28 April 2015

From Discovery to Business Innovation

The Metro Toronto Convention Centre is abuzz this week with two conferences that nicely represent the continuum of research, from basic to applied through to experimental development and business innovation.  OCE Discovery is the annual conference sponsored by the Ontario Centres of Excellence, which funds R&D in the province. It represents the scale and scope of the R&D and Innovation ecosystem - most if not all public sector R&D performers are there showing the strengths of the system that supports research from the lab to the marketplace. The Conference Board of Canada convenes today and tomorrow for their Business Innovation Summit 2015, offering a range of speakers on topics as diverse as fostering innovation and R&D for market outputs through to the skills required for an innovative workforce.  In short, within one venue we have the opportunity to see and hear from many leaders from the spectrum of R&D and innovation.

22 April 2015

Budget 2015 support Business Innovation

Yesterday's federal budget contains some significant advances for the R&D capacity of the country. More specifically, Budget 2015 is one that promotes business innovation, something that has long been lacking in Canada. By business innovation we can include a host of measures, from promoting industry-academic partnerships for R&D right through to skills development and labour market information.

Budget 2015 R&D funding will further support research in our universities, colleges and polytechnics. The granting councils have been given modest increases focused on enhancing R&D from basic to applied research right through to experimental development. This includes $1.33B over six years for the CFI, $15M to NSERC - $5M of which will increase the College and Community Innovation Program (CCIP) starting in 2016-17, and $7M to SSHRC to increase partnerships between the public and private sector. As the budget notes Canada is at the top of the G7 in Higher Education R&D (HERD) spending (see page 93). Promoting greater capacity to engage in public-private R&D partnerships (P3RD) will help Canada leverage our world-leading basic research capacity and our polytechnic and college applied research strengths in support of experimental development and business innovation.

Most significant is the introduction of a key recommendation of the Jenkins Panel - a consolidation of industry facing R&D programs. This is a very positive move that will enable the full exercising of the public R&D system (universities, colleges and polytechnics) and orient these to industry partnerships when and where applicable. As I noted in my last post this was raised by industry participants in the NSERC Strategy Town Hall George Brown College hosted last week. The effort by NSERC is to align with the NRC's Concierge service, a nascent effort by the NRC to provide a portal into the secondary R&D supports. The Concierge service is right-headed, but adding NSERC to the mix will enable it to better serve the needs of industry by matching need to specific innovation support offered by universities, polytechnics and colleges. NSERC is well positioned to access the public R&D system.

The real value here is in the sector-agnostic approach to linking industry to innovation ecosystem supports:"While maintaining existing support for research activities at colleges and universities, this integration of similar programming will offer companies a single window through which they can undertake research collaborations with a university, a college, or both depending on project needs" (111). I would submit that this is one of the more forward-thinking initiatives to come to the R&D sector, in that we are finally moving forward on providing a seamless bridge for public-private R&D support, free of the angst of funding direction (as in: who gets the money - universities or colleges). This is positive evolution.

There are other elements of the budget that are of significance - new labour market information (much needed in Canada) through to programs that will focus on "'soft' skills, such as the ability to communicate clearly, think strategically and work in teams" (149). This is the essence of innovation literacy, and promoting Blue Seal certification for example (a key recommendation from Polytechnics Canada), as well as youth employment, aboriginal employment and entrepreneurship and support for persons with disabilities will help ensure Canada has the right skills - including STEM skills - that a modern innovation economy requires. We can add to this experiential learning - a core facet of George Brown College's Strategy 2020 - as key to ensuring graduates of post secondary education have the skills employers need. Here we have another very positive development that acknowledges the specific strengths of the college and polytechnic sector.
Economic Action Plan 2015 proposes to provide a one-time investment of $65 million over four years, starting in 2016–17, to business and industry associations to support partnerships between employers and willing educational institutions. Through these partnerships, groups of employers and industry organizations will work with willing post-secondary institutions to develop curricula and programs that are aligned with the specific skills needs of the labour market.
It is worth noting that the Ontario Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Act, 2002, compels Colleges in Ontario "to offer a comprehensive program of career-oriented, post-secondary education and training to assist individuals in finding and keeping employment, to meet the needs of employers and the changing work environment and to support the economic and social development of their local and diverse communities." Colleges are specifically set up to serve the labour market needs with our educational programming, and this applies to our focus on applied research. Budget 2015 supports the further refinement and development of how best our educational systems can respond to labour market needs for skills development and the orientation of R&D capacity - for technology transfer out of our leading basic research institutions and firm-friendly conduits into the applied research capacity. Canada is on the cusp of becoming world class in our orientation to the innovation economy.

