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Eric Bosco (Curtis Hildebrand)
Eric Bosco (Curtis Hildebrand)

LEADERSHIP LAB

How Canadian universities are helping businesses succeed Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

When you attend an invitation-only international event where high-ranking government officials, CEOs and academic leaders meet to discuss science and technology, you expect to come away armed with new insights and best practices. And I did, except in one area.

After attending the recent Science Technology for Society (STS) forum in Kyoto, Japan, it was clear to me that Canada is poised to teach the world a thing or two about partnerships. While other countries are finding the effort frustrating and, for the most part, are failing to yield the fruit of their collaboration attempts, Canada already has a proven recipe for success. In fact, judging from the session, “Collaboration among Academia, Industries and Government,” we are way ahead of other countries when it comes to forging these alliances.

For example, our group discussed the need to create online databases – a one-stop match-making service, so to speak, where businesses can connect with academic researchers and vice versa. In Canada, thanks in large part to the efforts of Mitacs – a national, not-for-profit organization that connects top-level research with private-sector needs – we have a successful ‘boots on the ground’ model that is far more effective than a database-only approach.

In this model, advisors meet businesses and identify challenges and barriers to growth. Then they connect the company to academic researchers who explore the same topics. The resulting discussions focus on integrating novel thinking and cutting-edge approaches into solutions for business, to advance the interests of both the company and researcher. These partnerships build long-term relationships and enable ongoing innovation.

This is a collaborative approach that a random search through a database cannot duplicate. As a business owner, do you really have time to sort through pages of potential matches with the hope of possibly conducting one transition? Or would you rather tap into an existing network to meet a handful of researchers you know will be relevant to your immediate objectives and long-term goals?

London-based Trojan Technologies, for example, used the Mitacs network to connect with eight universities from four provinces, taking on several researchers as interns to advance the company’s innovative water treatment products and services. Researchers working with Trojan Technologies receive the same training as employees and are considered full-time staff. Once established, their relationship persists well beyond the life of a single project. In fact, two research interns have gone on to join the company after completing their degrees, and even those who decided to remain in academic research continue to collaborate with employees. Both sides are benefitting.

Other companies taking advantage of Canada’s unique collaborative opportunities include:

  • Ford is partnering with a team of researchers at the University of Windsor to make assembly lines safer and more efficient by applying technology used in the gaming industry.
  • Regina-based ISM Canada is working with researchers at the University of Regina to use big data technologies to reduce crime across the province.
  • Quebec City-based Phytronix and international biotechnology firm Waters Corp., are tapping into the expertise of a multi-disciplinary team of researchers at Laval University to revolutionize the way donated blood products are screened.

And there are more than 5,000 other examples I could share.

What Canada has shown is that when you’re successful in planting the seed, things have a tendency to snowball. Thanks to the long-term, win-win relationships we’re building, we now have bright people brainstorming and developing new ways to access and apply research across multiple industries. In some cases, they’re joining forces with others outside of their respective fields of study to do truly ground-breaking work.

Over time, our country and our economy are seeing more positive impacts because we’re teaching people to ‘fish’ for themselves. We connect industry to the fabric of academia and once connected, they stay connected. Meanwhile, our advisors move on to focus on new companies that need our help.

Though I was surprised by the lack of advances made by other countries in this area, my Canadian pride was bursting at the forum. Our model, which we call ‘cooperative innovation,’ based on establishing shared goals, is ahead of the curve. There’s a real opportunity here for Canada to lead by example.

Eric Bosco is chief business development officer at Mitacs, a national, not-for-profit organization that connects top-level research with private-sector needs.

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