With rising rates of chronic disease and an aging population threatening to topple Canada's health-care system, new approaches are essential to keeping Canadians healthy. Canada's colleges and institutes are playing an important role.
In 2014, Seneca College in Toronto launched an entrepreneurship initiative that allows students and community youth to explore and develop personal health business ventures. By matching young entrepreneurs with resources and mentors, HELIX (Health Entrepreneurship and Lifestyle Innovation Xchange) develops skills and provides opportunities to take business ideas to the next level.
"We saw this as an excellent opportunity to partner with Ontario Centres of Excellence, McConnell, ventureLAB and other organizations to create an incubator that addresses Canada's growing need for entrepreneurial talent and innovation," says Chris Dudley, director of HELIX. "We set out to create a focus on the importance of technology and innovation domestically and internationally, first in health-IT and later in other industries."
Seneca HELIX recently hosted the York Region StartUp Weekend, which attracted 46 participants. "On the first night, HELIX members and other entrepreneurs from the York Region pitched their ideas and then voted to identify the top 10. They then worked together for the next 48 hours in teams, with 23 mentors, to take those ideas to the next level," says Mr. Dudley.
The top three ventures, chosen by the business community and five judges from ventureLAB, focused on allergy testing, fresh food delivery and an app designed to improve posture.
Travis Clements-Khan, one of the Seneca students on the first-place team, points to his participation in HELIX as a key advantage. "HELIX presented an amazing opportunity to formulate a business model and develop a business plan," he says. "I find the aggregation of mentors, workshops, events and services – including its fantastic workspace – [to be] an invaluable resource."
College students are also contributing to health innovation through applied research partnerships with existing businesses. At Algonquin College in Ottawa, for example, students and faculty played a significant role in the development of a virtual personal trainer that eliminates the need to manually track workouts.
Two students – a designer and a programmer – worked with the Gymtrack founders to develop a mobile app and the company's corporate image. Both students have now graduated and gone on to become full-time Gymtrack employees.
Applied research partnerships are an integral component of Algonquin's work-integrated learning approach, and contribute to the success of local businesses while connecting students to prospective employers, says Dr. Mark Hoddenbagh, the executive director of partnerships and applied research. "Algonquin led the country in college research productivity in fiscal 2013, with 120 research partnerships and 180 completed projects."
Professors who are hands-on as well as academic experts, equipment and infrastructure and "great students" are the foundation of that achievement, he says. "I like to say that, at Algonquin, 'we train heads, inspire hearts and skill hands.'"
Algonquin's access to government-funded applied research grants also means that small and medium-sized businesses may be able to obtain three or four dollars in funding for each dollar they invest in applied research, he adds.
For students, these work-integrated learning opportunities combine classroom studies with practical on-the-job experience, equipping them with problem-solving skills and experience working within interdisciplinary teams.
Applied research is an important and often neglected part of entrepreneurship, says Dr. Hoddenbagh. "You can waste an awful lot of money using the wrong process to build a product or building the wrong product. We try to teach our students that the biggest cost of any commercialization project is the time to market, because it's lost revenue."
Tapping into the applied research expertise in Canada's colleges can dramatically reduce those costs and help businesses thrive. "We've had clients who've come back six, seven times to do projects with us because they like working with the students so much, and the faculty are so knowledgeable."
BY THE NUMBERS
2013-14 investments in applied research at colleges and institutes:
community service organizations
colleges and institutes
Source: Colleges and Institutes Canada
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