Open for Business: Putting SFU’s Innovation Strategy to Work in Surrey

November 06, 2015

Presentation to the Surrey Board of Trade

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

It’s a privilege to be here today to talk about one of my favorite topics – innovation.

But before doing so, I want to express my deep appreciation to the Surrey Board of Trade for all that you do for this community and this province.

The business community in Surrey is one of this country’s most dynamic – diverse, entrepreneurial and forward-looking.

You are a driver of growth, a creator of jobs and a force for economic and social betterment.

And you are one of the reasons that SFU has made such strides in recent years.

Today, SFU not only continues to be rated Canada‘s top comprehensive university (as Maclean’s Magazine reaffirmed only last week) but we are increasingly known as Canada’s most community-engaged research university.

That’s in no small measure because of the success of our Surrey campus and the support it has received from Surrey and, especially, from the Surrey business community.

So, on behalf of all of us at SFU, thank you.

I want to start today with a quote.  One of my favorites – about the meaning of innovation – from well-known advertising executive John Emmerling.

“Innovation” Emmerling says “is creativity with a job to do.”

I can’t think of a better definition for one of the defining issues of our time.

Let me explain:  As business people, you know well the importance of productivity to a successful economy.

Yet Canada’s economy is not as productive as it needs to be to stay competitive in a global marketplace.

Since 2000, productivity growth in Canada has been 1/3 that of our friends south of the border. 

And that’s a big problem. 

It means lower wages, lower living standards, and ultimately, a declining quality of life for every Canadian.

How do we explain this?

An important part of the answer lies in Emmerling’s definition:

  • Productivity is driven by innovation.
  • Innovation is driven by creativity.

And while we Canadians are very creative, when it comes to putting that creativity to work … we still have a BIG JOB TO DO.

We all know about the barriers to innovation in Canada.

Many large Canadian firms are branch plants of international companies that don’t invest their R&D dollars here. 

Canada’s small and medium-sized enterprises often lack internal R&D capacity.

As a result, private-sector R&D ranks near the bottom amongst OECD countries.

That’s a fair explanation, be we mustn’t let it be an excuse.

Because in Canada we also have some key strengths.

For example, we have a very entrepreneurial business culture – second only to the United States according to The Global Entrepreneurial Development Index.

That’s credit to many of you in this room … entrepreneurs taking risks, growing businesses, and creating wealth.

And it’s something that ought not be underestimated.

Our entrepreneurial culture gives us a big advantage over some of our major competitors.

Pair that entrepreneurial culture with another great advantage and Canada could be – should be – an innovation powerhouse.

Of course, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m talking about the advantage represented by Canada’s universities.

Canadian universities are recognized globally for their extraordinary research strengths. 

Which brings me to the focus of my comments today:  SFU Innovates – our ground-breaking strategy to drive innovation.

SFU Innovates draws upon SFU’s 50-year history of building our innovation programs and research capacities.  

Today, SFU’s annual research income tops $100 million.

And we are a Canadian leader in research impact.

Yet – and this is critical – despite the research strengths of Canada’s universities, too often there is a gap between university research and market-ready innovation - a gap so well known it even has its own name…

… the “Valley of Death,”

The place where great university ideas go to die because they can’t connect – they can’t engage – with the outside world.

That is what SFU INNOVATES seeks to fix

… by creating a bridge – in fact a series of bridges – across the Valley of Death - so that on-campus research capacities connect with off-campus market opportunities to create real world impacts.

It’s all part of SFU’s vision to be Canada’s engaged university - not an ivory tower separated from the community - but an institution connected to the community, working in common cause for the greater good.

SFU Innovates is defined by four pillars:


The concept here is really quite simple:

By fostering community/industry interaction with SFU’s research talent and infrastructure, we can ensure that SFU is a responsive and engaged innovation partner.

This pillar also speaks to the value of “open innovation.” The idea that innovation is more likely to succeed if it’s a product of interaction amongst many players with different knowledge and perspectives.

At SFU, we have some great examples of this pillar in action.

One of the best is Innovation Boulevard – an initiative founded by SFU in partnership with Fraser Health and the City of Surrey.

Innovation Boulevard seeks to leverage B.C.’s technology capacity to become a global leader in healthcare innovation.

And it’s already well on its way, having drawn in more than 45 companies, from small start-ups to global giants.

Another model is 4D Labs on Burnaby Mountain.

4D Labs doesn’t just push its research out into communities only to perish in the Valley of Death . 4D Labs’s research is pulled into the marketplace to address real needs.

That’s because the research at 4D Labs is community driven, taking its inspirations from small-to-medium sized enterprises with innovative ideas but insufficient research capacity to bring those ideas to life.

A third example is the Energy Systems for Smart Cities Research Chair that is being funded by the City of Surrey and Powertech Labs.

Given SFU’s clean energy research capacity, PowerTech’s operational knowledge and Surrey’s on the ground expertise, this chair will greatly accelerate Surrey’s reputation as a clean energy innovation leader.

The second SFU Innovates pillar is INCUBATION AND ACCELERATION.

This is all about grabbing good ideas early and giving them the support they need to succeed.

A great example is Venture Connection.

Venture Connection started out as an idea right here in Surrey - such a good idea that it’s now grown into a university-wide incubator for SFU students and recent alumni wanting to start their own businesses.

Here’s how it works:

Say you’re a student with an idea for a new app, a new product or a new technology that you think might have business potential.

Venture Connection will help you to evaluate it, develop a business case and, if it shows promise, match you with a mentor to help you navigate through the difficult challenges faced by new entrepreneurs.

Since 2008, more than 3,000 people have benefited from Venture Connection.

People such as the five students who founded an exciting new company called Artemis Technologies based on research they conducted at SFU Surrey’s School of Mechatronics Systems Engineering.

Artemis uses the latest drone technology to collect aerial images of agricultural land. It then uses data analytics and image recognition software to help farmers predict growth patterns, detect diseases and reduce the use of fertilizer and pesticides.

Another SFU program, Venture Labs, is now the largest business accelerator in the province, and one that is open to students, faculty and any individual whose ideas have business potential.

Venture Labs is funded from a $10-million National Research Council of Canada grant that established SFU as the west coast hub of a pan-Canadian, research-driven accelerator network. 

One of Venture Labs successes is a company called Shield-X Technologies, which has developed a helmet decal called BrainShield.

The decal, which can reduce twisting and compression of the brain during impact, has been field tested by two Metro Vancouver high school football teams and has just gone into production.

It’s the product of six years of research and development again at SFU Surrey’s Mechatronics program.

Venture Labs, in addition to being part of a pan-Canadian network, is linked to Zone Startups India, an SFU partnership with Ryerson University and the Bombay Stock Exchange Institute, and the first Canadian-led accelerator in India.

The third SFU Innovates pillar is ENTREPRENEURSHIP.

This happens everywhere at SFU, from the classroom to our extensive co-op programs that place more than 8,500 students every year.

By strengthening our entrepreneurship programming, SFU is helping students and faculty develop the skills they need to bring their ideas to market

This has been a staple at our Beedie School of Business for some time.  But Beedie also provides entrepreneurship training in other disciplines across the university.

A Surrey-specific example is our Tech E@SFU program run in partnership with the BC Innovation Council and Dr. Ken Spencer.

And last year, Beedie launched an entrepreneurship certificate program that is available to all undergraduate students across all three SFU campuses.

This year, it followed up with yet another entrepreneurship certificate program targeted at graduate science and applied science students.

The final SFU Innovates pillar is SOCIAL INNOVATION. 

Innovation isn’t just about discoveries and inventions that generate profits—as important as those are.

It’s also about ideas that produce value to people and the world.

RADIUS – Radical Ideas, Useful to Society – is a social innovation lab and venture incubator developed by the Beedie School of Business and made available to students across all SFU campuses.

While other programs originated at SFU Surrey, this one is heading this way.  Indeed, on November 24, SFU Surrey Executive Director Steve Dooley will co-chair the City of Surrey Social Innovation Summit with Surrey Councillor Vera LeFranc.

Radius Director Shawn Smith and Development Lab Manager Kiri Bird are Summit facilitators.

And you can look forward to more benefits of SFU Innovates coming to Surrey.

For example, we have leased 7,500 square feet of space above the Central City Brew pub to house a range of entrepreneurship and innovation initiatives.

A new program, Bridges to Surrey, will further develop solutions to health challenges in the Fraser Health Region and will include a dedicated innovation space in the Surrey Memorial Hospital.

And we are more committed than ever to expanding our Surrey campus with new programs proposed in energy and environmental systems engineering, health innovation and in creative technologies.

So: SFU engages. SFU Innovates.      

We have a job to do, and we are doing it: connecting creativity on campus with business acumen in the community, to drive change, to nurture new ideas, to create an environment where innovation is put to use for a stronger economy and better society for every British Columbian.

That is the mission of SFU Innovates.

A mission that, with your support and collaboration, can help Surrey and the South Fraser achieve its potential as an engine for innovation, social development and economic prosperity for the province – and for the country.