Note: Through the research she conducted for her PhD dissertation, Nicola Hepburn made some key discoveries about innovation in Ontario. This is the second post in a four-part series that she wrote based on her findings. You can read the first post here

The research I conducted to inform my PhD dissertation gave me the opportunity to speak with a broad range of people who drive social and economic growth across Ontario.

My research group included:

  • academics who study innovation systems and processes;
  • university and college administrators who promote the basic and applied research strengths of their institutions;
  • civil servants who’ve designed sophisticated policy instruments in the effort to implement science and technology, research and innovation, and economic development;
  • business entrepreneurs who’ve advanced new products, services or processes; and
  • entrepreneurs intent on influencing Ontario research and innovation policy development.

Among other things, I asked them to comment on the research and innovation experience in Ontario. Some of my more memorable respondents were those who underscored the complexity of the innovation process and the importance of forging collaborative ties with like-minded people across different sectors.

Challenges for entrepreneurs

My interviewees highlighted the challenges entrepreneurs must successfully meet. They must:

  • identify a societal need or economic demand;
  • work individually or with a team to conceive a brilliant idea;
  • establish a relationship with a firm willing to help develop that idea;
  • consult with one’s institution’s technology transfer office for advice and resources;
  • apply for and receive financial support from a provincial or federal funding program, or an international partnership;
  • acquire capital from private investors―securing financial support for all stages of the innovation continuum, from seed funding to later-stage development; and
  • procure additional resources (e.g., market intelligence, mentoring) from intermediary organizations, such as MaRS.

The innovation process can be messy and unpredictable

Some of the academic entrepreneurs I spoke to recalled their experiences of shepherding an idea from the lab bench to the market. What a journey! Their stories clearly demonstrated how messy and unpredictable the innovation process is. It is spotted with unforeseen opportunities and pitfalls. Crossing “the valley of death” is no mean feat: it requires a lot of hard work, time and resources, as well as an unflinching commitment to meeting the milestones above.

Innovation requires team work

Entrepreneurs can face common bottlenecks, from legal loopholes and financial hurdles to an underdeveloped understanding of the expectations, strengths and weaknesses of the venture’s innovation partners. However, many researchers and entrepreneurs in Ontario overcome these challenges by taking seriously the fact that the innovation process requires the development of robust interpersonal relationships with people within and outside of their given sector/industry and community.

And research and innovation partners must make a sustained effort at establishing strong trust ties, maintaining open and clear communication, co-operating, collaborating and engaging in ongoing negotiations and trade-offs. Innovation is a team sport.

In short, all hands must be on deck if Ontario is to truly develop “a culture of innovation.”

Nicola Hepburn

Nicola Hepburn is a PhD candidate in the Political Science Department at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation will explore the Ontario government’s efforts to develop policy intended to leverage the province’s research and innovation capacity and contribute to regional economic growth between 2003 and 2011. See more…