Industry and academia: Partners in driving innovation in Canada

Dr. Tom Corr
President and CEO
Ontario Centres of Excellence

For over thirty years, Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) has had a front-row seat to a profound transformation in the relationship between industry and academia in Ontario and the rest of Canada.

OCE’s origins coincide with a turning point in Canada’s economy when it began to shift from being North American-focused and commodities-based to being knowledge based, innovation driven and globally oriented. Aware of the power of innovation to stimulate economic growth, governments increasingly began turning to colleges, universities and research hospitals with an eye out for applied research breakthroughs that could be transformed into leading-edge technologies, products and services. The new imperative was to ensure that the world-class research being produced by postsecondary institutions and research hospitals was commercialized and utilized by industry to its full potential.

Despite some resistance rooted in historically distinctive missions and vastly different cultures, industry and academia soon recognized they each had a lot to gain by collaborating. Colleges, universities and research hospitals could apply their expertise and knowledge to solving real-world problems while offering students valuable skills training; industry gained access to the leading-edge academic research and highly qualified personnel that increases their competitiveness.

On behalf of the Ontario government, OCE has for three decades been building bridges between industry and academia and working to establish ourselves as a trusted broker of connections. Intrinsic to OCE’s approach is the deployment across the province of over 30 experienced business development managers to scout out research with strong potential to translate into valuable technologies, products and services and to support industry-academia collaborations that move research from the lab to the marketplace resulting in economic growth through exports and job creation.

One of OCE’s key programs, the Collaboration Voucher Program, has helped hundreds of Ontario manufacturing companies gain easy access to the expertise and leading-edge knowledge of the Province’s colleges, universities and research hospitals. Projects supported by the program cover a wide range of economic sectors, from auto and aerospace to cleantech and agricultural.

For example, Orangeville-based E. Hofmann Plastics, which produces rigid packaging for the food industry, was ready to jump on an environmental movement away from single-serve coffee pods. With support from the Collaboration Voucher Program, the company partnered with the Centre for Advanced Polymer Processing and Design at McMaster University to develop a compostable bioplastic-based material containing natural fillers.

Lafarge Canada, the country’s largest producer of diversified construction materials, including cement, joined with Queen’s University in a project to replace fossil fuels used in its production of cement, with locally produced, lower-carbon fuels.

Also equipped with a collaboration voucher, Mori Essex Nurseries collaborated with the University of Guelph’s Gosling Research Institute for Plant Preservation (GRIPP) to overcome the disadvantage of having to import rootstocks from international producers by cultivating a domestic supply of apple rootstocks on a commercial scale.

Ontario’s colleges are just as eager to work side by side with companies in developing creative solutions to industry challenges. About 10,000 students each year work with companies on research and development activities across Ontario. OCE encourages these collaborations through various programs, including the Colleges Applied Research and Development Fund (CARDF), which connects students to the needs of the industries and economies of the future.

Once operating in parallel universes, industry and academia have now become true partners in driving innovation in Canada. At the same time, the contribution of colleges, universities and research hospitals along with their industry partners has led to economic development in communities across Ontario. During the past five years, OCE has funded projects, the majority of which involved industry-academic collaborations, in 160 communities across Ontario.

Industry-academic collaborations will continue to be an integral and growing part of OCE’s program offerings. We are excited to currently be involved in some major initiatives that are being rolled out across the Province. Opportunities for academic researchers and students will only expand as we move into exciting new program areas such as autonomous vehicles, 5G, next-generation digital infrastructure, and artificial intelligence.