British Columbia's Innovation Engines: How universities can help us win in the global economy

June 02, 2015

Revised presentation to the Burnaby Board of Trade and the Vancouver Board of Trade

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

It’s a privilege to address the Burnaby Board of Trade. I greatly appreciate the Board’s commitment to fostering conversations about the challenges and opportunities facing our province and our country.

Today, I want to focus on the opportunity British Columbia has to become a global innovation leader, and how SFU’s emerging innovation strategy points the way to how universities can help us to get there.

But let me start with some context concerning our challenge. For some time now, business economists have been raising concerns about that most important measure of overall economic health – productivity. And rightfully so. 

In Canada, productivity gains have lagged behind those of the United States and our other industrial competitors. In fact, since 2000, productivity growth in Canada has been one-third of that of the U.S.

That adds up to lower wages and lower living standards for Canadians. So how do we explain this gap and what do we do about it? A major factor is innovation.

What is innovation? Noted advertising executive John Emmerling provides a very interesting definition that gets to the heart of our problem.

“Innovation,” says Emmerling, “is creativity with a job to do.” When it comes to innovation in Canada, we have lots of creativity, but a big job to do.

It’s true, of course, that many of our large firms are branch plants of companies that do most of their R&D elsewhere. It’s also true that our small and medium-sized enterprises often lack internal R&D capacity.

As a consequence, private sector R&D investment in Canada ranks near the bottom amongst OECD countries.

But in today’s economy, those reasons are not good enough. As smart and clever as we Canadians are, we need to figure out what more can be done to put our creativity to work. We can – we must – close the innovation gap.

Fortunately, we have some key strengths to help us do the job. First, Canada is blessed with an entrepreneurial business culture, as evidenced by many in this room. Indeed, Canada is ranked second in the world in the Global Entrepreneurial Index.

Second, while Canada’s private sector R&D investment lags behind other OECD countries, our public sector R&D investment does not.  

As a result, our universities have become research powerhouses with the strength and capacity to help Canada to become an innovation leader.

But to get there, we need to take new approaches to mobilizing knowledge, and we need to find better ways to harness the innovative minds and research strengths that exist on our university campuses to turn ideas into action.

To illustrate this point, let me tell you about a former SFU business student named Alice Park.

A few years ago, Alice was waiting in line for a parking permit at our Burnaby Campus. Those lines can be very long - long enough for lightening to strike. And, while she was waiting, Alice was struck with an idea.

With so many SFU students travelling to campus from the same neighbourhoods, wouldn’t it be great if there was a way for them to coordinate rides. Good for students, good for the environment - albeit not so good for SFU’s parking revenues.

Fast forward a few years, and Alice’s go2gether ride-share app has been adopted not only by SFU but also by VanCity and YVR.

It was nominated in three categories for the Small Business B.C. Awards. Alice was recently named one of BC’s Top 30 Under 30 by B.C. Business Magazine. And Corporate Knights just named her one of the Top 30 under 30 Sustainable Leaders in Canada.

So how did Alice do it? She did it, in part, because SFU was there to give her guidance and support.

Her first stop was Venture Connection, SFU’s university-wide student incubator – a first-of-its-kind in Canada. Venture Connection provides students from all disciplines with the advice and assistance they need to bring a business idea to market. Think of it as a friendly version of Dragon’s Den.

Venture Connection was impressed with Alice’s idea and arranged for her to get business mentorship and free office space. It was great start, but Alice felt she needed further support.  

So she turned to RADIUS, SFU’s community-based social innovation lab and venture incubator where she enrolled in an intensive four-month, mentor-led program.

With Venture Connection’s and RADIUS’s support, Alice turned an idea that came to her while waiting for a parking pass into a business that provides a valuable community service. Today – and every day – go2gether is taking cars off the road.

Alice’s story shows us what can happen when we nurture student innovation, and when we provide students with the support they need to turn their ideas into businesses opportunities.

Without that support, Alice probably would have secured a good job working for someone else. But with that support, today Alice is a successful entrepreneur. She created her own business and her own job. As a result, she has already created 14 jobs for others, and she stands to create many more in the months and years ahead.

At SFU, Alice’s story is not uncommon. It’s part of our commitment to being an “engaged university” – in this case by enabling students to convert their innovative ideas into business opportunities in the community.

But engagement is something that has not always come naturally to universities. Universities have traditionally regarded themselves as ivory towers that stand apart from communities. Not only has that impeded universities from fostering and harnessing the entrepreneurial talents of their students, it has also hindered universities from connecting their research capacities to community needs.

In the traditional university research model, researchers work in isolation. When they make a discovery they push it out into the community, hoping it will be useful or profitable in the market place. Not surprisingly, relatively few ideas survive the journey.

The gap that separates university researchers from consumer markets is too wide – so wide, it’s been dubbed the “Valley of Death” – a place where good ideas go to die.

At SFU, our commitment to be an “engaged university” allows us to bridge that gap. We don’t just push our research out into the world hoping it will be useful. We engage with businesses and communities that pull our research to places where it’s likely to create jobs and opportunity.

Consider the case of Cooledge Lighting – a local start-up.

Cooledge saw a consumer demand for an advanced LED technology. But it wasn’t going happen unless they had access to research tools and expertise.

Enter 4D Labs, SFU’s state-of-the-art materials science and engineering facility on Burnaby Mountain. 4D sets research goals based on information it receives from industry partners, who pull its research to areas where it will have a major impact.

Cooledge Lighting had an idea to meet market demand. 4D Labs had the research resources to accelerate development. Together they were a perfect fit. And today, Cooledge is a fast-growing company employing a team of highly-motivated specialists who are bringing innovative lighting solutions to market.

It's a made-in-BC success story.

And yet another example of how SFU’s commitment to community engagement enables us to pull ideas and innovations to where they can create jobs and power our economy.

For 4D Labs, there is no valley of death.  Just a mountain of opportunity!

That same commitment to engagement infuses our emerging Innovation and Entrepreneurship Strategy and its network of labs … incubators ... accelerators … programs … and initiatives.

At Surrey’s Innovation Boulevard, SFU’s researchers are partnering with the City, industry partners, Fraser Health and others to drive the development of medical technologies that create jobs and improve health outcomes.

In Burnaby, SFU researchers are working with Mercedes-Benz, Ballard Power Systems and the Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation (AFCC) – a joint venture between Daimler AG and the Ford Motor Company – on the development of low-cost, marketable fuel cell technologies.  

Pacific Blue Cross and SFU are in the process of establishing a research centre in computational health informatics whose innovative approach to data analytics, fraud detection, and forensic investigation will have worldwide application.

Venture Labs, an SFU-led consortium, was recently rated BC’s top accelerator for job creation and capital formation. 

And just two months ago, SFU in partnership with Ryerson University and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology secured over $10 million in federal funding to create Zones of Incubation and Innovation, a pan-Canadian incubator/accelerator program in digital technologies. The Vancouver hub will soon be opening next to our Harbour Centre campus.

And it, in turn, will connect to Zone Startups India … the first Canadian-led accelerator in India, located at the Bombay Stock Exchange, in which SFU is partnered with Ryerson and the Bombay Stock Exchange Institute.   

Students, researchers, businesses, communities – all connected in a common enterprise.

And, as Alice’s car-share app and Cooledge Lighting’s LED technology show, that enterprise has the potential to drive our economy.

At Simon Fraser University, we’re demonstrating how engagement can turn creativity into innovation and how universities can cross the "Valley of Death" to create jobs and increase productivity.

And how, with your help and our partnerships, we can contribute to a more prosperous future for every British Columbian.