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IN MY OPINION

The seeds of commercialization start at the beginning of innovation

To make investment in university R&D more impactful, we need to bring everyone to the same table.

By FERIDUN HAMDULLAHPUR | JUL 31 2018

Not for the first time, the future of Canada’s economy stands at a crossroads. Economically, we continue to punch above our weight, in large part thanks to our wealth of natural resources. Fortunately, we are diversifying our economy so that we can thrive long-term, and the world is taking notice.

We want to continue with our success, and we understand that to do so we need to double down on the knowledge economy through a combination of strategic investments and collaborations. This past spring, the Council of Canadian Academies released a report which argues that, for more than a decade, Canada has struggled to adequately support research and development. They say that we significantly lag behind other developed nations in the area of commercialization.

The findings in the report are substantial and offer deep insights into the state of R&D in Canada. It is important to note, however, that many of the suggestions outlined in the council’s report are currently being pursued, to great effect.

When the contributions of universities are taken into account, Canada’s public-sector investment in pure science, technology and policy research is significant. Coupled with the recently announced Innovation Superclusters Initiative, unprecedented support for science in the 2018 federal budget and the Canada 150 Research Chairs program, the public-sector investment in fundamental science needed to help produce significant R&D gains is in place. With a focus on breakthrough technologies in everything from artificial intelligence to quantum technologies and biomedical sciences, the potential for growth is expanding and Canada is poised to be a global player.

But, as the council points out, the ways in which we translate research breakthroughs at our institutions into economic growth, how we encourage commercialization of those academic discoveries outside niche markets, and our approaches to creating jobs, wealth and prosperity, need our constant attention. Universities are already playing a central role in innovation and turning it into a positive force for our economy. Universities, however, cannot do it on their own when it comes to commercializing new technology.

Making that leap to commercialization takes two things: strategic partnerships with industry and an unwavering dedication to entrepreneurship. The council suggests that Canada could do more to help private companies access university produced innovations and intellectual property. The problem comes in breaking down the longstanding hurdles between pure research and commercialization opportunities.

For centuries, universities have been centres of research and the creation of new technology. In the last few decades our institutions have started actively looking to work with companies to apply those discoveries into real-world applications. Collaborations are happening, but not fast enough. To make government investment in university R&D more impactful, we need to bring everyone to the same table through a formalized program.

In this regard, the University of Waterloo has taken a significant step forward with the creation of the Global Entrepreneurship and Disruptive Innovation initiative, or GEDI. This initiative makes it easier to move insights and inventions more effectively into our economy and society through the mobilization of talent, research and startups on and off campus.

GEDI welcomes industry partners to our university to engage with our researchers, students and startups to create solutions to their most pressing problems. Industry presents the problems they want to solve and GEDI teams help develop the breakthroughs to make an impact on the problem. The program connects the university to a group of outside partners right here on our campus through our human resources and research capacity; it’s a model that can and should produce results that benefit all.

Finding new ways to push university-led innovation out into the world with businesses isn’t enough on its own. Our postsecondary institutions must continue to support and nurture new ventures on campus – be that through the help of entrepreneurial students, industry partnerships or creative IP policies. This will encourage more students and faculty members to take their ideas, creativity and research, and turn them into innovations that will touch lives around the world.

Entrepreneurship happens when ideas, creativity and talent come together. Universities will continue to play a significant role in fostering our next homegrown business ventures that impact the world.

Feridun Hamdullahpur is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Waterloo.

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