to be led by the private sector (an excellent example of public-private partnerships for R&D: P3RD), that was announced in the last budget. Key to the government is encouraging economic growth through investments in infrastructure, skills training, R&D, and innovation.

The second event was Rob MacIsaac, President of Mohawk College & Chair of Committee of Presidents, Colleges Ontario, who spoke at a Canadian Club luncheon on "Unleashing the Potential of Ontario’s Colleges." MacIsaac picked up themes raised by Minister Flaherty, notably the links between skills training, R&D and innovation. He rightfully admonished the Ontario educational system for not working better as a system - a point raised during the Globe and Mail`s Our Time to Lead focus on education. Ontario needs to do more to realize the value of all educational inputs, and to retool our colleges, polytechnics and universities into a true system that effectively responds to and leads the province in terms of knowledge, labour and research production.

These themes are being raised at Colleges Ontario's annual Higher Education Summit, which offers an excellent array of speakers delving into these issues. Highlights of today's schedule include the future of manufacturing (set for disruption by the emergence of low cost 3D printers, or example, and the Maker Movement), and a panel on the future of post secondary education. 

The links between skills training, innovation and R&D represent a key front in our attempts to foster greater innovation across the economy. We explore these in our recent Toronto Next: Return on Innovation study, which shows there is still a lot of work to do in ensuring firms understand how innovation inputs lead to productivity outputs. Key for polytechnics and colleges is the development of innovation literacy in our graduates, and the promotion of P3RD. Those interested in innovation literacy and skills will be interested in this article on "Must-Have Job Skills in 2013", which shows strong parallels between what we discerned in our Toronto Next study.

And on the topic of P3RD, we will be launching a new industry web service that is designed to link the private and public sectors for R&D at the ACCT Canada conference next week. INNOVATION 2012 – Connecting R & D and Commercialization, being held 2-3 December in Ottawa, promises some excellent discussion on this and many other topics. It is not to be missed. On Monday I am convening a panel to discuss how best to link our public and private sectors for improved research and development. We will feature our mapping innovation app, which enable industry to find a public innovation support provider through an easy to use web application. Stay tuned for more details.

19 November 2012

Polytechnic Applied Research: Open for Business Innovation

Research Infosource last month published their annual Top 100 R&D spenders supplement in the National Post. My editorial for this issue is below. College research was also featured in this piece.

Canada’s polytechnics and colleges offer industry-facing applied research solutions that fill gaps in the country’s R&D pipelines. Our focus on applied research, innovation and commercialization supports industry innovation needs in ways that are complementary to established, discovery-based research institutions. This is a strength, and a necessary facet of a healthy R&D continuum.

Since 2008, the institutions that comprise Polytechnics Canada (BCIT, SAIT Polytechnic, NAIT, Conestoga, Sheridan, Humber, Seneca, George Brown and Algonquin Colleges) have worked with 3,759 Canadian companies, 95% of which are small and mid-sized enterprises, conducted 2,481 applied research projects solving industry-identified problems, involved 22,515 college students and 1,978 college staff or faculty in applied research activity, and developed 948 prototypes for their industry research partners. Colleges across the country are involved in similar activity, as Canada initiates investment in college applied research as a vital lever in the R&D toolkit.

The breadth of industry partnerships that polytechnic and college applied research enables was noted in the recent Council of Canadian Academies Expert Panel Report on “The State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012.” The report shows that as a country we excel in many fields of research, and punch above our weight in terms of publications and international research influence. However, we fall short of unlocking the potential commercial value of the outcomes of basic research. In addition, Canadian businesses perform much less R&D as compared with our international counterparts. Our collective historical identity as "hewers of wood and drawers of water” has meant that ideas are just another basic resource that we draw from the land and export without adding value. Our competitors are exploiting our research to their commercial advantage.

Polytechnics and colleges focus on speed to market and engaging our students in industry innovation. We offer industry and universities alike four key advantages: 
  • Access to talent – our faculty who are industry professionals, and our students. By engaging our students in applied research we train the highly qualified and skilled people needed for the innovation economy, who gain crucial innovation skills as part of their applied education. 
  • Access to state-of-the-art facilities – our industry-focused teaching facilities double as applied research labs for companies or scientists who do not have equipment or need help making a prototype or product. 
  • Access to markets and networks – we leverage our close ties to industry to help our research partners develop products and sales. 
  • Access to capital – government funding provides matching capital for companies to engage in innovation partnerships, creating economies of scale for firms with ideas but lacking in-house R&D capacity. 
The 2007 federal Science and Technology Strategy gave impetus to college applied research capacity through the creation of the College and Community Innovation Program. Yet, the CCIP is the only federal program for polytechnic and college applied research. It is underfunded as compared to demand: we currently turn companies away both for lack of funding and capacity, limiting our ability to be “open for business innovation.”

Firms in Canada are not yet making effective use of the postsecondary research facilities we have, but this is changing. Polytechnic and college applied research can play a more robust role in strengthening national and regional capacity to innovate. We work with research centres and industry partners to enhance competitiveness in the sectors we serve. Our applied research centres offer services to industry that are not currently widely available in Canada – the applied research, commercialization-focused “last mile” services that industry needs in order to test market assumptions.

