The longstanding ties between universities and industry in Israel and Germany have played a crucial role in fostering research and development in these high-tech and manufacturing powerhouses, speakers at a recent conference on innovation said.
The conference, “Optimizing Canada’s innovation system: Perspectives from abroad” was organized by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. The three-day event was held in Ottawa in late October, and featured speakers from Germany, Israel and Canada. Attendees included Canadian university presidents, government officials and dignitaries.
“Universities are not abstract structures,” said Peretz Lavie, president of Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, in an interview during the conference. “I personally believe that they have to serve humanity, they have to serve the country, and they have to serve society.”
From its early days, the mission of Technion, Israel’s oldest university (its founding preceded that of the country), was to serve the needs of the state. Originally established as an engineering school, it evolved over the years into a research-intensive university. In the late 1960s, when Israel needed infrared sensors to detect missiles, Technion opened a micro-electronic institute to develop the capability. In the 1990s, it expanded its student body to accommodate the influx of one million Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The highly educated émigrés went on to play a major role in the emergence of Israel’s high-tech sector.
That sector has been the engine of the country’s economic growth for the past two decades and has launched thousands of small- and medium-sized start-up companies. Israel spends more on research and development as a share of gross domestic product than any other industrialized country, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
University-industry collaborations are key to the country’s success. But a strong sense of entrepreneurship and high tolerance for risk, especially among its young people, have also played a part in the rise of what has come to be known “the start-up nation,” said Manuel Trajtenberg, chair of the planning and budgeting committee of Israel’s Council for Higher Education and an economics professor at Tel Aviv University.
Economic growth and innovation have been largely concentrated in the high-tech industry; growth and innovation haven’t spilled into other sectors of the economy and socioeconomic disparities have grown, noted Dr. Trajtenberg. “It’s a mixed experience,” he said in a keynote address. “The real challenge for us is how turn this start-up nation into an economy and society where most people can benefit.”
Universities must work to build stronger relationships with industry, governments and the public, he said, adding that ultimately, there is no magic bullet for fostering innovation. “It’s an attitude more than anything else.”
Meanwhile in Germany, the close ties between academia and industry date back to the early days of Germany’s technical universities, which were founded in the 19th century to foster growth in the country’s economically depressed areas. Horst Hippler, president of the German Rectors’ Conference, the agency representing Germany’s more than 300 universities, said that today, a third of university research funding comes from the private sector. And, the majority of that comes not from large corporations but from the country’s small- and medium-sized enterprises and its family-owned firms known as the Mittlestand.
But it isn’t just the research partnerships that drive innovation. Another important factor is the movement of academics between the country’s universities, research institutes and businesses. “This is at the centre of the entire innovation process,” Dr. Hippler said.
He noted that in Germany it’s common for graduates with doctorates in engineering to work at a company for several years before teaching at a university, allowing them to develop industry contacts and networks. Large corporations fund professorships at universities to further their own research and development needs, as well as to gain access to a pool of skilled workers, he noted. He also pointed to the country’s well-established tradition of mandatory internships which started in engineering and natural sciences and have since spread to the humanities and social sciences.
Canada’s economy, with its dependence on natural resources, has evolved differently and that has shaped the country’s business culture and the relationships between academia and industry, said Elizabeth Cannon, president of the University of Calgary and vice-chair of AUCC. Canada has had to work harder to nurture those ties and sense of entrepreneurship that seem ingrained in Israeli and German cultures said Dr. Cannon, an engineer. Still, she added, Canada has made headway by introducing programs such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s industrial research chairs, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Canada Research Chairs and the Canada Excellence Research Chairs. “We’ve got lots of great success stories,” she said. “We just need to do more.” Companies need to see universities “as part of their innovation ecosystem.”
“I think a lot of the pieces are in place,” added Richard Florizone, president of Dalhousie University. “I think it’s about working at the CEO level to see if we can find more shared interests.” Earlier in the conference he told audience members that in a previous job he held at Bombardier Inc., he was part of a team responsible for negotiating government loans in support of a project. A condition for securing a loan from the federal government was that the aerospace and transportation company had to involve a Canadian university in the project. Dr. Florizone said at the time, “I felt a little like rolling my eyes.” Now as the head of a major university, he believes that engaging the attention of company executives is crucial for Canada’s innovation success. Chief executives generally have been supportive of universities, especially when it comes to fundraising, Dr. Florizone said. What’s needed is to advance those discussions to include shared research and development opportunities.