26 March 2014

Toronto Region Board of Trade on a resilient regional economy

The Toronto Region Board of Trade hosted Roger Martin of the Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity on Monday to speak to a new report they have released called Toward a Toronto Region Economic Strategy. The report follows on the important work on clusters TRBOT has been sponsoring over the past few years and the most recent Scorecard on Prosperity (2014), and features an in depth analysis of the sate of the Greater Toronto Area economy, the inputs that make it function, the clusters that dominate the socio-economic landscape, and what action is needed to spur growth. It is the call to action that are the main features here, as the Toronto Region is not performing well. As TRBOT CEO Carol Wilding and TRBOT Board Chair Beth Wilson state in their introduction, the report “leads to a framework for a regional economic strategy and examines where Toronto excels, faces challenges, and provides opportunities for consideration for the region not only to become more economically productive, but also to be a more livable and prosperous region.” In short, the story as it is is not that good. Toronto lags in many areas, and concerted action is needed to maximize the potential latent in the region.

It is good to see the report acknowledge the full spectrum of the post secondary landscape, from colleges, to polytechnics to universities, as being part of the Education and Knowledge Cluster. The other clusters – Financial Services (the single largest cluster by far), Information Technology, Processed Food, and Life Sciences – are all important drivers of the regional economy. Key here is finding ways for businesses to lead cluster development and refinement, and to spur industry to invest in the three pillars of economic development: new technology, training of employees, and R&D.

Certainly in the training and education aspects Toronto does well, with numerous leading universities, polytechnics and colleges in the Greater Toronto Area. On the R&D side, the report makes positive mention of the need to foster greater industry R&D spending, as well as increasing the capacity of education institutions to partner with firms on R&D activities. These kind of public-private partnerships for R&D (what I call P3RD) are important drivers not only of business innovation, but also of fostering broader innovation skills throughout the educational process, from undergraduate through to graduate.

The report calls for the creation of a higher education advocacy group for the Toronto area, building on the London, UK model, in support of the Education and Knowledge Cluster. This is a good i9dea, and builds on the increasing awareness of al PSE institutions in the region of the value of working together. More work is needed, and such an advocacy group will enable us to combine the best from each, recognize that each kind of institution – university, polytechnic, and college – all play important roles in supporting the entire range of workforce development. The same holds true for research, as both basic and applied research excellence is needed. This will foster greater academic productivity, as well as greater business innovation and productivity.

The report acknowledges the complementary role that colleges and polytechnics play in the education and R&D ecosystem. It also speaks about experiential learning, and the value this brings to all students from any educational context. This is a signal opportunity to invest in the teaching of innovation and entrepreneurship skills commensurate with fostering academic inventions and commercialization together with business innovation.

The Processed Food cluster represents a key area that I’ve been active in for the past couple of years, all in support of the TRBOT’s efforts to foster greater competitiveness and growth in this important sector of the economy. The Food Innovation Research Studio (FIRSt) is a key applied research centre of excellence at GBC, and the applied R&D we conduct with local firms combined with our leading educational programs makes us a key stakeholder in this area. There is good work going on here by many people; watch this space for updates in the future.

The report is a must read for anyone interested in the long-term health of the GTA. It has important data on what is working and why, and equally important information as to what actions are required to enable Toronto to realize its full potential. It is a highly credible and reliable source of information and insights that forms a key fulcrum of the TRBOT “Think Twice, Vote Once – Decision 2014: campaign. Kudos to the TRBOT, the Martin Prosperity Institute, and KPMG for producing this important work. It should be circulated – and read – widely.

18 March 2014

IRAP supports demand driven innovation: Business Innovation Access Program launched

The honourable Greg Rickford, Minister of State for Science and Technology was at Sheridan College today announcing the launch of the NRC Business Innovation Access Program (BIAP). BIAP, also known as innovation vouchers, were promised in Budget 2013. As Minister Rickford stated in his address to the crowd, the program features "hassle-free vouchers, valued up to $50,000 per project, to access business and technical services carried out by Canadian researchers and students." The vouchers are a direct result of the Jenkins Panel which recommended vouchers as a way to support firms to get access to talent, facilities and networks in Canada's postsecondary education institutions.

This is a smart update to the innovation toolkit - it puts the funding in the hands of firms and creates demand driven innovation - this is the "pull" model of R&D that Canada's polytechnics and colleges excel at, but which universities also do well. Linking these systems in Canada to provide business innovation support fosters an open innovation approach to encouraging firms to invest in the development of new products and services.

With BIAP firms can tap into business and technical services provided by innovation intermediaries such as colleges, polytechnics and universities. The program assumes there will be good industry awareness, so communication of the opportunity will be key. Also assumed is the effective working of the NRC concierge service, which was also recently launched. These programs reinforce innovation as a social activity, and their success is contingent on all actors in the innovation ecosystem - firms, intermediaries, economic development agencies and other governmental supports (NRC, OCE et al) - working together.

There is good precedent - not just for vouchers (as they have been successfully delivered in other parts of the country)  - but also for the innovation ecosystem approach. We are working toward an effective integration of the various players all in support of fostering greater productivity, here of firms to tap in to R&D capacity, but also more broadly of basic research conducted in our world leading labs. The Concierge service, much like the P3RD system, are oriented toward fostering greater transparency of who can provide services, where and how, and developing public-private partnerships to support R&D.

At a round table discussion about academic-industry partnerships after the announcement, Minister Rickford spoke about the importance of measuring outcomes, and of those providing services to use common forms and formats for reporting on how the BIAP service works.  Such outcomes should include both inputs and outputs, but also throughput: what firms find BIAP and how were they referred or otherwise located the service; how did they locate a PSE service provide; what kinds of services were required; how well were these matched to regional opportunities/service providers; what was the time required to launch a project; what the the time of the conduct of the project; did BIAP accelerate innovation for the firm; and what were the outcomes in terms of new products and services in the market.

There is a strong consonance here with the emergence of a collective capacity not just to foster greater productivity of R&D in firms and academia, but also of learning how best to benchmark performance against these kinds of goals. Canada has not really tackled these issues yet, but the discussion is at least focusing examining what we do and how we do it, in terms of innovation, and how can we leverage complementary systems to national advantage. And for BIAP at least, this means looking downstream at what firms are doing in the economy, and how those of us whose mandate it is to help can best support them.

For now, spread the word. Firms seeking innovation support should contact their local IRAP office.

09 March 2014

ACCC Research Symposium helps chart the evolution of college and polytechnic applied research

Lat week the ACCC convened the annual Applied Research Symposium, which provides an excellent view into the evolution of the country's applied research capacity being built in Canada's polytechnics and colleges.

The event was opened by the Honourable Greg Rickford, Minister of State for Science and Technology, who lauded the work being done across the country to support industry innovation. Minister Rickford outlined the important role of colleges and polytechnics in advancing Canada's new Innovation, Science and Technology policy, due out later this year. The Minister also spoke about the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) and the new Canada Social Innovation Fund (CSIF) as representing key advances in the country's ability to leverage all aspects of the post secondary system to the advantage of Canadian firms, community organizations, and importantly, mobilizing our world leading basic research capacity to its fullest innovation potential.

The CSIF, announced as was the CFREF in Budget 2014, represents a key advance in college applied research. Both new funds will be administered by SSHRC and will advance the new IST Strategy by leveraging all innovation intermediaries from across the basic to applied research spectrum for greater social and economic prosperity. There is a lot of work to be done, and Minister Rickford advised the crowd that the college system must now step up and realize this potential commensurate with the new funding, in particular for the CSIF. The CSIF will roll out over the coming months, with the first tranche of funds to be  awarded in the coming fiscal year. While the program design needs to be completed, the College and Community Innovation Program offers a foundation. The team at NSERC, who administers the CCIP on behalf of the Tri-Council, has provided an excellent model for working with the polytechnic and college system to iteratively develop a program that is responsive to the college system while enabling the colleges to respond to their constituents. This means ensuring there is funding for faculty release time within the scope of block awards given to colleges, with mandatory student engagement, community response (a pull, not push, model of research), and with social not economic returns on investment and interest.

As a member of the SSHRC Programs and Quality Committee I am looking forward to advancing the CSIF in conjunction with our college and polytechnic colleagues across the country.  As Minister Rickford stated, it is up to the system to step up and realize the potential of this fund. First up is for colleges to obtain SSHRC eligibility. This should be done immediately for those not already eligible. For colleges that are NSERC eligible for the CCIP, this should be relatively straight forward. Nonetheless, I encourage all who are interested in the CSIF to start this process now in preparation for the launch of the program.

There were many good ideas and presentations at the Symposium, including a panel discussion on the value of the college and polytechnic system to enhance and foster private sector engagement in innovation. Bogdan Ciobanu of the NRC spoke about IRAP programs, and noted the imminent launch of the NRC's Business Innovation Assistance Program - this is the industry innovation voucher program launched in Budget 2013. The voucher program, and the CFREF among others, raises the issue of applied research capacity, and just what will constitute a preferred service provider for innovation intermediaries. Equally important is the need to ensure that government agencies such as IRAP are cognizant of the business development and applied research practices of colleges and polytechnics. This mutual understanding has been evolving over the past several years such that we are at a point now where there is the start (at least) of the diffusion of innovation support and the understanding of this in the wider business community.

There is still much work to be done in fostering a greater sense of how colleges, polytechnics and universities can work together to realize the innovation potential of our basic science capacity while enabling industry innovation. This latter is the biggest lag to the country's innovation and productivity potential, followed closely by our historical inability to commercialize homegrown IP.

In keeping with this point the best part of the conference was a pre-conference workshop and discussion convened by the country's Technology Access Centres (TACs), as funded by the CCIP. George Brown College has one of the first TACs in the Food Innovation Research Studio (FIRSt). This group has advanced the thinking on college and polytechnic applied research significantly in reviewing concepts related to college research brand identity, standards, and franchising along the lines of the capacity and contribution model of applied research that Bert van den Berg and I introduced to the ACCC Research Symposium last year.

There is an important precedent for this thinking in the three decade history of the Quebec CCTTs. The CCTTs have built a brand identity in industry as a place where firms can access applied research, technology development, technical assistance and information & training. Within the CCTTs is an inherent common capacity to undertake this work in ways that are known and expected by industry. This model has grown over the last 30 years such that it has created an awareness and expectation of contribution along common standards. Learning from and building on this model, the TACs are well positioned to create a similar brand across the country, advancing the innovation potential latent in our firms and basic science labs alike. This is the most significant aspect of the evolution of applied research as represented in the country's colleges and polytechnics. The ACCC has supported this growth and evolution, alongside Polytechnics Canada and the Réseau Trans-tech.

Launched at this year's Symposium was the ACCC's updated environmental scan, which offers a good view into the world of college applied research. This is a good accompaniment to the research fact sheet of Polytechnics Canada and Réseau Trans-tech's evaluation report. And while there is still much work to be done in terms of orienting the college and polytechnic applied research system to outcomes and impacts, we are starting to get a clear picture of the activities and objectives of college and polytechnic applied research as it relates to student engagement and skills acquisition and firm level innovation. There is much to celebrate here, and the Symposium offered a good avenue to pause and reflect on what works well and how we can work together to continuously improve our approach.

The community is evolving and continuing to learn from each other while benchmarking itself against the criterion of excellence in support of greater innovation and productivity. When we are able to critically examine our practices and measure these against international counterparts such as the likes of the Fraunhofer and Tekes institutes, then we are showing ourselves to be world class in our approach to applied research. The ACCC Applied Research Symposium has shown the community has a willingness to engage in this way - particularly in the TACs - which marks an important step in the ongoing evolution of the college and polytechnic applied research capacity.