Friday, September 14, 2018

From Idea to Invoice: Permeability and Public + Private R&D

Today I attended an excellent panel discussion hosted by Universities Canada and the Economic Club of Canada.

Research, Innovation & the New Economy featured Martha Crago, Vice-Principal, Research & Innovation at McGill University, Molly Shoichet, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering, University of Toronto, Paul Davidson, President of Universities Canada, and was moderated by Globe and Mail Science Reporter Ivan Semeniuk.

The discussion is an important one and focused on the value of basic research as a pipeline feeding applied research and experimental development, all the way through to innovation.

I've written a fair bit on the value of what I call P3RD - Public+Private Research and Development partnerships, so there is of course some confirmation bias here. But the panelists did an excellent job of articulating the value of the R&D enterprise writ large to the economy of Canada. This includes the development of ideas, knowledge and technologies - the intellectual property assets that arise from R&D. This reinforces the value of public + private partnerships for R&D. 

Molly Shoichet talked about the development of a technology to help enable drug delivery to the brain - an output of her research that is now being commercialized. In discussing the problem - the lack of permeability in the blood-brain barrier - it occurred to me that this is a good metaphor for public+private R&D partnerships. 

There has been historically little permeability between the public and private R&D worlds: this has been like the blood-brain barrier. Getting better at making this boundary more permeable is a positive way to leverage the excellent assets Canada has in its world leading basic research. 

The need to continue to enhance this connective tissue was one recommendation of the Council of Canadian Academies Expert Panel report Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada. And thing are getting better. Public sector organizations - universities, colleges, Technology Access Centres - are increasingly working with the private sector not only to push ideas into markets, but to enable the private sector to pull ideas, talent and support from the public sector. Martha spoke about the value of NSERC Engage grants in supporting partnerships at Dalhousie and McGill, and used Germany as an example where there is high permeability between public and private R&D performers. 

Germany is also a model for the linkages between public education and private sector engagement. Germany is heralded for its approach to apprenticeships, though it is important to note (as Alex Usher did some time ago - this should be required reading for anyone interested in this subject BTW) that the types of apprenticeships in Germany are much more diverse than ours. The point here is that there is real educational value in R&D apprenticeships being conducted right now in university research labs across the country. 

"Students are the motors of the research world," said Martha, meaning they conduct the work under what I would call an R&D apprenticeship. This fosters not only deep research expertise in a given field, but also innovation literacy, crucial to enabling career success and social and economic productivity widely across the economy. The recent (much needed) focus on work integrated learning is one example of a 21st Century apprenticeship platform. The panel's discussion of the educational value of R&D participation as one form of work integrated learning is an apprenticeship in innovation. 

There was good discussion about the different roles needed throughout various stages of R&D and innovation. This is essential to ensuring that we have the needed capacity and complementarity of skills and competencies to make the kinds of social, economic and cultural contributions we should expect from public investments in science and research. 

Quoting former Governor General David Johnston, Paul said "the best technology transfer is a pair of sneakers." That is, the value of R&D engagement comes in creating new products, services and what-not, but also in the incidental knowledge transfer that happens when our students graduate with innovation literacy. Our approach to research excellence and our focus on equity, diversity and inclusion makes Canada an excellent and enviable platform for going from idea to invoice

Monday, September 10, 2018

Canada as Global Platform: A Feature, not a Bug

Recently I attended a day long session on innovation skills hosted by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) at the lovely Bayview Innovation Yards in Ottawa. It was a design thinking session facilitated by ISED’s Digital Innovation Lab,, who did a great job of stepping us through the visioning of the need for innovation skills broadly construed, and what these mean to the economy. The Conference Board's Centre for Business Innovation (CBI) Innovation Skills Profiles provided the basis for skills, covering a range of skills and competencies from conducting, implementing and managing aspects of innovation and commercialization. This is a good basis on which to build a shared, national understanding of the importance of innovation and how it can be taught, learned and practiced in multiple industrial and community contexts. 

During the course of workshopping concepts, a group I was in came up with the concept of Canada as Global Platform for Starting and Scaling Businesses. This emerged as a result of thinking about the oft-heard criticism that Canada is good at start-ups but not scaling, that we perform well in basic research but not experimental development (read: commercialization) and that we need to do something about this. In essence we are proposing that we take what is seen as a weakness and instead see this as a strength. To turn a bug into a feature.

Think of it this way: Canada' greatest strength is our multicultural foundation. This could be viewed as an excellent asset for product and service design and development for almost any global landing spot. 

Platform Canada
  • Leverages the world leading basic research labs in our universities, aided by those colleges and cegeps--in particular those that are home to Technology Access Centres--for the iterative design, development and deployment of products and services to global markets.  
  • Takes Canadian ideas to the world, and enhances the ideas of others that are brought here to utilize Canadian social, cultural and economic knowledge.
  • Launches global businesses - from start-up to scale-up - based on Canadian talent, technology and R&D infrastructure.
There are many issues that need teasing out here, from the role of public funding (via R&D awards and tax credits, for example), to the agency and autonomy of businesses and the people that power them. The bottom line here is that we can take a narrow vertical of expertise - here the ability to launch start-ups - and turn this on its side to create a powerful platform that lets us serve global markets. 


