The right players in the right roles for innovation gold
Science-based innovation is vital to improving the economic, environmental and social well-being of Canadians.
Cal Stiller, one of our most accomplished medical scientists and entrepreneurs, has therefore offered this challenge: Canada should resolve to 'own the innovation podium,' just as we aimed to own the podium in Vancouver at the Winter Olympics.
In the case of the Olympics, Canada especially sought to own the podium in hockey. To achieve that objective, Steve Yzerman was given the job of assembling and managing the necessary talent. He had a great pool of goalies, defencemen and forwards from which to choose. The greatest challenge was to mould them into a gold-winning team.
In competing with the world to excel in science-based innovation, Canada also has an impressive talent pool - world-class academics and scientists, innovative entrepreneurs and business executives, dedicated and experienced public servants. The greatest challenge is to get them to play the innovation game as a team at a gold-winning level.
By the time hockey players get to the national or international level, everyone knows his role. In the innovation game, however, the most appropriate roles for the major players are not nearly as well defined, assigned, or accepted.
University-based scientists are urged to more aggressively pursue the commercialization of their work - a task that entrepreneurs and business people are usually better equipped to perform. Corporations that ought to be taking the initiative spend far too much time waiting for governments to take the lead. And government efforts to stimulate innovation are often unfocused and diffused through multiple departments and programs.
The lack of teamwork among Canada's key players in the innovation game is compounded by serious communication gaps. Business executives and politicians complain that the science community fails to express its findings in a commercially relevant or politically communicable form. Scientists respond that far too many business people and politicians are scientifically and technologically illiterate.
Is there a division of labour that can enable Canada to own the innovation podium at the international level? I believe there is.
Let the universities focus primarily on basic research and (together with the polytechnics and colleges) on training students to serve as the prime carriers of advanced science and technology to the marketplace.
With respect to commercialization, let this be the primary focus of the entrepreneurs and business executives whose primary goal is wealth creation.
As for governments, it is time to acknowledge that the public is increasingly skeptical about "big government solutions to big challenges," including innovation. Let governments, therefore, shift their emphasis toward serving primarily as facilitators, enablers and partners with other players.
Of course there will still be circumstances when universities should commercialize, businesses should facilitate and governments should lead. But let such occasional departures from basic roles arise out of real-time interactions and good communications among the players rather than from a priori prescriptions.
Are there examples where this division of labour has worked? I think of Fred Marsh, the hockey entrepreneur who developed and commercialized the Marsh Flexible Goal Peg that permits the hockey net to break away from its moorings when hit by a player.
The Marsh peg is composed of a unique blend of rubber and plastic, the chemistry of which was explored and defined long ago in some university lab. But it was Marsh the entrepreneur who saw the need for the peg, initiated and completed its development as a commercial product and marketed it to the hockey world. Governments too played a crucial role in this case the governing bodies of the Western Hockey League and the NHL - by testing the Marsh peg and eventually buying it.
But the clock is ticking. The coaches have assembled the team for last-minute instructions. No time now for further discussion, conferencing, or report writing - only time to repeat the game plan: Academics and scientists, investigate and educate; entrepreneurs and business executives, initiate and wealth create; governments, facilitate. And all of you, communicate. Now let's get out there and win innovation gold!
Preston Manning is president and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.
* This column appeared in the December 28, 2011 edition of the Globe and Mail