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.