Thursday, April 12, 2018

Council of Canadian Academies launches latest expert panel report: Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada.

This week saw the launch of the Council of Canadian Academies’ latest expert panel report, Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada. This report offers the most comprehensive view of the Canadian science and technology ecosystem, and its strengths in both capacity and contribution. Here is what the CCA summary says about the report:
Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada is the fourth report from the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) in a series documenting Canada’s S&T and R&D strengths and weaknesses. It assesses the latest evidence on Canada’s R&D and innovation performance, combining up-to-date data with expert insights and analyses, and benchmarking against the performance of other countries.
The expert panel had a wide remit, charged with considering the areas of excellence in basic research, applied research and experimental development, in both public and private sectors. Further we were asked to discuss how these inputs relate to our collective capacity or wealth creation – social, cultural and economic.

The data show that Canada has clear research strengths in several areas in terms of magnitude, impact, and growth: Clinical Medicine, Public Health and Health Services, Psychology and Cognitive Sciences, Philosophy and Theology, and Visual and Performing Arts. However, Canada now stands well behind the OECD average and is ranked 33rd out of 40 countries on an index of business R&D investment, intensity, and growth.

This is a worrying trend. More worrying is the fact that “Canada is now a net exporter of patents, and the outflow of patents is accelerating. In 2003, approximately 96% of the patents invented in Canada were owned in Canada. By 2014, that figure had dropped to 74%.”

Notwithstanding a lack of business investment in R&D, Canadian businesses do excel at fields, based on a composite indicator of magnitude, intensity, and growth, that includes:
  • Scientific research and development services
  • Computer systems design
  • Communications equipment manufacturing
  • Aerospace products and parts manufacturing
Overall, on the connections between R&D, Innovation & Wealth Creation the panel has this to say:
While Canada is a highly innovative country, with a robust research base and thriving communities of technology start-ups, significant barriers — such as a lack of managerial skills, the experience needed to scale-up companies, and a high rate of foreign acquisition of high-tech firms — often prevent the translation of innovation into wealth creation.
Dr Max Blouw, President and Vice-Chancellor Emeritus of Laurier University and Chair of the Expert Panel, and I were interviewed for Research Money article (paywall alert). When asked about the report and what was most significant to me, here is what I said:
“For the first time, there’s a strong linkage between the production of knowledge … and what the private sector does,” says Dr Robert Luke, VP Research and Innovation at OCAD Univ and member of the CCA expert panel. “It’s the most interesting aspect (of the report) – the connective tissue and propensity to leverage excellent knowledge in Canada.”
The idea of connective tissue is important, as we found there are strong and growing links between academic researchers and the private sector. While there are disparities in cultures (to be expected) that are exacerbated by different motivations (academics by tenure and promotion; read: publications; the private sector by sales), these are not insurmountable, and there are positive signals to build on with respect to enhancing the retention of IP in Canada and standing and scaling up global businesses here.

Fundamentally this is about ensuring the we can successfully de-risk long bets in research and capitalize on these downstream. Certainly not all paths from idea to invoice are linear nor simple, nor is every discovery immediately applicable into useful and usable contexts. But the report data show that we should all be asking what we get out of our investments in public science. Being excellent in research that fuels other countries’ economies is suboptimally oriented toward Canada increasing – let alone maintaining – our productivity.

The report is strong evidence for the efficacy of public+private R&D partnerships and the need to encourage these. Doing so across the entire spectrum of public and private sector actors will increase our collective capacity to make positive contributions to social, economic and cultural productivity.

Download the report here, and check out the CCA’s microsite that provides an excellent overview of the data.

The Council of Canadian Academies’ latest expert panel report:
Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada
As a member of this expert panel I can attest to the extremely high level of rigour that went into assembling it and performing the review and analysis of data. It was truly an honour and a privilege to be able to work not only with my colleagues on the expert panel, but also with the CCA staff, who brought to the task a dedication to excellence and exacting standards.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Economic Jiu Jitsu: Superclustering from Idea to Invoice

There has been quite a few articles on the federal superclusters initiative, some lamenting and some fawning over the spend and span of the program. Today's Globe has a good piece on the potential.

In Beyond ‘the next Silicon Valley’: Why many kinds of economic superclusters matter, authors Scott Stern and Richard Florizone articulate an important premise: rather than simply trying to "be the next Silicon Valley...research shows that clusters prosper by building on existing advantages."  This belies a flexible approach to market forces and using these to our advantage. We win in the global market by going with the flow and leveraging strengths - regional, national - magnifying these as a means of  finding ways to amplify what exists to our advantage. This is the #pivoteconomy.
A Capacity and Contribution Logic Model incorporating TRLs and Frascati research definitions

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Budget 2018 delivers smart science policy

The federal government's Budget 2018 is an advance for the science, research and innovation communities. The overall approach to gender equity, diversity and decolonization is important and timely.

The government has clearly heard the call from the Fundamental Science Review to increase our investment in research. There is a strong focus on supporting interdisciplinary and international collaborative research, which is essential for not only uncovering new areas of knowledge, but for realizing the value of ideas as they are translated into application, products, services and other innovation. This underscores the importance of design disciplines as crucial to Canada's innovation carrying capacity.