One highlight is the funding of the Canadian Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation (CC-ABHI), which is led by Baycrest Hospital, and includes a host of private and public sector partners working together to create "a national hub and network dedicated to the development, validation, commercialization, dissemination and adoption of brain health and seniors care products and services." George Brown College is very pleased to be a founding academic partner in CC-ABHI. Our Advanced Prototyping Lab will be supporting product development, in addition to clinical simulation and testing.

Read the Colleges and Institutes Canada press release and the Polytechnics Canada press release on Budget 2015.

19 April 2015

Notes on the NSERC Strategy Consultation

As most in the research community will know the new NSERC President Dr Mario Pinto has launched a consultation process for their new 2020 Strategy. George Brown College hosted a consultation Town Hall for Dr Pinto last week as part of the 20290 Strategy. Dr Pinto was called away at the last moment to attend an event with the Prime Minister, so Bert van den Berg, Director, Colleges, Commercialization & Portfolio Planning at NSERC stepped in to lead the discussion. About 40 attendees convened at our waterfront campus to learn about the NSERC vision and to provide input and comments on shaping this direction. It was a productive discussion from a diverse audience comprised of college, polytechnic and university researches and administrators, as well as many industry partners.

The NSERC 2020 Strategy has this as its goal:

The result is a well-positioned vision for NSERC in 2020 “to be a global leader in strengthening the discovery-innovation continuum for the societal and economic benefit of Canada.”
Our vision is founded on people, the lifeblood of discovery and innovation, and on achieving four strategic goals:
  1. Fostering a science culture in Canada.
  2. Building a diversified and competitive research base through discovery research.
  3. Strengthening the discovery-innovation continuum.
  4. Going global.
Discussion at the Town Hall focused on what this means to firms, as well as college and university researchers who are enablers of this vision. For college and polytechnic applied research, we are focused on the third point of "Strengthening the discovery-innovation continuum," given our focus on innovation. Industry representatives at the Town Hall spoke about the need for NSERC to provide an easy and accessible route for firms to tap into the basic and applied research capacity in Canada - much like the NRC's Concierge service, which van den Berg noted is a key partnership component for all in the research and innovation space. Another question related to the goal of "Going global" focused on the need to support stronger investment, including aiding discoveries to get into the marketplace internationally, as well as firms selling to international markets.

On the notion of getting discoveries to market, Canada has a real challenge here. With leading G8 per capita R&D spending in the public sector but lagging industry R&D spending (the HERD|BERD imbalance), we need to do more to increase academic R&D productivity. As successive expert panels have determined, our rate of return on academic discoveries is poor. We have world leading basic/discovery research labs, yet the worst record in the world for realizing the value of IP generated here in Canada. Part of this involves changing academic culture - orienting tenure and promotion discussions away from publishing first toward a patenting first commercializing second route, and enabling university professors to count this activity as part of the T&P discussion. This happens to some extent now, but until we staunch the flow of ideas flowing out of our porous borders and start protecting and generating value from Canadian IP we will continue to be an exporter of raw materials (ideas) for the rest of the world to commercialize and sell back to us. The latest federal Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy provides good context for all of us involved in the R&D and innovation chain in Canada. It is worth repeating what I wrote then:

There is much to be celebrated about Canada’s world leading basic research. We need more focus on translating this research into practical application for social and economic good. Our negative balance in IP – one of the worst records in the world – should be alarming to any Canadian. Successive expert panels have all said we have a systematic failure in this country to capitalize on the excellent basic research capacity we possess in our world leading research institutions. This failure is two-fold: we do not commercialize inventions effectively, nor does our industry invest in R&D and innovation, thereby offering a poor receptor to the outputs of academic research.

Well-funded basic research is necessary, but not sufficient for a functioning innovation economy. Countries like Canada, with our economy so dependent on resource extraction industries, need to start adding value to the raw resources we extract so we are less dependent on things like the price of oil. Basic research with little or no focus on application or commercialization becomes just one more example of how Canada exports raw commodities (ideas) without adding value (commercialization of these ideas). We can no longer afford this.  

