Partnered Innovation: colleges and institutes’ contribution to Canada’s innovation ecosystem

This op-ed was originally published on the Canadian Science Policy Centre website on September 21, 2016.


Across Canada, inventors, researchers and entrepreneurs are dreaming up the world of tomorrow. Through bold acts of ingenuity, they are continuously pushing the boundaries of both what we know and what we can achieve, as individuals and as a country. These innovators, wherever they are found, are critical to Canada’s success but it is important to realize that they cannot do it alone – innovation is driven by partnerships.

Colleges and institutes have long understood that innovation is based in collaboration. This way of thinking is at the heart of their teaching model, but also their approach to applied research which has become an incredibly important part of their activities all across Canada. This has allowed them to evolve into true innovation hubs, where the innovators of today, as well as those of tomorrow, can access the essential resources they need to realize their vision.

Colleges and institutes support partnered innovation using three essential levers: they train students who will be ready to work with the cutting edge practices and technology employed in their field and develop innovative solutions to current and emerging challenges; they create and support entrepreneurs by fostering entrepreneurial thinking; and they offer applied research services to companies, large and small, who want to develop or improve new products, processes and services.

Colleges and institutes work every day to expand minds and skillsets, equipping students not only with technical skills but also with lifelong essential skills and transferable entrepreneurship and innovation know-how. By working with partners and employers in their communities, they are able to offer an educational approach that allows students to gain real-world experience and test their abilities and knowledge. This is, after all, the foundation on which innovation is based.

Innovation also requires that we take chances and learn to manage risks. That is why colleges and institutes support their students to become entrepreneurs and provide them with resources and experiential learning opportunities that encourage entrepreneurial thinking. These include entrepreneurship centers, incubators and accelerators, curriculum, as well as the infrastructure, equipment and resources needed to support up-and-coming entrepreneurs.

The third way by which colleges and institutes support innovation is by offering applied research services to industry, and in particular to SMEs who comprise about 86% of their private sector partners. With over 760 research centres and labs, they provide access to expertise and specialized equipment that smaller companies would not be able to afford otherwise. This is a great way to reduce the risk of innovation investment, with the vast majority of projects completed in less than one year and about 25% wrapped up in under six months. Attractive intellectual property policies and support for commercialization are another big part of how colleges and institutes are fast-tracking Canadian innovation.

Applied research at colleges and institutes is always partner driven, which means that the projects are designed to tackle real-world challenges. It’s no surprise then that demand from industry and community partners is growing as college and institute research capacity increases.

Unfortunately, federal funding has not been keeping up with demand and colleges and institutes remain limited in the number of projects they can take on. Despite the addition of some programs in recent years, such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council’s (NSERC) College and Community Innovation Program, or the Community and College Social Innovation Fund (CCSIF), a pilot project administered by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), colleges and institutes and their partners still access only 2.4% of the annual federal funding for research. A tremendous missed opportunity for growing the next generation of innovators when well over 40% of Canadian post-secondary graduates are coming out of colleges and institutes.

In order to fully take advantage of the potential for growth and innovation, CICan believes the federal government should ramp up investments in college and institute applied research over five years from $75 million to $300 million per year as part of the Innovation Agenda action plan. This would include a re-design of programs available to colleges and institutes to offer a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary approach that enables the research enterprise at colleges and institutes to be more responsive to the “speed of business”, regional economic development needs and opportunities in social and health innovation.

Given that the private sector already matches these investments dollar for dollar, this could just be one of the most effective way to boost innovation in Canada. By leveraging the ability of colleges and institutes to lead partnered innovation, we will ensure that Canadian students continue to acquire the skills they need to contribute to the national innovation agenda, while meeting the needs of business and industry for new talent, social innovation, entrepreneurship, invention, and marketable ideas.


Denise Amyot
President and CEO of Colleges and Institutes Canada