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opinion

IBM Canada president Dino Trevisani.Stephanie Lake

Dino Trevisani is president of IBM Canada

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

According to the World Economic Forum, which studies and benchmarks more than 100 global economies, Canada continues to lose ground in terms of its competitiveness.

In the WEF's 2014/2015 global competitive index, Canada ranked 15th out of 144 countries, which represents a five-point drop since the 2008/2009 ranking. While some would argue that 15th out of 144 isn't bad, and point to our high marks for health care, education, labour-market efficiency and robust financial services as positives, it would be short-sighted to ignore the report's concerning findings that Canada is lacking in its capacity to innovate.

In May, Research in Motion co-founder Jim Balsillie lamented this very fact, stating that until entrepreneurs here have access to the proper infrastructure to help them succeed, Canada's "terrible record of commercializing" is likely to continue.

Simon Fraser University president Andrew Petter is among those who have weighed in on these pages since, suggesting that Mr. Balsillie's call for Canadian universities to do more to support innovation "missed the point." He agreed that our record is "appalling," but said what university researchers most lack "is good information and advice about market needs and opportunities."

To borrow from a famous Hollywood script, what we've got here, in my opinion, is a failure to communicate. There continues to exist a Canadian innovation gap, a chasm where innovation is on everyone's agenda, but is being pursued in silos or is simply left in the labs to stagnate.

We need to make "innovate," "incubate" and "commercialize" thinking part of our day-to-day lexicon and ensure we provide Canadian startups with direct ongoing access to global industry scale, integration and influence.

IBM is doing this by investing in the creation of innovation development labs, such as our recently opened BlueMix Garage innovation incubator at Ryerson DMZ and development-commercialization hubs within our own offices in downtown Toronto and Markham, Ont. These homegrown hubs will help Canadian business and startups innovate, incubate the best ideas with the most modern technology resources and rapidly turn them into commercial realities at scale.

Canadian customers, such as Tangerine Bank, are already using these hubs as a means to gather customer feedback and actionable insight on its mobile banking app by quickly streamlining its implementation and development processes.

It is well within our grasp not only to change the commercialization environment in Canada, but to deepen and strengthen our knowledge-based economy in the process. We must start, however, by more deeply leveraging the scale of global industry, at companies like IBM, to help drive a united effort to fully capitalize on our possibilities.

We've already made good progress in improving our capacity for innovation by forming research continuums like the one between IBM Canada and 14 research-intensive universities in Southern Ontario, with financial contribution from both the federal and provincial governments.

Canadian universities produce a highly talented work force, not to mention solid research and some of the best breakthrough ideas. Industry has the mindset and know-how to take new ideas and commercialize them. All levels of governments have at their core a mandate focused on job-creation, economic growth and long-term prosperity, and funding to support that.

This trio of complementary agendas has put into academic researchers' hands Canada's fastest supercomputer, the world's largest analytics cloud and access to industry's brightest minds to accelerate research focused on commercially viable products and enterprises. Projects focus on agile computing, health, water, energy, cities, mining, advanced manufacturing, digital media and cybersecurity. To date, this collaboration has launched 50 projects that have created 38 small businesses and 88 research jobs, significantly enhanced the skills of more than 300 academics, and established a pipeline of close to $2-billion in revenue for these new or growing enterprises.

The consortium has spawned projects to create software to make the discovery of new medicines faster and less expensive, track climate change and predict the impact of development on Southern Ontario's Grand River watershed, and predict and identify prospective mineral deposits. These breakthroughs will not only improve the lives of Canadians, but also represent homegrown technologies we can develop and export around the world.

The bridge for success here is global industry. By pairing global industry with academia, small business and startups, providing technology tools that would have otherwise been out of reach, as well as access to industry researchers and a global market view, we're working to ensure that innovation efforts hit their mark and move quickly out of the labs and into the market.

This is the power of what can happen when silos fall, when we approach innovation from a standpoint of collaboration. We've already devised the formula for success. We just have to keep harnessing the passion to scale it.

Collaborate. Innovate. Incubate. Commercialize. That's the key to restoring Canada's eminence: Rapidly accelerating "made in Canada" innovation out of the labs into commercialization, leveraging the scale of global industry and then exporting it onto the world economic stage.