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Christi Belcourt’s ‘The Wisdom of the Universe,’ commissioned by the Art Gallery of Ontario, is inspired by humanity’s ecological concerns. The acrylic on canvas paining was complete in 2014 and is on display at the AGO.

Christi Belcourt’s ‘The Wisdom of the Universe,’ commissioned by the Art Gallery of Ontario, is inspired by humanity’s ecological concerns. The acrylic on canvas paining was complete in 2014 and is on display at the AGO.

Craig Boyko

An artist whose social media campaign united communities for a project that honoured missing aboriginal women, a biomedical engineer whose burn dressing kills bacteria and decreases inflammation, and an engineer who developed a robotic arm for people with reduced mobility are just three of the inaugural Governor-General's Innovation Awards winners

Christi Belcourt
visual artist

Paintings of plants and animals so vibrant they leap off the canvas. Moose hides studded with beaded flowers and a story of survivors, told in stained glass. A stirring memorial to the hundreds of indigenous women who are missing or murdered in this country.

Christi Belcourt, a Métis visual artist and author, was born in 1966 and raised in Ontario, her roots tracing to the community of Manitou Sakhigan (Lac Ste. Anne), Alta.

Her work is steeped in indigenous spirituality and reflects the natural world in themes such as the environment and biodiversity, and indigenous rights. She works mostly as a painter, but practices traditional arts as well, working with beads, hides, birch bark and ochre.

She blends cutting-edge design and new technologies to spur momentum towards societal change, while respecting ancestral cultural traditions, judges noted in awarding her this year's Governor-General's Innovation Award. "She champions forward-looking collaborations that are models of respectful partnerships and principled adaptation of indigenous cultural influence."

That influence stretches from a stained-glass exhibit created to commemorate the resilience of residential school survivors and their descendants, installed at Ottawa's Parliament Hill, to the runway, where the Italian fashion house of Valentino created a collection based on her painting Water Song.

She also began and is co-lead coordinator for Walking With Our Sisters, an art installation honouring murdered and missing indigenous women and their families. It includes more than 1,800 pairs of moccasin tops (vamps), created and donated by hundreds of people. The project is on tour through Canada and the U.S., aimed at drawing attention to a "travesty of justice."

Ms. Belcourt said she is honoured for the award and the recognition that "artists can be innovators." Still, she emphasized, "there is so much more important work to be done" to improve the lives of indigenous peoples – including an urgent need to revive indigenous languages, reduce levels of suicide and of murders of indigenous women, and better protect the land.

Tavia Grant

Robert Burrell
professor of biomedical engineering, University of Alberta, Edmonton

Robert Burrell's innovation has made life better for millions of people around the world who suffered from debilitating burns and other wounds.

He created a product called Acticoat, a multilayered film that uses nanostructure technology to release small amounts of silver over a period of time. When the film is applied to wounds, the silver kills bacteria and decreases inflammation, and the dressing doesn't need to be changed nearly as often as ordinary bandages. Medical-product firm Smith & Nephew now sells Acticoat in dozens of countries around the world.

Prof. Burrell said it has been known since the 19th century that silver is anti-microbial and can be helpful in treating burns. His innovation was to manipulate the material on the molecular level, to take advantage of the unique properties of the metal when made into a thin film.

Now, he's working on a range of other ideas, including new wound dressings, and advanced diagnostic tests that can indicate the presence of infections – using materials that change colours depending on what they detect.

Prof. Burrell believes an innovative society should support both basic research and applied research, while governments need to assist innovators in bridging the gap between early-stage work and commercialization. "I'm not sure that everyone is an innovator," he said. "But what we have to do is identify those people early, and provide them with opportunities."

Richard Blackwell

Jeff Dahn
professor of physics and chemistry, Dalhousie University, Halifax

For Jeff Dahn, the most precious resource for Canadian innovators is "time to think."

It is the quiet time walking to and from work that Prof. Dahn finds most valuable, as he and his colleagues attempt to create longer lasting and more efficient lithium-ion batteries – the crucial storage devices that are ubiquitous in modern technology from laptops to electric cars.

His lab at Dalhousie Univerisity is developing better electrodes that will reduce costs and extend battery life. It has also created devices that precisely measure how long a lithium-ion cell will last, an important breakthrough that resulted in the spinoff of a company called Novonix, based in Dartmouth, that now makes this equipment and sells it around the world.

Prof. Dahn's battery-research group caught the attention of Elon Musk's leading-edge electric car company Tesla Motors Inc. As a result, the lab is about to begin a long-term project to help figure out ways to make Tesla's batteries hold more charge, last longer and become cheaper to manufacture.

