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Together We Stand

More engagement will create the co-operation that’s required to move the innovation dial forward

The argument for innovation in Atlantic Canada is well known: more research activity will yield more opportunities and ultimately greater economic impact. Yet there appears to be a structural impediment—a climate of collaboration.

According to many, the engagement challenge lies in a host of misconceptions about the role of institutions and the private sector in the innovation process. Chris Mathis is the president and CEO of Halifax-based Springboard Atlantic Inc., which provides resources to Atlantic Canadian universities and colleges to help them transfer knowledge and technology to the private sector. Mathis says the challenge looks different depending which side of the equation you’re on. If you’re one of the 18 R&D institutions in Atlantic Canada, your challenges include the internal misconception regarding the best time to publish research findings, sufficient internal resources that understand intellectual property and business development, and the ability to be responsive to business dealings and opportunities.

Mathis believes that if you’re in industry, you have a misconception about who owns IP, a lack of resources on licensing and knowledge transfer, and a limitation on the amount of time you spend engaging institutions and thinking about and understanding the opportunities that could exist through innovation and research. He insists that eliminating these misconceptions will increase the competitiveness of this region exponentially.

According to Sophie Thériault, the managing director of Charlottetown-based Three Oaks Innovations Inc., the arms-length tech transfer not-for-profit company that emerged out of UPEI, greater engagement is the key. “We’re seeing innovation too much as a competitive arena,” she says. “As a small region, we need to create better opportunities for collaboration if we’re to be able to bring innovation to a marketable state where it will deliver economic benefits to all of Atlantic Canada.”

Part of the challenge is because the funding that researchers and institutions depend upon from the federal government tends to be in short supply. “We’re all applying for what’s available, so we end up unnecessarily competing,” says Thériault. “Instead, we need to take a step back and create collaborative projects for the money available.”

It’s no secret that the amount of R&D being conducted in Atlantic Canada isn’t enough to support the potential growth that could exist in the region. According to a recent report by Yves Bourgeois, the director of the Moncton-based Centre for Innovation and Productivity, close to half of (45%) Atlantic Canadian establishments conduct R&D, while 57% make use of competitive intelligence. The uncertainty around the value of R&D (15%) and competitive intelligence (25%) is the main obstacle for those who don’t conduct either, suggesting an unmet potential in the region for more R&D and competitive intelligence.

There’s enormous potential, but misconceptions get in the way. One myth is that there are some who feel nothing is happening at the university level in terms of technological innovation, but that couldn’t be further from the truth, says Thériault: “There’s amazing work happening on many fronts, and our collaborations allow us to become a bigger player on the national scene.”

It comes back to better communication and engagement to help create the pan-Atlantic co-operation that’s required to move the innovation dial forward. Mathis says we’re starting to see some real success but that it takes time. “Each one of the stakeholders comes from different regions, different cultures, and different areas of study,” he says. “It requires a number of one-on-one discussions and introductions to move things forward.”

According to Thériault and others, Springboard is leading the way to creating the relationships necessary for greater engagement and collaboration. “They’re helping move the agenda forward and educate the private sector about the role institutions can play, and are playing, in moving the innovation continuum forward,” says Thériault. “With tech transfer offices like ours, Springboard, the federal government, the four provincial governments, and the private sector can increase the innovation impact on this region.”

In fact, Springboard is currently looking at new channels to engage stakeholders, including reaching out to industry associations and chambers of commerce that, perhaps more mainstream than typical innovation touch points, help catch key stakeholders who are involved in innovation within their organizations.

For Mathis, the success of these efforts is starting to take shape. Recent statistics show that while Atlantic Canada’s portion of most federal innovation grants is around the 5% mark, 10% of all Canadian activity on the NSERC Engage Program is coming from Atlantic Canada. “We’re starting to see results,” he says. “We just need to keep the engagement going and the dialogue flowing between our research offices and our companies.”