What does innovation look like?

October 5, 2011

In 2009, PEDNO — a Saguenay-based company that manufactures and repairs equipment for the forestry, mining and construction industries — had a challenge on its hands. After speaking with mine operators, the company found that some of the major costs of running a mine are linked with ventilation systems: the costly process of exchanging air polluted by diesel emissions from the vehicles used in the mines.

PEDNO wanted to build an emission-free vehicle with enough power to haul heavy mining cargo. It turned to Institut du transport avancé du Québec (ITAQ), a research centre affiliated with Cégep de Saint-Jérôme, for a solution. ITAQ researchers had both the expertise and equipment to help PEDNO find and test the best technologies for its one-of-a-kind vehicle. And today, the “Minautor,” as the compact 4x4 has been dubbed, is being marketed to a global clientele as an ecological and economical option for mining companies.

This is Canadian innovation at work.

Although recent global rankings have shown Canada falling behind its peers when it comes to innovation, it is a matter of debate how well we are actually doing in the innovation game. Perhaps the only point of general agreement is that the Canadian economy must be based on innovation to compete globally — and that our exceptionally high standard of living cannot be maintained without it.

But if we look beyond the traditional indicators of innovation and focus, instead, on how the research coming out of Canadian universities, colleges and research institutes is being transferred to society, we may be seeing a more accurate view of innovation in Canada today.

Innovation is a complex and challenging process that creates jobs and economic opportunities. But perhaps more important, innovation holds the promise of addressing a range of societal challenges, from improving health care through new medical advances and developing new social policies and programs for the poor and aging to finding new ways to protect the environment and increase national security.

And research jump-starts the innovation process. Increasingly in Canada, companies such as PEDNO are turning to universities and colleges for research support. Likely, PEDNO would never have approached ITAQ if the research centre hadn’t been equipped with a suite of state-of-the-art research tools and the expertise to use them. With funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), ITAQ has built the only advanced-propulsion laboratory in the country — a platform that has attracted both small upstarts and large subsidiaries looking for sustainable transportation solutions.

By funding research infrastructure — the foundation from which research knowledge is produced — the CFI plays a fundamental role in Canada’s research enterprise. Its investments have allowed companies to field test new products, build brand recognition, attract new customers and create trusted relationships with institutions and researchers who are on the cutting edge in their fields.

According to a recent study, companies, governments and non-profit organizations, both foreign and domestic, contracted almost $2 billion worth of research from Canadian universities and affiliated teaching hospitals in 2008, up from $1.15 billion in 2006. The private sector alone is responsible for approximately $1 billion of that total. The study suggests that investing in a university or college for creating specific knowledge is an effective means of commercializing research.

But the impact goes well beyond helping to make universities attractive partners for industry research. The challenge of building an innovative economy is about more than a slab of concrete or a piece of equipment — it is really about people. Talented, well-trained individuals drive new ideas, develop original products and discover new ways to tackle issues. Investing in people, providing them with the tools they need and creating opportunities to collaborate across boundaries are all critical factors to fostering stronger, innovative communities.

The Government of Canada, through research funding organizations like the CFI, has invested billions of dollars in supporting Canadian innovation in post-secondary institutions. Thanks to these investments, the brain drain Canada experienced in the 1990s has been turned into a brain gain, with global research leaders making Canada their destination for success. Likewise, funding from the CFI has greatly boosted the country’s capacity for cutting-edge research by equipping universities, colleges and research institutes with the modern tools their researchers need to think big. It seems that the key ingredients are in place for creating a hotbed of innovation in Canada.

But along with these ingredients is the additional need to continue supporting a world-class, comprehensive, high-performance research environment — one that is open to companies pursuing their own knowledge needs. In these times of global economic uncertainty, it is essential that Canada continue to capitalize on the advances it has made toward building an innovative economy. By maintaining our commitment to supporting innovation, we will have a healthier, more productive workforce and smarter regulations and will find the unpredictable technological advances that will create the industries of tomorrow.

Dr. Gilles G. Patry is the President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation.