Transformational innovation begins with universities


Elicia Maine

Simon Fraser University

W.J. VanDusen Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship and Associate Vice-President, Knowledge Mobilization and Innovation

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

As climate change intensifies, so does the urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and bring clean energy options to the market. The demand for hydrogen energy is on the rise as countries seek to decarbonize. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency[1], by 2050, the hydrogen economy is projected to represent trillions of dollars annually and supply 12 percent of global energy needs. The race is on for product and process innovations that lower the cost of clean hydrogen production and utilization.

Countries like Canada with abundant renewable resources, space for solar and wind farms, access to water, and with existing energy infrastructure are poised to be global suppliers of hydrogen and related technologies. Canada’s Hydrogen Strategy[2] positions the nation as a world leader in clean hydrogen, with British Columbia hosting the country’s pre-eminent industry cluster. In fact, Burnaby, B.C. has been referred to as the “Silicon Valley” of clean hydrogen and fuel cells.

We could wait and purchase hydrogen technologies from other countries—or we could act now to develop Canadian innovations to decarbonize here at home and export these solutions around the world. Because on top of ample natural resources and spaces, two of Canada’s top attributes are its talented and well-educated workforce, and its world-leading inventors.

In these times of innovation and transformation we should look to Canada’s universities—and the leading researchers within them—as powerful originators of the products, processes and inventions the world needs. Support for the development of clean hydrogen technologies—as part of an overall Canadian build-for-scale innovation strategy—will lead to a thriving hydrogen economy and potentially hundreds of value-creating companies and hundreds of thousands of high-quality jobs. We must act now to lead the clean energy transition.

Canada currently has the technology solutions to meet the global 2030 emissions reduction goals—these need to be adopted at scale and can be accomplished through well-crafted climate regulations and incentives. However, the International Energy Agency reports[3] that 50 percent of the technologies we need to meet the 2050 targets are currently undeveloped or languishing in our research labs.

Despite pockets of world-leading invention, such as in renewable hydrogen, far too little Canadian science innovation ever finds its way through our innovation ecosystem to create social, economic, and environmental value. To strengthen the Canadian innovation ecosystem, we must support the translation of invention at every stage. Science innovators—specifically those commercializing the engineering and deep tech needed to address climate change and create sustainable energy—face prolonged high uncertainty before creating and capturing value.

On average, it takes 10 to 15 years and tens of millions of dollars of commercialization investment to translate a breakthrough invention into revenue-generating products. With these long timelines and expenditures of science innovation, in particular “deep tech” innovation, what happens within a university after invention and before the venture is formed is crucial. Good innovation policy seeks to align incentives and timelines of key actors—in this case, academic scientist-entrepreneurs, their investors and the Canadian industries—with problems to solve.

We should think of universities as systems supporting science innovation from ideation through to commercialization, taking better advantage of the university lab facilities and translational capabilities, interdisciplinary educational programs and international linkages of researchers and industry partners. Co-creating with industry is an essential part of Canada’s innovation ecosystem, but we need to recognise when that co-creation needs to be led by universities and the type of talent necessary to make deep tech innovation successful.

Canadian science and engineering graduate students that support this work are very well educated and a key source of deep tech innovation talent—yet they often lack an awareness of market needs, technology licensing know-how, and an entrepreneurial mindset. They generally do not have the ability to articulate their differentiated value proposition, and have little or no knowledge of intellectual property (IP) strategy, regulatory challenges, market prioritization or financing. With targeted and strategic support, university inventors and their deep tech solutions can be mobilized to address global issues, such as climate change, and create value-generating ventures. Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) award-winning innovation ecosystem[4] has made huge strides in addressing these gaps[5].

This innovation ecosystem is mobilizing breakthrough inventions in clean hydrogen energy with SFU’s Hydrogen Hub[6]. SFU and a consortium of industry and government partners aim to build and operate the new core facility[7] to produce low-cost, clean hydrogen and to de-risk the scale-up of hydrogen technologies. This ground-breaking project will play a transformational role in developing the clean hydrogen value-chain in B.C., leading to global exports and high-quality job creation.

An example of global leadership is Ionomr Innovations[8]—a science-based spinoff from the Holdcroft Chemistry Lab[9] at SFU, which was built on world-leading clean hydrogen research and support for university invention and innovation.

After decades of discovery research supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and others, principal investigator and Canada Research Chair Steven Holdcroft was supported in preparing an NSERC Idea to Innovation (I2I) translational grant. Then, PhD student and founding Chief Executive Officer Benjamin Britton perfected a commercialization strategy and an entrepreneurial mindset in SFU’s Beedie School of Business Invention to Innovation (i2I)[10] program. Materials fabrication and testing facilities were accessed at 4D LABS[11]; patenting secured through the Technology Licensing Office[12]; and mentoring, team development and marketing through Coast Capital Venture Connection[13] and SFU VentureLabs[14].

Ionomr successfully scaled up their breakthrough electrolysis membrane (with support from Sustainable Development Technology Canada and the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program), are now enabling low-cost industrial scale water electrolysis and could become an international leader in clean hydrogen production. They have been recognized by the World Economic Forum as a top technology pioneer and for the past two years as a Global Cleantech 100 company.

As this example illustrates, helping science innovation advance at the earliest stages while nascent ventures are still incubated within the university presents a transformational opportunity for Canada when it comes to the clean energy transition.

To play a leadership role in the burgeoning hydrogen economy, Canada needs to focus on its international research strengths and purposefully create a build-for-scale strategy starting within university research labs and classrooms. Leveraging Canadian research innovation will not only facilitate the vital transition, it will also reap immense social, economic and environmental benefits. In addition, universities can play a convening role in collaborating with the full value chain of incumbent and emerging industry players in this transforming sector.

To learn more about how SFU’s Hydrogen Hub aims to harness the strengths of B.C. and Canada to position the nation as a global leader in clean hydrogen innovation, visit: