Commercializing Innovation in Canada: Advancing in the Right Direction
Dr. Tom Corr
Ontario Centres of Excellence
President and CEO
One of the frequently cited barriers to commercialization in Canada is that industry, academia, investors, small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and government are not on the same page. They are all working hard to reach their own goals, but one isn’t always fully aware of what the other is doing.
While this can sometimes be the case, there is also evidence that Canada’s innovation ecosystem is moving in the right direction when it comes to moving great ideas from the lab to the marketplace.
In fact, the GTA-Waterloo corridor alone created more jobs in 2017 than San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C. combined. Ryerson’s DMZ was named the world’s top university incubator earlier this year by UBI Global. These are signs of progress; signs that the innovation community is addressing the commercialization gap.
At Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE), industry-academic-SME collaborations are the pillar on which we, on behalf of the Government of Ontario, support made-in-Ontario solutions that drive job creation, foster economic growth and enhance the province’s global competitiveness.
OCE has early involvement in these opportunities and, as a result, is in a position to help align the needs of the stakeholders mentioned above.
The early stage is also a time when start-ups often fail and the risk to investors is high. It’s understandable that venture capitalists and private investors might be reluctant to invest until later in the process when a product or company is a proven success and has repeatable sales, but many may not make it that far. OCE’s presence helps de-risk companies so they are in a position to attract the private investment that they need to commercialize their product or service.
We support start-up companies on the journey from technology and product development to commercialization, while simultaneously providing hands-on experience to the next generation of talent coming out of Ontario’s publicly-funded colleges, universities and research institutions. By also working with our industry partners who provide matching funding, all partners have skin in the game, which helps ensure that the solutions coming out of the projects we support are meeting real-world market needs.
OCE’s role is a massive job of discovery, co-ordination and curation, and our team of 35 Business Development Managers across the province work with industry, academia, entrepreneurs and government to ensure the best ideas are fully developed, tested, iterated, validated and have a strong go-to-market strategy. The results suggest there is more collaboration going on than we might think.
Over the past four years, OCE has deployed $160 million in funding to 3,100 projects across Ontario and, equally important, has brought in more than twice that, $354 million, in co-investment from industry, which has led to a further $1.7 billion in follow-on investment as companies hit their stride. OCE-supported projects have also directly resulted in more than 20,000 new and retained jobs in the province at the companies we have supported.
Whether it’s improving processes for auto parts makers through the Automotive Supplier Competitiveness Improvement Program, improving patient outcomes through the Health Technologies Fund or connecting start-ups with emerging talent through TalentEdge, OCE is contributing to the larger effort of commercializing innovation that, ultimately, benefits all of us as citizens and taxpayers.
Having said that, things are by no means perfect and we know we can do better. Canada ranked 18th on the most recent Global Innovation Index, so there is room to improve.
There are also many other challenges along the commercialization path, including protecting intellectual property, improving scale-up efforts, opening public sector procurement processes to start-ups and SMEs and providing access to data and technology, not to mention how best to integrate into society and the economy the roughly 300,000 new immigrants who come to Canada each year.
For policymakers, the challenges are both numerous and complex, but we are fortunate to have ecosystem partners who are working every day to expedite Canada’s return on innovation.
Dr. Tom Corr is President and CEO of Ontario Centres of Excellence, a not-for-profit organization that co-invests to commercialize innovation emerging from the province’s publicly-funded colleges, universities and research hospitals.