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Karen Benzies and William Ghali work to ensure knowledge is translated into impact at the University of Calgary.Supplied

Innovation has the power to transform lives. Imagine, for example, a health-care solution that helps new parents navigate a situation where their critically ill baby needs neonatal care, or a project dedicated to creating the societal conditions for preventing domestic violence before someone gets hurt.

Bright ideas may serve as a spark – but turning them into tangible societal benefits requires substantial effort. This is where the University of Calgary (UCalgary) has achieved impressive results by “going deep to activate pathways to success,” says William Ghali, vice-president, Research. “Research impact is not just about winning grants or publishing papers – it is about transforming scholarship and discoveries into tangible value.”

UCalgary is working to cultivate a culture of innovation by making this kind of approach accessible to all, including those who may never have considered themselves “innovators before,” says Dr. Ghali. “One element, the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking, delivers a range of entrepreneurial course content that is available for students and faculty with the idea to foster an entrepreneurial mindset.”

For scholars looking to take the next step, a pathway for translating research outcomes into practical solutions is provided through Evolve to Innovate (e2i), an eight-month experiential innovation curriculum. It allows participants access to hands-on workshops, guidance and “a community that can help to define next steps for researchers who want to test their concept or form a company.”

Common challenges that can disrupt the continuum from idea to impact are often described as “valleys of death,” Dr. Ghali explains. “Immediately after a scientific discovery, tech transfer can pose a problem even before a product or service can be patented. Another challenging time can come when something has been proven to be beneficial on a small scale but fails to move into further research for broad-scale application.”

From understanding these pitfalls, UCalgary has assembled an extensive support system, he says. One source of foundational support is a pre-seed and seed funding program called UCeed, where qualifying ventures can receive investment ranging from $50,000 to $300,000 depending on the venture’s stage of development, Dr. Ghali says. “These are early-stage investment funds, backed by philanthropic support, that serve to accelerate startup companies.”

Different layers of support – including legal advice, lab space and exposure to investors – are available through Innovate Calgary, UCalgary’s wholly owned tech-transfer organization, and Dr. Ghali mentions that “there are many examples of companies getting to the stage where they attract the attention of angel investors.”

Another innovation powerhouse is the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) Rockies, which is part of a global seed-stage program. “CDL takes on companies that are more mature and exposes them to experienced entrepreneurs, subject matter experts and investors,” he says. “The goal is to accelerate the growth of early-stage science and tech-focused companies.”

This rich, supportive ecosystem enables emerging ventures to pursue a commercialization trajectory that meets their needs, says Dr. Ghali. “Put all these hubs and programs together, and they provide a safety net in areas where startups are known to fail: the valleys of death. This allows innovations to burst from the university with sufficient energy and funding.”

These concerted efforts have helped to catapult the institution into first position – and ahead of all other research-intensive universities in Canada – in startup creation: according to a recent Association of University Technology Managers survey, UCalgary is responsible for 21 of the 104 startups created in 2020 across Canadian research institutions.

Building on this success, UCalgary is now developing a 76-acre University Innovation Quarter, envisioned to advance the university’s innovation agenda, generate job growth in Calgary and promote economic diversification.

For Dr. Ghali, this presents another opportunity to bring together “diverse perspectives and people from different fields and backgrounds for transdisciplinary collaboration.

“We get people out of their silos and working together on common challenges, and this fosters an environment of creative thinking and problem-solving,” he says. “You may have people from medicine connecting with engineers and social scientists around mobile health.”

Among the successful launches coming out of this innovation pipeline is Liminality Innovations. The social enterprise helps to integrate parents of critically ill babies into the neonatal care team and, through its Merge program, trains neonatal care providers on how to educate and support stressed and anxious parents to provide basic care for their baby in the hospital. Being integral members of the neonatal care team allows parents to bond with their baby and feel more confident. This enables them to safely bring their babies home sooner and, doing so, saves costs to health systems.

Liminality Innovations builds on over two decades of clinical and scientific experience in health and social service systems at UCalgary. The organization’s founder, Karen Benzies, professor in the Faculty of Nursing and adjunct research professor, departments of Paediatrics and Community Health Sciences, Cumming School of Medicine, also leads the university’s Social Innovation Initiative.

Another UCalgary innovation, Shift: The Project to End Domestic Violence, takes a primary prevention approach to stop domestic violence and invites the participation of other researchers, NGOs and community leaders.

Dr. Ghali believes collaborations are essential for addressing today’s most pressing challenges, which are often bigger than any one individual, company, sector or institution can solve. That’s why UCalgary has created an ecosystem where partnerships can thrive.

“We have a lot of the key ingredients [for moving solutions forward] in place, including philanthropy, business and community leaders willing to lend a hand, and engaged students, faculty and staff,” he says. “What we need to do is keep priming the pump. We produce talent, discovery and impact – and that’s pretty exciting.”


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