Along with time to come up with ideas, Prof Dahn said, stable research funding is crucial to the innovation process. And creative arrangements with industry – such as his partnership with Tesla and earlier work with 3M Co. – are also key components. Those joint ventures mean the lab is "working on the problems that matter … it puts one foot on the ground," he said. They ensure "that our work has commercial relevance and relevance to society."

The lab's research may also unlock environmental benefits, if the battery storage technology fosters the expansion of renewable energy, Prof. Dahn said. "I would say it is very valuable to the planet, for sure."

Richard Blackwell

Breanne Everett
CEO, Orpyx Medical Technologies, Calgary

It seemed like a simple concept, as so many innovative ideas prove to be. Diabetic patients with nerve damage need to be reminded to move their feet to improve the flow of blood, so why not use sensor-based technology to give them a nudge?

That was the notion behind the SurroSense wearable technology, developed by Orpyx Medical Technologies, a Calgary company founded by Dr. Breanne Everett. Sensors in a shoe's insoles take pressure readings and send signals to an electronic watch to remind the patient to shift position.

Dr. Everett said the idea is to prevent complications before they occur. The technology can reduce the number of foot ulcers and amputations – catastrophic consequences that hit many diabetic patients.

But turning the concept into reality was not simple, Dr. Everett said. While miniaturized sensor technology existed, making it work reliably inside a shoe was more complex. "The shoe is a very hostile environment," she said. "It is sweaty and is constantly being punished with mechanical forces."

Those problems were overcome, and the device is now available commercially. Orpyx is now working on another product that will send shoe pressure signals to a pad strapped to a person's back, giving them real-time tactile feedback about the state of their feet. That could have broader applications, even in sports medicine.

The University of Calgary was very supportive of her entrepreneurial venture, Dr. Everett said, and awards and grants have also helped it along. But she had to deal with a key financing gap that inhibits many innovators: while there is often sufficient early stage "angel" money and later-stage financing, it is tough to find backers for the middle stages of a company's development.

Richard Blackwell

Charles Deguire
Kinova Robotics, Boisbriand, Quebec

Charles Deguire never had to think about what he wanted to do after university. When he enrolled in electrical engineering program at Montreal's École de technologie supérieure, he knew he was interested in robotics and health care. Having grown up with three great uncles who suffered from muscular dystrophy, he said, he had "a deep personal knowledge" of what it means to have to look for creative solutions to everyday barriers.

By his third year, he and a classmate launched Kinova, a robotics company aimed at helping people with mobility issues. Their goal was to create a device that could fit on a wheelchair and safely accomplish a range of tasks that are often insurmountable for those who cannot easily move their own arms and upper bodies – from opening a door with a key to pouring a glass of water.

The result is JACO, a commercially available robot arm that is lightweight and safe enough for a child to use and versatile enough to drastically improve the independence of those who need it. Made of a weather-resistant carbon-fibre material, JACO is designed to go wherever its operator goes without drawing much power or adding complications to a journey. Its controls can be customized, making it easy to learn how to use.

Since JACO became available in 2010, it has improved lives around the world and also found a range of new applications in research labs, from diffusing bombs to handling toxic materials.

But what Mr. Deguire finds most gratifying is how often the arm is used for a simple task that he and his fellow engineers did not anticipate: that of offering something to a family member, a child or a friend. It's a gesture that signifies both autonomy and giving back, from those who wish, above all, to be full participants in their own lives and relationships.

Ivan Semeniuk

Mark Torchia and Richard Tyc
Monteris Medical, Winnipeg

For Mark Torchia, a clinical researcher in surgery at the University of Manitoba, the turning point began with a trip to the butcher shop in 1998. He was looking for a piece of meat that he could use to test a new prototype device he had developed with engineer Richard Tyc. Dr. Torchia settled on kidney. It had the consistency he was looking for and a colour that would make it easy to see a change.

Back in the lab, the team inserted a narrow tube into their specimen with a laser at the tip. They then burned away small amount of the tissue from within. When they opened up the meat they saw the result they were after, and they were on their way to launching a company and creating a device that could go where no scalpel could reach.

What drove the effort, Dr. Torchia said, was a desire to give hope to patients faced with the grim diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumour.

"There wasn't really a good option for many of them," he said. The answer was to turn the inoperable into the treatable by building on the technique that doctors were already using to carefully extract small brain-tissue samples for biopsy. After drilling a small hole into the skull, a probe can gently nudge aside brain tissue and penetrate to the desired location.

The team's system, now called "NeuroBlate," makes use of the same method to place a miniature laser inside a tumour where it can heat and destroy cancerous tumour cells. The patient is in an MRI machine during the procedure so that the surgeons can see the affected area in real time.

More than 800 patients have benefited from the system since it was approved in 2013.

Ivan Semeniuk