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Business Commentary Innovation must become a pervasive part of our university culture

On May 9, The Globe and Mail published Canadians Can Innovate, But We're Not Equipped To Win, by Research in Motion co-founder Jim Balsillie. This is part of a series responding to and expanding on that essay.

"What do you teach?" people ask when you say you are a university professor in Canada. The question is never "What have you invented?", "What do you research?" and certainly never, "What's the spinoff company you and your students are working on?"

According to Universities Canada, which represents nearly 100 universities and degree-granting colleges, Canadian universities are now a $30-billion enterprise with 1.2 million students, 42,000 full-time professors and $12-billion worth of discovery activities annually. Wouldn't you want the sector to include more innovation, solve problems and help drive the economy?

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Research into solving practical problems not only benefits the economy, but is necessary to solve large energy, environmental, health, social and many other challenges. It is not just about making better widgets. Applied studies often provide unexpected and fundamental breakthroughs in basic understanding and innovation. The development of commercially or culturally viable solutions that actually get deployed by society is at the end of a long chain of activity rooted firmly in basic research. Many of the great scientists of the past four centuries were as motivated by the search for practical commercial solutions as they were by fundamental discovery – and commonly achieved both together.

Our universities do a good job of training students, produce good basic research and are doing better at invention. While Canada scores in the top 10 of countries for basic research, the impact of our innovations – assessed by patent numbers, industry adoption and revenue, technology licences and company sale revenues – put us firmly in the minor leagues. We are weak at claiming ownership of our ideas globally, a key to commercializing.

Even if you question the statistics, why do most academic and student innovators find themselves alone, or in a tiny minority, in most departments?

There are success stories, but generally we fall below the bar, with most universities producing a handful of startups a year with an occasional headline sale.

Our top universities have barely half the industry connections and industry research income of the big global powerhouse universities, and most Canadian industries spend little on research and development and are slow adopters of university technology. Worldwide, the most innovative universities are the ones strong in basic research that work with industries and investors that value innovation and want their business. Our innovation ecosystem is culturally weak, from universities and colleges, through to most Canadian industry.

At our universities, almost the entire pool of public funding from provincial governments is focused on teaching activities. The other major current university function, discovery, is also dominantly funded through public funds, from "granting agencies." These are crucial foundations, but university systems set up largely to teach, with innovation occurring sporadically in the gaps, means our record has little chance to improve.

The entire university tenure and promotion system is based on excelling in teaching and research. Combined with the nature of innovation as a risky undertaking, it's easy to see why it's not a more pervasive part of our university culture.

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Why don't top universities in Canada look more like Stanford, MIT, Cambridge or other superinstitutions that deliver qualified graduates, paradigm-shifting discoveries (and Nobel prizes) as well as game-changing technological projects, commerce and job creation? Our culture, structures, degree and workload models, byzantine management processes and tenure, promotion and reward systems are based on different objectives and traditions to those needed today.

Some features are better here than elsewhere. Intellectual property [IP] ownership is very favourable for academics, and technology transfer activities, in our experience, are creative and better organized, with support from company creation through to finding investment and experienced people. There are many successful entrepreneurs happy to help startups, nationally and provincially sourced grants for small companies and tax incentive schemes. Business schools are waking up to working with technical and humanities faculties. So why are university innovators such a rare species?

Too many institutions are involved in trying to do the same thing and, over all, the systems underperform. The university and college systems would benefit from explicit assignment of an integrated and co-ordinated chain of teaching, research and innovation activities as objectives against which provincial budgets are determined. This more holistic approach need not constrain academic integrity in any way, but would encourage activity in segments that need it, providing good reasons to increase budgets.

A culture of innovation, supported by strong basic research, creates conditions for major discoveries and spurs commercial technology, leading to prosperity. Connected to industrial sectors that really want innovation, this is the chain we need our universities to be at the centre of.

Canada's universities and colleges have served us well, but they need to restructure for a new century where prosperity from university-based research is at the centre of leading global economies.

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