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Applied research: time to move beyond pilot projects

This op-ed was originally published in the Hill Times.

 

When Ottawa-based entrepreneur Ke Wang had the brilliant idea of using his smartphone to control certain tasks on his power wheelchair, and therefore regain some of his autonomy, he knew he needed support to bring his innovative concept to reality. Like a growing number of entrepreneurs and small-business owners, he turned to his local college to help perfect his prototype. With the help of researchers and students from Algonquin College, he was able to refine the software and hardware required to create SmartChair and bring it to market.

Colleges, cégeps, polytechnics and institutes have become go-to problem-solvers for thousands of entrepreneurs like Ke Wang and now host over 400 specialized research centres and labs serving communities across the country. Unfortunately, federal policies, and funding, have been slow to keep up with this rapidly increasing demand, bringing us to a point where would-be innovators are being turned away.

Since 2010-2011 the number of partnerships between colleges and institutes and SMEs has increased by 23% while the number of partnerships with large enterprises has increased by an impressive 51%. Last year alone, our members across the country worked with over 6,300 private sector partners, over 70% of which were SMEs, to create new products or improve processes that make Canadian companies more innovative and resilient.

Federal support has played an instrumental role in building this research capacity with programs such as the College and Community Innovation (CCI) program generating increased interest from business and community partners. However, the limited funding available through federal programs is not keeping up with demand, resulting in businesses and partners with innovative ideas and money to invest being turned away by colleges and institutes. This can also be seen in the number of submissions for CCI grants which tripled since 2011. Last year, only 39% of the funding requested through the program was awarded.

All in all, the federal government invests over $3 Billion each year in higher education research and development. However, colleges and institutes have only been able to access about $75 Million per year, or approximately 2.5%. What’s more, significant portions of this funding have been tied to various pilot projects, making long term planning all the more complicated.

To truly leverage the innovation potential of colleges and institutes, we have called on the federal government to step up its funding effort. Based on the increasing demand, we believe the current funding available for applied research is largely insufficient and should be increased to $100 million per year, as a first step towards ramping up this investment to $300 million per year in 2022.

As the federal government looks for ways to boost innovation, including through an ambitious multi-departmental business innovation review, it would be hard pressed to find a better investment. For every dollar invested in applied research, colleges and institutes have shown that they can leverage a near equal contribution from private sector partners. What’s more, by focusing on specific needs and challenges encountered by local employers, these projects contribute directly to their development and fuel local economic growth. By involving students every step of the way, they also play a critical role in developing talent.

The other challenge encountered by our members is that with funding provided almost exclusively on a per-project basis, they have often struggled to establish stable structures to manage the growth of applied research activities in respond to demand. We believe this could be addressed by providing stable and predictable research support funding of $25 million a year for college and institute applied research offices. This would help stabilize and reinforce their position as innovation centres in their communities and regions.

After a number of pilot projects launched over the past few years, such as the successful Community College Social Innovation Funds (CCSIF), the time has come to move beyond the pilot phase. Colleges and institutes have shown that they have the means, the expertise and the partnerships in place to occupy a permanent and even bigger place in Canada’s innovation ecosystem.

This is not to say that they must replace the excellent fundamental research that takes place in Canadian universities. Both approaches are very much complimentary, but if we are serious about bringing innovation to market, then colleges and institutes have a critical role to play which must be recognized.

 

Denise Amyot
President and CEO, Colleges and Institutes Canada