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Canada’s opportunity to lead in global innovation

September 21, 2016
By: 
Paul Salvini, PhD
Chief Executive Officer
Accelerator Centre
Associate Vice President of Research Commercialization
University of Waterloo
Adjunct Professor, Graduate School of Computer Science
University of Toronto

Most of the discussions I’ve had with Canada’s business leaders around the topic of innovation have a common theme: how to succeed in a world of accelerated change and disruptive innovation. Companies like Tesla, Uber and Airbnb have shown how non-traditional players can impact entire industries in a reasonably short period of time. Our business leaders understand that if they are to succeed, they will need a new and better approach to innovation.

Established companies have traditionally approached innovation from within through a familiar but limited set of strategies: increased R&D spending, acquisition of synergistic companies, exploration of adjacent markets and opportunities, targeted university research projects, new hires, and the adoption of innovative technologies. Unfortunately, even when these strategies are successful, they typically only yield incremental improvements. In today’s global business economy, small improvements are no longer sufficient.

Organizations know they need a new approach to innovation, but truly disruptive innovation is difficult to achieve in larger companies as attempts to change are often met with impressive resistance. Because it is so difficult for larger companies to change, the door is open for smaller and more agile companies to enter and disrupt the market. In spite of their access to talent, capital, customers and technology, larger companies can quickly find themselves scrambling to survive.

Some view this pattern as the natural, perhaps earned, consequence for organizations that fail to innovate. But I believe that if Canada is to emerge as a leader in the global innovation economy, we need to help our established companies evolve into organizations that can foresee change, identify and seize opportunities, leverage top talent, harness their best ideas, and capitalize on emerging technologies. We need to empower our strongest companies not only to reinvent themselves in a changing global market, but to reinvent the global market and change the world around them.

This sounds like lofty thinking, but all the essential ingredients for Canada to lead in the global innovation economy are already present – what’s missing is a strategy and a coordinated support system to bring those elements together to enable Canada’s business leaders – and their respective companies – to succeed.

Success in innovation requires a multifaceted approach by business that encompasses five key principles: engage the right talent, build a culture of creative innovation, see the now, see the future, and free trapped ideas.

  • In the emerging innovation economy, talent is king. Success in engaging the right talent requires not only finding the best people, but people with right skills.

  • A culture of creative innovation is one that takes a holistic or integrative approach to innovation. Disruptive innovation often results when better user experiences are combined with clever business models and supported by what’s possible with today’s technology.

  • Seeing the now requires connecting established corporations directly to the entrepreneurs and startup companies that are poised to disrupt them. These emerging companies are constantly looking at ways to bring fresh thinking and new solutions to existing business problems, and have little to risk in the process.

  • Seeing the future requires working more closely with Canada’s top universities to understand how the research of today will impact our future. Companies with an understanding of emerging trends will be better positioned to seize opportunities and mitigate threats.

  • Freeing trapped ideas is about spinning out new companies or project teams that can better execute a given project without the constraints or inherited culture of the parent company.

Over the last decade, the Accelerator Centre has built a global reputation for helping startups to succeed. Hundreds of new companies generating thousands of jobs and billions in new corporate value have emerged from this facility.

Today there is an exponential opportunity to help established companies to successfully innovate by learning to implement these five key principles. We are responding to the needs of established companies by adapting our proven mentorship model.

With the right support and the right programs, we have the potential to help our brightest leaders think big, take risks and be bold. We can help them to build a resilient culture of creative innovation, tap into the incredible global talent at our top Canadian universities, introduce them to innovate startups with whom they can partner, teach them to anticipate the possibilities that new ideas and inventions will provide for the future, and nurture their brightest ideas.

Only then can we stop looking at the small problems of today, and start to really solve the big problems of tomorrow.