Canada’s small market is no excuse for a poor grade in innovation

This post originally appeared in The Globe and Mail. Story by Paul Attfield.

The Conference Board of Canada’s announcement this month that Canada only merits a C grade when it comes to global innovation, ranking it ninth among 16 peer industrial nations, should be a wake-up call that all is not as it should be. While the announcement noted improvements in entrepreneurial ambition and access to venture capital, it also chided Canada for falling behind in areas such as information technology investments, corporate research and development, along with patents and productivity.

Certainly business leaders in this country are less than impressed with the results.

“We should be very concerned about Canada’s mediocre performance in innovation,” says Ilse Treurnicht, chief executive officer of MaRS Discovery District, an innovation centre in Toronto. “In a fast-paced global knowledge economy, [inlinetweet prefix=”Via @MaRSDD:”]innovation is the driver of economic & social prosperity.[/inlinetweet]”

Dr. Treurnicht goes on to say that, given the competitive nature of the innovation race, in which ideas, talent and money are now highly mobile, Canada is being left behind as other countries aggressively build their innovation economies.

“This is both a moral and economic imperative for Canada’s future—fully harnessing the creativity and ingenuity of our people (including today’s young people) to prosper as a country, with high-value jobs for our children and grandchildren, right here at home.”

Indeed, getting the youth of today, and tomorrow, involved and enthused about the future of our innovation economy is vital to picking up the slack.

While introducing the idea of innovation at the earliest possible stage is key if Canada wants to foster entrepreneurial minds, getting them used to the idea of failure on the road to success is another valuable asset.

“Our education system has got to begin to help people understand that if they don’t get it right the first time, they’ve learned a lot and to try again,” says Sheldon Levy, president of Ryerson University in Toronto.

He adds that one of the problems with getting fledgling companies off the ground is the gap that appears between seed funding and what is known as Series A round funding, which is the type of funding that eventually takes a company from three employees to 300 employees.

“I’ve seen too many companies where the head of that company spends all of their time trying to secure funding and not on the development of the company,” he says. “Then all of a sudden, they get it in Britain or Germany or somewhere, but not in Canada. I think that is a gap.”

While he believes that the talent and hunger exists in this country to compete with Sweden, France, Denmark and other global innovation leaders, he insists that Canada needs to think big.

“We have to see ourselves internationally because the market here is too small and we have to be able to help the younger companies move into the larger markets and get them support so that they are able to scale up quickly,” he says.

Having a small market should not be used as an excuse for a lack of performance in innovation though, says Dr. Treurnicht. Our proximity to the United States is an big advantage, but perhaps Canada’s biggest asset is the people that make up this nation.

“We have the opportunity to tap into fast growing emerging markets through the networks of our diverse population,” she says. “This is still a largely untapped opportunity for Canada.”

As for targeting specific industries for innovation support, while Mr. Levy believes that education should be a principal port of call, to empower the next generation of innovators, Dr. Treurnicht believes Canada should target the areas of greatest opportunity.

“As a small country, we certainly need to double down in the areas where our strengths align with growing global market demand,” she says. “Regenerative medicine is just one such example.”

As she explains, stem cells were discovered in Toronto more than 50 years ago, and since then we have expanded that scope to the adjacent fields of biomaterials and tissue engineering, and continue to be a magnet for international leaders in this field.

And while stem-cell therapies have moved from the research bench to the clinic, they have quickly become a driving force in a new era of precision medicine. This kind of research is vital for Canada’s growth as an innovation leader, she says.

“We simply must be a leader in bringing our important discoveries to patients in Canada and around the world, and win in the rapidly growing global industry that is emerging,” she says. “Because of our depth, we can be part of this wave for decades to come.”

As to whether the responsibility for fostering that kind innovation should fall on the government or private entities, she insists that everyone should be shouldering the burden.

Photo credit: Water Flag by Jamie McCaffrey under CC BY 2.0