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Op-ed: Canada’s science innovation ecosystem needs a build-for-scale strategy

July 19, 2021
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Elicia Maine

This opinion piece is by Elicia Maine, special advisor on innovation to SFU’s vice-president, research and international; and SFU Beedie’s VanDusen professor of innovation and entrepreneurship. Elicia is also a senior leader for SFU Innovates, the university’s innovation strategy for engaging researchers, staff and students with our communities and partners to solve societal challenges through innovation and entrepreneurship.

Canada is well-positioned to be a global leader in clean technology.  Our university scientist-researchers continue to make breakthrough inventions in this area, our workforce is highly educated, and our industries ready to partner in a thriving Canadian clean tech economy.

However, our current innovation ecosystem does not do an adequate job of translating leading university inventions into impactful innovations. It is also underserving and underutilizing our STEM graduate students and post-docs.

There are several reasons for this. Science commercialization can take many years and millions of dollars of investment while outcomes are still uncertain. Our current innovation grants do not sufficiently support de-risking and scale-up experiments, or strategic IP, nor do they give post-docs the time to dedicate to translational and commercialization activities.

Furthermore, our most highly trained science and engineering graduates are often too narrowly educated for careers outside of academia. With their in-depth technological expertise, they could become industry leaders creating bridges between university and industry if only given support to develop their entrepreneurial mindsets, build their innovations skills and understand unmet market needs.  

Given the right support, universities and the leading researchers within them can be powerful originators of value-creating companies. For example, science-based spinoff Ionomr Innovations Inc was purposefully supported across the entire SFU Innovates ecosystem, from translational grant, to university classroom, to core research facility, strategic IP, incubation and acceleration support. Ionomr successfully scaled up their breakthrough electrolysis membrane and is poised to become an international leader in green hydrogen production. The early stage supports that enable such opportunity creation from within our university research labs can be summarized as “Build-for-Scale”

We also want and need to build “receptor capacity” in industry: innovation leaders who become a bridge to university research labs.  SFU’s graduate entrepreneurship program, Invention to Innovation (i2I), has graduated five cohorts of STEM HQP who are contributing to regional and national science innovation ecosystems. We recently partnered with Mitacs to expand this program to 11 universities across Canada.

In order for Canada to claim a leadership role in the clean tech sector, and to realize future clean energy targets, Canada needs to focus on its international research strengths and purposefully create a Build-for-Scale innovation strategy. And this starts within university research labs and classrooms.

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