Canada is beginning to recognize the need to focus on the business aspects of innovation if it is going to improve its track record on translating research breakthroughs into exciting new products and services, says one of Canada’s leading thinkers on innovation.
“We are now starting to understand that it’s not just about the technical aspects of improving the product but also very much about customers, and sales, and impact in global markets. We are starting to realize that commerce matters a lot,” says Tom Brzustowski, professional engineer and former president of NSERC.
The complex and multifaceted world of innovation encompasses many facets of both public and private sectors. This includes academia where the groundbreaking research that drives innovation is carried out; industry where new technologies and processes are put to work; and governments that help create the conditions for entrepreneurship to flourish. And few are better equipped than Dr. Brzustowski to understand and negotiate these sometimes seeming parallel universes.
With a PhD in Aeronautical engineering from Princeton, Dr. Brzustowski has taught, carried out research in thermodynamics and combustion, and involved himself in university administration, including as associate dean of engineering and Vice-President, Academic at the University of Waterloo. He has also served as deputy minister in the Ontario government in two portfolios. In 1995 he became president of NSERC, serving two five-year terms.
He has recently retired as RBC Professor in the Commercialization of Innovation at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa and continues as Chair of the Board of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. He is also Chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) and Chair of the Management Advisory Board of the Centre for Commercialization of Research (CCR) of the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE).
“He is a first-rate academic who understands the possibilities and the actual results of the research community and how that translates into wealth creation for the betterment of business, for Canadians and for society,” says OCE Board Chair Sean Conway and former Ontario Minister of Education for whom Dr. Brzustowski served as deputy minister. “He has also been tremendously effective and influential in the senior levels of the public service both here in Ontario and federally.”
Canada is making headway in building capacity for innovation and OCE’s Centre for Commercialization of Research is an important part of that effort, Dr. Brzustowski says.
“CCR is dealing with new ventures that are commercializing inventions based on research results. This is very important work because those new ventures are where tomorrow’s large, innovative new companies are going to come from. And CCR is in the business of ensuring that these new ventures succeed in business, whatever business they’re in. It’s up to them to succeed in their technology, but CCR is helping them succeed in business.”
Overall, Canada has to do better at promoting the growth of technically successful, research-based companies to the scale where they can have an impact on global markets, Dr. Brzustowski says. “We’re great at starting up companies but we are not so great at growing them to a large size. And these large innovative companies are hugely important.”
Dr. Brzustowski is author of The Way Ahead – meeting Canada’s productivity challenge and currently writing Innovation in Canada -- why we need more and what we must do to get it.
Currently, the discussion about innovation is fragmented, partly because it is defined in so many different ways, he says. “Innovation a very complicated human process and there is a great deal of it going on. You just have to look at the public data. My book will be illustrated with a lot of corporate data.”
One chapter in his new book contains an aphorism that is in keeping with CCR’s approach of connecting companies to the resources they need, when they need them.
And that saying is: “Innovation policies don’t produce innovation, entrepreneurs do.”