Economists estimate that Canada's productivity lags that of the U.S. by about $13 per hour of labour, the result of chronic underinvestment in innovation and technology. However, dynamic new research partnerships between businesses and Canada's colleges and polytechnic institutes are helping to close the gap.
For small and medium-sized companies in particular, post-secondary institutions serve as R&D and human resources partners, providing research funding, facilities, talent and resource networks. "It's helped a lot of our companies grow," says Dr. Darren Lawless, dean of undergraduate research at Sheridan College, which was recently ranked first in Ontario for applied research by Research Infosource.
REM Equipment, a vacuum equipment company, partnered with Sheridan to test ideas the company's founder saw as having new revenue potential, such as selling their systems globally. "Our mechanical technologists and engineers got involved and made a number of recommendations the company was able to implement," reports Dean Lawless.
As a result, REM is now selling into those markets and has hired a number of Sheridan students in order to keep up with the new demand. "The students were thrilled to see their ideas implemented, and the owner of the company was thrilled because he didn't have to take his staff off critical put-bread-on-the-table operations to explore other opportunities," explains Dean Lawless. "The risk was shared with the college and the federal government, which provided funding for the project."
Solving industry problems opens up new opportunities for students, offering them a glimpse at careers they might not otherwise imagine, he says. "It gives our students the opportunity to practice what we teach, to engage in real-life problems."
As a result, he says, "they may see the possibility of becoming an 'in-trepreneur' within a company, or realize they want to go on to additional education to further enhance their skills. It reinforces the idea that the skills they learn here will enable them to launch successful careers and have an impact in the marketplace."
College-based applied research partnerships are changing learning and spurring innovation right across the country. For example, since launching its applied research program in 2005, Camosun College in Victoria has built the largest college-based research program west of Winnipeg, with grants and donations to the college approaching the $10- million mark. Its principal funding agencies often disburse funds to the college as matching grants, inspiring local investment.
Camosun provides a one-stop gateway to its portfolio of entrepreneurial services through Enterprise Point, an industry partnership service centre. But the success and rapid expansion of the college's partnerships depends just as much on the motivation and dedication of students and faculty providing on-time industry solutions, says Tom Roemer, vice president of strategic development. "Once we provide the solutions businesses need, in prototyping, for example, we're also able to show them what else we can do for them, from product development to leadership training."
Camosun's role in training skilled workers for the shipbuilding industry attracted a very large donation from Wärtsilä Canada in 2013, a 19-tonne ship engine worth more than $940,000. Realizing that the engine would only be used for hands-on training for about six weeks each year, Dr. Roemer and his team made contact with Ionada, an Ontario company developing an innovative marine engine scrubber technology.
The engine will become a core element in a waterfront innovation centre, where Ionada's engineers will work with Camosun students to advance their technology.
"We live in a very specialized world, and in order to set yourself up for a good career, you want to look for something that gives you an extra edge," says Dr. Roemer. "The experience our students gain by working on these applied research partnerships allows them to stand out."
Dr. Roemer and his team are now advising other colleges across Canada and in China, India and Brazil to help them build their own successful applied research programs. The ultimate aim, he explains, is to tear down the silos that separate industry from post-secondary institutions. "If you look to global industry leaders such as Germany, you find more extensive integration between educational institutions and business.
"At Audi, for example, students work part of the week in the factory and part of the week in the classroom. If there is something they need to learn for a project, the shop foreman will pick up the phone and call their instructor. It's that kind of integration we're ultimately aiming for."