As Canadian businesses look beyond the COVID-19 pandemic and toward recovery, many will want to revamp or re-tool their operations. This is where applied research can be a game-changer, a ready-made solution for post-pandemic economic recovery, utilizing post-secondary innovation capacity to help businesses identify and respond to challenges. Canada’s polytechnics bring space, equipment, and expertise to the table, supplementing the capacity of Canada’s business community to engage in pragmatic research and development.
In an interview with Ulrike Bahr-Gedalia, Senior Director of Digital Economy, Technology, and Innovation at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Sarah Watts-Rynard, a member of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and CEO of Polytechnics Canada, explains how applied research can address the unique challenges that lie ahead for Canadian business.
What’s polytechnic applied research, and how can it support a business-led recovery post-COVID and beyond?
Applied research refers to an exceptionally broad range of services polytechnic institutions can offer business and community partners to deal with challenges. Typical activities include technology adoption, prototyping, testing and simulation, proof of concept and product development, but the possibilities are endless. These activities are supported by state-of-the-art equipment, labs, and facilities, and with the expertise of faculty and students. As the business community considers how it needs to pivot in the aftermath of the pandemic, it can be helpful to have an external partner able to contribute solutions. Regardless of the sector or scope of the problem, it’s probably worth investigating applied research as a potential solution.
What’s required from companies in terms of their time and money?
There are federal grants available to support projects. Canada’s polytechnics often turn to NSERC’s College and Community Innovation Program for funding, but staff are experts when it comes to sourcing the right funding solution. This keeps costs to a minimum for business partners. I would say that engagement is critical but the expectation will differ depending on the project. The value proposition for engagement becomes clear when you consider that business partners often retain intellectual property emerging from the project, translating into long-term value for the business.
How does applied research benefit the polytechnics and its students?
For polytechnics, applied research is a way to bring real-world challenges to campus. Businesses benefit by overcoming a barrier to growth or addressing the need to transform, but institutions are also staying abreast of industry priorities and folding what they learn back into the classroom. Students who participate on projects apply their skills to practical challenges and build their professional network. One of the key benefits of a polytechnic education is that close relationship to business, making applied research a critical ingredient to industry fluency.
Why are these partnerships important to Canada?
Applied research is about pragmatic, near-to-market improvements. Game-changing for a business, but on a scale available to every company in every sector. With almost 98% of the Canadian economy made up of small businesses, employing some 70% of the workforce, applied research is a way to bring them into the innovation ecosystem. Countless reports have shown these businesses struggle with disruption and have the fewest resources — exactly the group that needs innovation partners at the ready. As Canada recovers from COVID-19, applied research has the potential to help companies address climate change, embed digital technologies and become more resilient. That will be critical to Canada’s economic recovery.
How do we know applied research is effective?
For a polytechnic, success is seeing a partner overcome the challenge they identified. We often see companies hire the students they worked with, which is a great by-product. Funders are definitely looking for results and collecting data, but we also try to do this at Polytechnics Canada. We measure both the investments made and the outcomes associated with them. For example, last year our members served almost 2,400 partners, a large majority of them small businesses. More than 3,300 applied research projects resulted in more than 2,800 prototypes. Our 13 members deployed nearly $36 million in federal funding, leveraging an additional $67.5 million from other sources.
What challenges surround applied research?
The greatest challenge is undoubtedly financial. While the federal government invests more than $3 billion in research at post-secondary institutions each year, less than 3% is dedicated to polytechnic and college applied research. As businesses look for support in the aftermath of COVID-19, it is possible that great projects will be sidelined by a lack of funding.
Beyond the funding shortfall, we’d like to see more proactive matching services to ensure businesses that need support know where to find it. I see a role here for regional development agencies and chambers of commerce, but polytechnics also need to boost business outreach. All of this takes a coordinated, well-financed innovation ecosystem. We aren’t there yet.
How do companies get started? What help can they expect for navigating the initial process?
The best way to get involved is to reach out to your local polytechnic or college! Most institutions have a webpage dedicated to their applied research areas of expertise that provide contact information. Staff will triage needs and begin the process.