Innovation – a new or better way of doing things - is a powerful force in the economy. It is directly, and indirectly, a key driver of jobs growth and competitiveness locally and globally. In Canada, small businesses and start-ups provide 48% of all jobs and contribute 30% to the country’s GDP. In the United States, small businesses and start-ups play an even larger role contributing 46% of the private nonfarm GDP. Never before have the innovation and commercialization cycles been shorter. With researchers seeming to produce more published work every year, why have some countries been more successful at commercializing technology than others? Is the challenge providing researchers with adequate support to move their work out of the lab are the early stage companies and entrepreneurs requiring an extra boost?
Around the world, a number of government-sponsored initiatives exist with the mandate to support entrepreneurs – especially those working in identified ‘high growth’ sectors. Such programs include Startup America, Startup Britain, and the most recent addition to the club – Startup Canada. A 2012 OECD report on Science, Technology, and Innovation has identified the formation of clusters (AKA accelerators and/or incubators) which strive to bring together education and research institutions, private firms, and other entities in order to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and “collaboration on complementary economic activities” as a growing trend affected by government innovation policies.
All of these programs are built around the common theme of communication: To communicate available resources to entrepreneurs, to facilitate connections that help young companies grow, and more.
One of the identified communication gaps is between the researchers and entrepreneurs. A recent report (Sept 2012) released by the Council of Canadian Academies surveyed 5,000 scientists around the world and concluded that Canada ranks 4th in the world for research produced. However, there appears to be a gap in the research produced and a move to commercialize new advancements. “Despite producing 4.1% of all scientific papers, Canada holds only 1.7% of patents.” According to the OECD, Canada consistently performs above the median of OECD countries in public spending on R&D, publications in top quartile journals and the quality of Canadian post-secondary institutions. However, performance stalls on private (business) R&D spending and investment.
At a recent Vancouver launch event for Startup Canada, the consensus among entrepreneurs, research institutions, investors, students, and others in attendance was that Canada needs more networks and programs to facilitate communication and collaboration across disciplines. One of the factors that is holding innovation back is that Canadians continue to work in silos and are not forming (or do not have access to) multidisciplinary teams.
Startup Canada and similar organizations around the world aim to address this missing link. Initial steps include increasing the profile of technology transfer offices or licensing offices at research institutions and universities. Such efforts are being undertaken at DOE labs in the USA and at Canadian universities such as UBC in Vancouver.