Supporting Businesses, Inventors and Innovators with Collaborative Innovation


Dr. Robert Luke

eCampus Ontario

Executive Director

Disclaimer: The French version of this editorial has been auto-translated and has not been approved by the author.

Discussion about Canada’s innovation capacity rightfully extols our excellence in public research while lamenting that we lack the ability capitalize on inventions and lag in private sector research and development (R&D). Successive expert panels, think tanks and policy prescriptions have outlined the need to increase R&D partnerships between the public and private sectors as one way to address this imbalance. Doing so is posited as a way to increase the commercialization of publicly funded intellectual property (IP) while helping to support the industrial receptor capacity for innovation by helping companies do R&D and hire more research trained people. This is a useful way to frame the discussion about increasing Canada’s innovation capacity.

The Ontario Collaborative Innovation Platform – OCIP – is a platform that connects businesses to researchers in Ontario’s higher education institutions (HEIs) to support demand-driven innovation. OCIP also supports the commercialization of publicly funded intellectual property (IP). The platform simplifies the process of setting up a research and development partnership and provides businesses with access to supporting services, tools and templates that help turn ideas and prototypes and into commercial success.

OCIP helps a project requestor locate an expert in eCampusOntario’s 53 publicly-assisted college, university and Indigenous Institute members through a staged process from Innovation Challenge to Full Project. Requestors submit an Innovation Challenge and the system leverages AI and Cognitive Search to provide matches based on need, area(s) of focus, stage of the project, expertise and equipment required. Experts review the Innovation Challenge and provide a Scope of Work: a confidential expert assessment of feasibility of the Innovation Challenge and the required resources to execute it. Based on the results of the Scope of Work, the business has the option to pursue a full collaborative project. OCIP also indexes over 80 funding programs to help projects find financial support.  Standard project documentation reduces friction and overhead for partners.

This collaborative innovation model promotes increased porosity among public and private sector actors across the continuum of research. OCIP derisks innovation for businesses by:

  • Translating Innovation Challenges into practical, actionable projects
  • Connecting to experts for confidential assessments
  • Aligning to funding programs
  • Using standard documentation (project plans, charters, reports, NDAs and IP agreements)

Together these elements facilitate faster partnerships and more effective funding applications. All of these platform features have been co-designed by the sector to achieve greater innovation carrying capacity in Ontario.

OCIP addresses three key opportunities in Ontario.

First among these is the need to help businesses innovate and to conduct R&D.

Canada’s and Ontario’s R&D performance is uneven; we need to support more businesses to understand the benefits of R&D. Businesses are busy – they need help navigating the R&D landscape. OCIP helps businesses get into the R&D game by helping them find the right partner with the right expertise at the right time for their project.

In Ontario there are 440,000 small companies, 9,000 medium sized ones, and fewer than 2,000 large companies. Not enough of these companies currently perform R&D. Startups, new companies, and small companies in key sectors like health, IT, manufacturing and automotive need help. Small companies that do R&D are more likely to survive and grow, and when we help derisk R&D for companies through private and public partnerships they are more likely to continue to innovate. The potential here is vast.

The second opportunity OCIP provides is finding new ways for our higher education institutions (HEIs) to help businesses by working together. HEIs have different and complementary types of expertise. Bringing these together makes the whole stronger than the sum of its parts.

The third opportunity relates to education and skills. OCIP helps here in two ways. First, students work with their faculty mentors on R&D projects. This gives students valuable relevant work experience, innovation literacy and pathways to jobs. Second, OCIP links to eCampusOntario’s Micro-Credential Portal, where businesses can find short duration, targeted workforce training and upskilling opportunities for their employees on a wide range of topics, including IP literacy.

OCIP emerged as a result of sector collaboration. In May 2019, Colleges Ontario (CO), the Council of Academic Hospitals of Ontario (CAHO) and the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) convened a summit on Creating a Strong, Diverse and Globally Competitive Economy: A Discussion on Ontario’s Research Engine. The goal was to better connect public research performers in Ontario for improved coherence in the broader research ecosystem. The discussion produced ideas for forging stronger and collaborative connections, especially in support of helping businesses engage the system. One idea that emerged was a match-making service that would support any innovator to find willing partners to support their project.

In the months following a consortium of 26 HEIs and funding agencies worked on a proof of concept for the platform. Initial design, journey maps and systems were developed to support projects at different stages and in need of different disciplinary expertise. Technology or Solutions Readiness Levels are used to assess an innovation challenge. By assessing where an innovation challenge sits on the SRL, OCIP helps to find the right match of complementary expertise, while providing a path to follow in the further development of the innovation.

When the pandemic was declared in early 2020, the City of Toronto and the eight Toronto HEIs worked together to support Toronto’s rebuild and recovery efforts. The City of Toronto Mayor’s Task Force for Economic Support & Recovery — HEIs, led by Councillor Jennifer McKelvie, convened the Academic Institutions Task Force. A key remit of this Task Force was to leverage partnerships between HEIs and the City of Toronto to address urgent COVID needs. The collaborative innovation model being developed was used to more easily connect HEI expertise to these needs. Having a common entry point with shared templates provided a useful model to rapidly engage experts on urgent COVID-19 issues, resulting in 17 research proposals from City of Toronto staff and eight projects that were launched and completed.

It was very gratifying to be part of the collective effort from the eight HEIs, eCampusOntario, Magnet, Mitacs, NRC, NSERC, OCI, and the City of Toronto, who worked together to provide important insight. This helped move projects quickly from concept to active partnerships featuring multi-institutional/ multi-disciplinary project teams of faculty and students. The model has been very successful: over the past three years 37 projects have been conducted.

With support from the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities, OCIP was then built and piloted with the City of Richmond Hill and businesses engaging with their economic development office and with Technology Access Centres across Ontario. These pilots with 45 businesses helped us refine the platform and the business model, streamlining supports for businesses engaging in demand-driven innovation.

OCIP is filling a gap in the research to innovation pipeline in Canada by addressing a dual challenge: the private sector does not generally invest in early-stage research, and the public sector is not (fully) supported for commercialization at scale. This mismatch in interest results in the innovation valley of death, exposing gaps between type of research activity, type of research performer, and the innovation to market pathways along successive Solutions Readiness Levels.

Collaborative innovation partnership models enacted by OCIP support demand-driven innovation for industry and publicly created Intellectual Property. This model helps a project find the right resource at the right stage of the project. And while this process is rarely linear, it enables the application of multidisciplinary collaborative problem solving along the pathway from idea to invoice and impact.

eCampusOntario is now rolling OCIP out across Ontario, working with our many channel partners to provide no wrong door for business innovation support. eCampusOntario’s mandate includes supporting member institutions in fostering innovation, collaboration and excellence on behalf of Ontario students and faculty. OCIP amplifies the postsecondary education sector’s significant contributions to Ontario’s economy, helping industry succeed today and ensuring Ontario’s innovation capacity is stronger for tomorrow.

Together, we are enabling the innovation economy.Access OCIP here: