October 5, 2022

Canada’s growing applied research sector is full of promise

(Originally published in The Hill Times, September 21, 2022).

By Denise Amyot, President and CEO, Colleges and Institutes Canada

Few transformations in the post-secondary landscape have been as impressive as the growth of the applied research sector in colleges and institutes across Canada. With institutions taking on more and more business-driven projects aimed at solving real-world challenges at the “speed of business”, they have given rise to a national network of research centres that fill a longstanding gap in the Canadian innovation landscape. Thousands of businesses have been helped already, with huge potential for further growth.

We know Canada lags behind nearly all of its OECD peers in business-led research and development, so leveraging the strength of this network is more important than ever.

Canada’s colleges and institutes truly serve as local gateways, urban and rural, to the innovation ecosystem, developing solutions for business and community partners by mobilizing students, technology, and faculty to catalyze economic growth.

With over 95% of Canadians living within 50 kilometres of one of our institutions, their expertise is not only accessible, but also highly adapted to local needs.

According to our latest survey on applied research activity at colleges and institutes, they were involved in over 8,000 research partnerships per year, mainly with small and medium-sized enterprises (67% of partnerships), who often lack the resources, specialized technology, and networks to solve innovation challenges on their own. This led to the development of over 5,500 new processes, products, prototypes, and services – 85% of which were completed in under one year.

These projects give a serious boost to Canadian SMEs (99.8 of Canadian businesses), contributing to their competitiveness in a challenging global economy. What’s more, for most projects, SMEs retain the intellectual property resulting from these partnerships – a key for SME growth – and in recognition of this benefit, businesses’ contributions now match the federal government’s investments dollar-for-dollar.

That matching is mainly via the federal Tri-Council College and Community Innovation Program (CCIP). Established in 2004 with just $600,000 in funding and a handful of pilot institutions, today, it provides annual funding of $85 million across 117 eligible institutions. This has supported mature research enterprises that are able to deliver tremendous value to SMEs facing challenges that impede their growth. For example, Lethbridge College in Alberta worked with Bluewater Power to develop an advanced outage management system using the latest technology, including smart meters, to assist its operators and better serve its customers.

While the impact of the CCIP cannot be understated, college applied research currently accounts for just 2% of the federal government spending on higher education research and development, which is not enough to keep up with industry demand. We believe the time has come to double the CCIP with a new $330M investment over the next five years.

Given the government’s stated objective to support Canadian innovation and help with the commercialization of leading research conducted in collaboration with post-secondary education, this would be a great place to start, building on an already successful program. The unrivalled reach of colleges and institutes across Canada fosters innovation in all types of communities, whether rural, urban or remote, and supports a huge diversity of partners.

These partnerships make us all stronger, allowing for promising opportunities not only for the businesses involved, but for the many students who gain valuable experience by engaging in cutting-edge research with tangible applications. With the right kind of support, there’s no telling how far they could take us.