The new NSERC 2020 Strategy offers all of us - researchers and administrators from both basic and applied research institutions - an opportunity to provide input as to how to achieve a healthy balance between the necessary components of a well functioning R&D system. I would add to this the requisite industry contribution - experimental development - which often gets overlooked in the (at times overly partisan) discussion about research funding in Canada. My challenge to the research community is to use this opportunity to provide input to NSERC, and to promote collaborative efforts, not to swing like simians from one branch of the tree, but rather to understand that the tree is part of a forest. Let's evolve our thinking, on R&D, innovation, and supply and demand for a world leading economy.

And speaking of NSERC, student researchers in our FedDev funded Green Building Centre have been named a runner up in the NSERC Science! Action! video contest. Their video on the Home Retrofit Guide was produced by and stars the students and is a great view into what applied research looks like from the student perspective. Congratulations to Eleanor Martinez and the entire Building Science research team.  Check it out below!

17 April 2015

CICan releases annual report on applied research

Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan) has released the updated compendium on applied research, offering an in depth look at the state of applied research in colleges, polytechnics and institutes across Canada. Accelerating Business and Community Innovation is the 2013-14 environmental scan, an annual report CICan produces showcasing the strengths of the college applied research collective effort.  This is a great overview of what has been built over the past decade or so since the original CCIP pilot and the formal introduction of college applied research funding in the 2007 Science and Technology Strategy. Of particular note is that the private sector is nearly matching the grant funding colleges receives $78M to $85M per annum respectively, a healthy sign of a robust innovation system working well at enabling the innovation economy. That there is a slight difference is to be expected, since some funding to colleges, for example that from CFI, goes to infrastructure for which no direct industry match is required.

CICan is convening their annual applied research symposium as part of the annual conference this year, another sign of integration that equates to applied research being integral to college, polytechnic and institute operations. At the 2013 symposium, NSERC's Bert van den Berg and I convened a discussion on "Developments for Performance measurement in applied research and technology development," in which we outlined a need for measuring college applied research along two lines:
  • capacity: the capability of the institution and its units to work with clients on applied research and technology development; and   
  • contribution: the performance of applied research and technology development with clients and the downstream effect on social and economic productivity.
With the latest report, CICan has shown that there is a strong capacity to deliver applied research and innovation services to industry and community partners that makes significant contribution to social and economic productivity in many parts of Canada.

08 April 2015

Applied Research Funding Announcements Showcase George Brown College's Green Building Capacity

The Honourable Ed Holder, Minister of State for Science and Technology was at Mohawk College today to announce the latest rounds of awards in the Tri-Council College and Community Innovation Program and the CFI College Industry Innovation Fund. George Brown College was awarded three awards, including a joint NSERC/CFI Innovation Enhancement Grant in Building Information Modeling and an Industrial Research Chairs for Colleges Grant in Smart Connected Buildings: Intelligent Building Automation Systems.

These awards build on the history of work we have done supporting industries in the green construction areas, leveraging our FedDev funded Green Building Centre. This is a real success story for the CCI Program, in that we have built a successful applied research capacity in the green construction industries over the past several years. This has supported work with many industry partners who have gotten new products and services to market while teaching our students innovation literacy.

The CCI Program and the CFI funding is building college and polytechnic applied research capacity across the country in many important sectors of the economy. As outlined in the federal government's Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy these are important components of the innovation ecosystem in Canada.

06 April 2015

Prototyping Innovation and Clear Blue Technologies

Recently the Honourable Ed Holder, Minister of State for Science and Technology, was on hand to award a NRC-IRAP award of $92000 to Clear Blue Technologies, a company we have been proud to work with these past few years. Our Advanced Prototyping Lab, funded by FedDev Ontario as part of our Green Building Centre, has supported the development of the Clear Blue Technologies off-grid lighting system. Miriam Tuerk, CEO of Clear Blue, is also the Chair of our Innovation Advisory Board.

The announcement was held just adjacent to our Waterfront campus at the Tridel Bayside Presentation Centre. I can see the Clear Blue Technologies off-grid street lamp out of my office window. The wind generator spins, powering the light, and enabling the connectivity to the wider system. I'm fond of pointing this out to people who visit our applied research facilities as I tell them "this is what applied research looks like."

This is a great investment that is really smart - not only in the sense of this being a smart technology, but also that it is a smart bet on a future green technology that has the potential to reshape the Canadian manufacturing industry. Clear Blue Technologies is a leader in the innovation space, having developed their technology to meet a market demand for innovative and environmentally sustainable solutions. Congratulations to Miriam and the team at Clear Blue Technologies!