Colleges Emerge as Key Innovation Player
By Dr Tom Corr
Canada's community colleges continue to prove their worth while refusing to be typecast: once thought of only as the place students go when they can't get into university, they're now increasingly likely to be used as finishing schools for university graduates looking to focus their career opportunities. Once seen primarily as a training ground for plumbers, welders, beauticians and other traditional trades, they've emerged as hubs of innovation with an integral role to play in our knowledge-based economy.
Today's colleges are heavily immersed in the real world of business. In a 2013 report, the Association for Canadian Community Colleges (ACCC) notes that more than 4,500 companies looked to colleges in 2011-12 for innovative solutions to business challenges. The growth in applied research capacity of colleges, institutes and polytechnics and the fervor with which faculty and students are embracing this expanding dimension of college education is highly evident. As the ACCC report notes, 1,774 faculty and staff such as industrial experts and technicians were engaged in applied research in 2010-11, up 10 per cent over the previous year. And almost all institutions now have a dedicated office of applied research.
Only a decade ago, ACCC was lamenting the plight of colleges as an "underutilized resource," citing the lack of Canadian research dollars flowing to colleges. But all that has changed. The federal government has since entered colleges into the innovation equation, providing more than $36 million for six different types of grants aimed at increasing the capacity of Canadian colleges to work with companies in their communities and regions to spur innovation.
We in the innovation space often speak of the push/pull dynamic. The sweet spot for colleges is what's known as applied research. Colleges apply skills and expertise to an expressed need or ‘pull' for an innovative solution. The push refers to discoveries or breakthroughs that are, in a sense, uncommissioned — their momentum derives from intellectual curiosity. Generally speaking, universities are in pursuit of the great discoveries and insights that can transform our lives. Whether tangible applications are on the immediate horizon is pretty much irrelevant.
Industry has found great benefit in having access to a resource that responds directly to their specific needs as well as the practical expertise that colleges can offer. This may include research testing, industrial design, prototype and process development, market research and business planning. Businesses are also attracted by the networking advantages that come with being able to tap into a broad range of expertise and leading-edge research infrastructures. And they don't have to worry about becoming enmeshed in the intellectual property issues or publication considerations that prevail at universities.
Colleges and companies have worked together to develop innovative products across a wide range of industries and business challenges. For example, construction crews and developers across Canada have long shared frustration over the time-consuming, expensive and sometimes risky work of installing windows in residential and commercial buildings. Mississauga-based company SOS Customer Service, which specializes in the design, development and sale of cranes and hoists, turned to George Brown College for help in developing a solution. The college applied its construction and engineering expertise to design and test a novel, lightweight and portable crane specifically for installing windows. Expected to reach the market this fall with SOS planning to manufacture about 300 units a year, the new crane is expected to have a significant impact on the country's large construction industry.
In another case, Conestoga College helped Ajax ON-based Kendall Technology develop a portable geological sensor for use by the mining and mineral exploration industry to detect low concentrations of various types of minerals.
And Niagara College helped Norgen Bioteck Corp in Thorold ON develop a new manufacturing process to evenly distribute their patented silicon carbide resin on a filter sheet as a way to speed up production of their DNA Kits and keep up with increasing demand for the product.
Perceptions of today's colleges have yet to catch up with reality in some quarters. Here at the Ontario Centres of Excellence, we have had a front row seat to their metamorphosis in mission and activity over the past decade. The essence of our own mandate is working in partnership with industry and academia to commercialize innovation originating in the province's colleges, universities and research hospitals. When earlier this year we integrated the Colleges Ontario Network for Industry Innovation (CONII) as an OCE program, we cemented our relationship with the province's colleges and opened up new opportunities for connecting businesses with colleges.
CONII is the body that connects business to the applied research and commercialization expertise of Ontario's colleges. A network founded in 2006 with 10 colleges has now grown to include all 24 of the province's colleges, another sign of their growing impact in helping business compete in a challenging global economy. Over that same period, Ontario government funding nearly tripled to more than $10 million from about $3.2 million.
In bringing CONII under OCE's umbrella, there is every intention to further strengthen the role that colleges can play in helping build a strong and prosperous Ontario. Our colleges will become more aware of existing and new OCE programs and gain increased access to them. And CONII will be in a better position to help shape the development of programs in a manner that benefits colleges. OCE will now also be better equipped to identify opportunities where colleges and universities can work together in meeting industry needs and, through both applied and more fundamental research, drive a business to new levels of technological sophistication and competitiveness.
Our community colleges are increasingly showing themselves to be nimble enough to stay in step with the times and the needs of our employment sectors. We must continue to leverage the expertise they offer to the fullest extent so that we keep building Ontario's economy and making it one that is strong, competitive and fueled by innovation.
Dr. Tom Corr is president and CEO of Ontario Centres of Excellence.
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