Canada needs to encourage industry-academic partnerships and have each party play to their strengths, be this basic research, applied research, or industry focused innovation. We need a better balance between the input and output sides of the innovation equation. Broadening the potential outputs for R&D by supporting applied research will foster increased productivity, enable Canada to realign R&D expenditure imbalances, and correct our long-standing poor record on industrial innovation.

There is work to be done by the polytechnic and college sectors in continuing to build the applied research capacity while finding better ways to measure outcomes. This requires us to focus on outputs and on collaborative data gathering to show the return on the (modest) CCIP investment. We would do well to encourage greater linkages among university, polytechnic and college research institutions, and greater industry-academic partnerships overall, building a true innovation system that plays to the strengths of all its parts. By working together, we can increase Canada’s global competitiveness.

15 November 2012

Polytechnics Canada showcases students' work on industry applied research

The annual Polytechnics Canada Applied Research Showcase was hosted by the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and today featured excellent presentations from students who have worked with industry partners at each polytechnic The presentations are always a real treat; student demonstrate how they have applied their education and worked to help industry realize innovation goals. At the same time, they demonstrate how they have acquired innovation literacy skills. George Brown College recent grad Adam Piercey won third place for his presentation about his work on Infonaut's hand hygiene gel dispenser, as part of the Infonaut Hospital Watch Live project. Congratulations to Adam for a job well done.

The Showcase featured some great speeches from notable industry leaders such as Mike Begin, President and CEO, Spartan Controls Ltd., who spoke today about how applied research fills a necessary gap in Canada, and that the differentiation we have - colleges, universities, polytechnics - are a positive feature of our ecosystem. We must not shy away fro industry applied research, nor should we aspire to be universities. Rather, polytechnics are doing what we need them to: educate for skills, and to support industry innovation through applied research.

This message was reinforced during the conference dinner by Member of Parliament James Rajotte. The Honourable Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, echoed this after presenting the students with the awards. Minister Goodyear spoke about collaboration and building on our base of research excellence, referring to the recent CCA Expert Panel report on the the State of Science and Technology in Canada. Applied research with industry is complementary to our basic research excellence, and is a key component in our ability to turn around our innovation performance. Minister Rona Ambrose, Minister of Public Works and Government Services and Minister for Status of Women, spoke as well, outlining how the government's innovation procurement strategy dovetails with the Science and Technology Strategy focus on fostering innovation in Canadian firms. The Canadian Innovation Commercialization Program (CICP) is an innovative approach that enables Canadian firms to meet market needs within government procurement, giving firms important reference client sales which supports international sales. It is policies such as these, in addition to the College and Community Innovation Program, that foster greater innovation potential. Firms are accessing the talent, facilities, networks and funding while we train the future talent our economy needs. It is heartening to see our students step up onto the stage as ambassadors for industry innovation.

07 November 2012

It's time to move from diagnosis to treatment for our innovation ills

Gordon Nixon and Kevin Lynch have a good article in today's Globe that discusses what ails Canada's innovation and productivity. There are no surprises here in their treatise on What's holding Ontario back? The article is worth the read, but we really need to move past saying what is wrong - diagnosing the problem - and move on to taking action. It is nice that the writers say that "Ontario is well-positioned for success, starting with one of the best-educated, most diverse work forces in the world." It would be nice if they were to acknowledge that this includes both college and university graduates - a fact sorely lacking from the Globe's Our Time to Lead feature on education. Even better would be to outline how we can better align our world leading R&D and education capacity to the needs of the economy. I won't belabour the point I made on this earlier, except to say that we need some straight talk on the alignment of skills - STEM and nonSTEM, including and importantly the contribution social sciences and humanities make to social and economic productivity. It really is time for us to realize that we need to work together to capitalize on this potential. It is much more difficult to build than it is to tear down. So here is my prescription for better productivity health: think not of ourselves but of what we are doing for the economy, work together to realize complementarity, and focus on downstream innovation and productivity. A people-centred innovation requires a deep understanding of human potential and capacity, and the willingness to learn and work together.

05 November 2012

Skills and education instrumentality

The recent Globe and Mail Our Time to Lead series on education offered many compelling stories on the need to transform education. For my own part, I remain mystified why some in the post secondary education world tend to avoid any talk of outcomes, namely jobs. As I pointed out in the online interactive video I did for the series, why is that career centres on Canada's university campuses are an after thought? Why do we leave it to the imagination of students to think about their future careers, when we could be encouraging people to apply what they learn to important social and economic issues. I allude to this in my op-ed on what I call open source learning. Today's Globe has an article by Gwyn Morgan in which he talks about the fact that Divisions between haves and have-nots begin with having skills – or not. His point is similar - we ignore outcomes for education at our social and economic peril. Our future productivity and competitiveness depend on having a highly educated and skilled work force. Those who sit in the ivory tower and eschew the very real fact that finding one's way in the world means finding meaningful work are perpetuating our downward slide into even poorer productivity. It's time we challenged these nostrums and exposed them for what they are: dangerous assumptions that ignore present - and future - realities.

To this point, our recent study Toronto Next: Return on Innovation clearly shows that employers want people who can apply their skills to work. This is a central aspect of innovation literacy.