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SFU is unleashing economic growth through innovation
Science and innovation – and particularly science-based ventures – are important assets that can help to create economic value and high-quality jobs as well as meet community needs, including those emerging as a result of a global crisis.
At Simon Fraser University (SFU) in British Columbia, the urgency of the coronavirus pandemic inspired quick action, says Dugan O’Neil, SFU’s vice-president, research and international. Among the university’s responses to COVID-19 were the development of coronavirus testing kits using SFU-invented RNA imaging technology, epidemiology modelling to forecast the possible spread of the virus, efforts to support global co-ordination of a coronavirus outbreak response and research on gender-related impacts of the pandemic.
What enabled SFU’s timely response to the global pandemic is state-of-the-art research infrastructure that has in part been supported by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), says Dr. O’Neil. “The CFI has been pivotal to our success as an institution, and this impact is felt in every area of research and innovation.”
An example of a world-leading institutional resource is Cedar, one of the largest academic supercomputers in Canada. “Cedar enables research in a range of disciplines, from chemistry and particle physics to big data and social science,” he says. “In addition to fundamental science explorations, people are also conducting applied research; for example, engineering studies looking at combustion engines or artificial intelligence as answers to specific problems.”
However, ushering research findings out of the lab and developing them to the point where they can make a difference in society is not without challenges, says Elicia Maine, special adviser on innovation to the VP, Research and International, who is advocating for a “build-for-scale strategy” for the science innovation ecosystem.
“Our research indicates that there are gaps in the system, and we could unleash more innovation – and associated economic growth – by making research facilities more accessible to researchers, nascent innovators and small and medium-sized enterprises looking to de-risk their technology inventions,” proposes Dr. Maine, who is also the VanDusen Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship at SFU’s Beedie School of Business.
“When researchers have trouble commercializing an idea, we help them and their labs develop a commercialization strategy for their breakthrough research,” she says. “We developed Invention to Innovation (I2I) in order to support research translation and to enable researchers to benefit from innovation skills training.”
A key element bolstering the commercialization pipeline is SFU Innovates – the university’s innovation strategy – which is built on four pillars: entrepreneurship; social innovation; incubation and acceleration; and industry and community research partnerships. And each pillar has its own support system. 4D LABS, an advanced materials research and development core facility funded by the CFI, for example, provides researchers and industry partners with testing, fabrication and prototyping tools, says Dr. O’Neil. “4D LABS lowers the barrier to innovation and has worked with hundreds of companies to advance their technologies.”
These collective efforts have helped to elevate SFU’s standing in the World’s Universities with Real Impact Rankings, which measure how universities create value to society. SFU now ranks third in the world for entrepreneurial spirit – up from seventh – and 24th overall among innovative universities, the highest placed Canadian university and the only one to crack the top 100.
“We know that providing early-stage support for science innovation and spinoff ventures ends up yielding better returns for the region and the country,” says Dr. Maine.
Yet while SFU has created a strong ecosystem for amplifying research impact, this would not be possible without a strong foundation, emphasizes Dr. O’Neil. “Congratulations to the CFI for 25 years of reshaping the Canadian research landscape, incentivizing partnerships between academic institutions, industry and government, and supporting the ambitions of the talented Canadians who want to make a positive impact on the world.”
This story originally ran in the Globe and Mail.