Applied research should be at the forefront of innovation strategy

Successive governments have struggled to address Canada’s weak innovation performance. To solve our most pressing challenges — climate change, an aging population and inequality among them — new solutions are critical.

One thing is clear: Canada’s innovation shortcomings will not improve until its small- and mid-sized businesses are active contributors. Applied research is built to enable these contributions.

recent report indicates 97.9 per cent of Canadian businesses have fewer than 99 employees and employ almost 70 per cent of the private sector labour force. Between 2012 and 2016, small businesses contributed more than 51 per cent of GDP.

Simply put, policies that don’t address the challenges associated with small business innovation will fail to have sufficient impact.

Yet, because small businesses have unique needs based on sector and region, one-size-fits-all government policy isn’t effective. We must leverage existing systems, spaces, equipment and expertise. Canada’s polytechnics — the country’s largest institutes of applied and technical learning — fit the bill.

Small- and mid-sized firms represent 80 per cent of polytechnic applied research partners. Together, partners address persistent obstacles, explore new technologies or streamline operations, improving productivity and supporting growth.

Polytechnics offer state-of-the-art facilities, faculty expertise and student ingenuity to some of Canada’s biggest challenges, from climate change to implementing robotics on production lines. Intellectual property developed on projects remains with the business partner, sowing value back into the economy.

For example, in Manitoba, Frontier North Adventures partnered with RRC Polytech to create a zero-emission Tundra Buggy. Leveraging RRC’s Vehicle Technology and Energy Centre, the project reduced the environmental impact of Manitoba’s northern tourism sector.

At Conestoga College’s Institute for Seniors Care, researchers are improving the quality of care for seniors. One recent project bridges the gap between unregulated care workers and patients with dementia.

Applied research has additional benefits. Creating links between faculty and industry builds new knowledge within the education system. Applied research also exposes learners to real-world challenges, generating an innovation-ready talent pipeline.

Why is applied research important right now?

Consider the federal government’s recent commitment to a life sciences and biomanufacturing strategy. If Canada wants to recreate its vaccine production capacity, we’ll need more than viable vaccine candidates. Polytechnic applied research supports commercialization and technology application.

We also need to help small businesses bounce back, particularly where the pandemic has had the greatest impact. A third of businesses owned or operated by women, Indigenous or racially diverse people say they expect demand to decrease in 2021. One in six businesses owned by visible minorities expect to decrease prices, compared to one in ten private sector companies. These organizations are critical to future productivity.

As MPs return to Ottawa, the message is clear: Canada needs to ensure its innovation policies meet the needs of small- and mid-sized businesses. Applied research is a solution worth supporting.

About the Author

Cody McKay, Policy Analyst

Cody joined Polytechnics Canada in March 2015, and currently is the policy analyst responsible for advocacy related to applied research and innovation. With a focus on innovation policy, Cody considers how polytechnic applied research can be better leveraged by federal programs to help Canadian businesses overcome barriers to growth, and the Canadian government tackle pressing challenges like climate change. Additionally, he manages Polytechnics Canada’s Applied Research Working Group, comprised of the leaders of applied research at Polytechnics Canada’s 13 member institutions. Cody holds a Postgraduate Certificate in Project Management with a focus on international development from Humber, and a Bachelor Degree in International Relations from St. Thomas University in Fredericton. Prior to joining Polytechnics Canada, Cody worked with the Government of New Brunswick and the Canadian Red Cross.