And here's the big news: "Budget 2018 proposes an investment of nearly $4 billion in Canada’s research system to support the work of researchers and to provide them access to the state-of-the-art tools and facilities they need" (p 82).

This is smart policy. Linking investments in science and technology ($3.2B investment in "research" writ large) to national priorities and, importantly, diversity and decolonization, is imperative for inclusive innovation. It is also in line with other leading OECD countries that set national priorities and focus on the spectrum of research - from idea to invoice - in order to realize the benefits of public investment in the production of public knowledge.

The most important aspect of this budget for innovation policy is the section on Leveraging the Full Potential of Business-Academia Collaboration. Changes and investment here to NSERC and CIHR promise to make public+private partnerships for R&D (P3RD), and additional funding for colleges continues the growth of capacity in the college sector to perform an important innovation intermediary function that links skills development to product and service development. The special focus on the Technology Access Centres is important as these are exemplary organizations adept at enabling private sector innovation.

The focus on the spectrum of research - from Basic Research, Applied Research to Experimental Development - is picked up in the re-imagining of the National Research Council (NRC). New investments in the NRC are absolutely necessary and essential to enable the NRC to start to really expand a focus on translating the world leading ideas uncovered in Basic Research into real innovation in the world. Among the $1.1Bn in funding that provides important inputs to capacity, the NRC gets a DARPA-like entity "to fund its scientists to work with innovators from post-secondary institutions and businesses on multi-party research and development programs." This is long overdue.

But things get really interesting in the Innovation Canada – Accelerated Growth Service section and "the creation of four flagship platforms" to deliver business innovation programs. I have elsewhere outlined the importance of focusing on the full spectrum of research activities and the lack of investment in Experimental Development (see my Capacity and Contribution Logic Model). This is a significant development that promises to help get more ideas turned into invoices by helping manage the process of research through to experimental development through a simplification of business innovation programs (a result of the Horizontal Review that Budget 2017 called for).

The Women Entrepreneurship Strategy is welcome news. This will help us focus on those outputs of innovation that are not typically valued, as outlined in this excellent article  from last week. This adds to "the Government’s coming reform to federal innovation programs [that] will include a universal goal to improve the participation of underrepresented groups, including women entrepreneurs, in the innovation economy." I also read with note the Intellectual Property Strategy. The launch of a Patent Collective is long overdue - all publicly-funded R&D performers should enter such a patent pool to mobilize stranded IP.

This is good science and innovation policy that provides new funding support for Basic Research, and support and services for Applied Research and Experimental Development, notably within the purview of public+private partnerships for R&D (P3RD). The diversity lens is essential and will result in a more inclusive Canada.

This is #smartsciencepolicy.

A Capacity and Contribution Logic Model incorporating TRLs and Frascati research definitions

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Decolonization, diversity and equity for inclusive innovation

Here is an interesting article about inclusive innovation and some of the tacit biases that exist in how we value the activities and outputs of R&D. In Women entrepreneurs are innovating in their businesses; it’s time to help them succeed the authors provide a very compelling case about how women have been largely excluded from the valorization of innovation because of a focus on products over all other forms of innovation.

In essence they argue - convincingly - that the focus on just products (usually technology) over services is devalues the types of businesses that women start, which they describe as being more services based. They outline the full spectrum of innovation that the OECD defines: product, process, organizational and marketing innovation.

Innovation happens in all sectors and across all platforms - social, economic and cultural. Broadening our definition of what constitutes a valid activity in a sphere of work has a commensurate and follow on effect on what outcomes are valued (a point I made earlier in my discussion about Capacity and Contribution).

As the authors point out: "Using this definition, we start to see these women in a new light – they are innovating in all sectors and in every aspect of their business. While we need to increase the number of female entrepreneurs in science and technology, it is important to recognize their contributions to Canada's innovation in all sectors and aspects of their businesses."

When we value the full spectrum of innovation and all of those participating we have a platform for understanding - and creating - inclusive innovation.

This should be required reading for all engaged in supporting research and innovation. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Creating gravitational pull in the innovation space

Yesterday the federal government announced the winners of the supercluster competition, with five winning bids spanning the regions of Canada in important industrial sectors: AI, proteins, ocean research, digital technology and advanced manufacturing. OCAD University is very pleased to be part of the advanced manufacturing group.

The supercluster narrative is of course based on the work of Porter et al that sees public and private actors working together in support of promoting discovery through basic research, applied research and realizing market value of these via experimental development.

There is significant potential here for Canada to amplify our move into the innovation economy. These investments will help transform the economy from simple resource extraction into one that focuses more on product and service design and adding value to the raw materials we have in abundance (and here I include the ideas that emerge from basic research in our world leading universities). Translating basic research into market success - moving from idea to invoice - is essential in the global economy. The supercluster initiative will create gravitational pull, fostering public+private research and development partnerships (P3RD) in support of resilient regional economies.

Definition of supercluster: noun; astronomy: a cluster of galaxies which themselves occur as clusters.