he buzzword “innovation” might perk you up – or make
your eyes roll. Regardless of how the term sits with you,
innovation is clearly on the federal government’s agenda
and of big interest to universities as they try to keep pace
with rapid changes in society and the economy, while staying responsive to government funding priorities and continuing to meet the needs of their students, faculty and the
With the federal government grappling with weak economic growth and working on crafting a new “innovation
agenda,” we asked six experts inside and outside the academy what role they think universities should play in fostering
greater innovation in Canada. Their innovation definitions differ in their
wording, but are variations on the theme that innovation is not about inventions, per se, but about the novel use of inventions and technologies
that lead to transformative new or improved services, products and processes. Universities already make substantial contributions through their
teaching, learning and research functions, and have at least some role to
play in the innovation ecosystem, they agree, but how far that should go
and in which ways yielded intriguing ideas from each of them.
The two-stream solution
Joy Johnson, vice-president, research, Simon Fraser University
We should foster a culture of risk-taking.
Universities are traditionally oriented
towards success, but experience tells us
most ventures fail.”
innovation comes from two streams. One is a really novel idea somebody has. The other is through the deep, committed research that happens in laboratories over many years. Universities foster both. We are
incubators of ventures and of entrepreneurs, and are a key part of the
We can support innovation by being willing to work with industry as
partners and having our researchers work closely to solve key industry
issues, rather than looking for places where university discoveries can be
plugged in. An example is SFU’s 4D Labs, our material sciences lab. It’s a
state-of-the-art facility, open to industry to come and have a developmental problem solved, either by having us do the work or working together to
figure out what the issue is.
Universities play a key role in the mobilization of knowledge. They
can ensure all students have the chance to gain entrepreneurial experience, and they can develop facilities and supports for students and faculty
to incubate and accelerate their great ideas into sustainable business ventures. SFU’s Venture Connection student business incubator and Venture
Labs, our business accelerator, are two examples.
Innovation isn’t for everybody. There will always be a need for fundamental research that yields knowledge that is not immediately commer-cializable. But for those researchers who develop ideas that could be commercialized, who need unique intellectual property protected, who could
contribute to society through the scale-up of ventures, we need to help
them figure out how to do that. This is an equally important mission of the
university, to develop supports to foster this work. At the same time, what
will count in all of this is success; we need to look at how to measure that.
We should foster a culture of risk-taking. Universities are traditionally
oriented towards success, but experience tells us most ventures fail. Unless people take chances, innovation won’t happen. Our social innovation
lab RADIUS (RADical Ideas, Useful to Society) holds a “Social Venture
Failure Wake” to celebrate the many failures that come with trying new
things and learning from them. That’s another area universities can embrace: social innovation, which is about new ideas that produce value for
the world, even if they don’t generate profits.