Supporting economic growth by rethinking the industry-academia partnership model
Darren Lawless, PhD
Dean, Applied Research & Innovation
Humber College

Although Canadian unemployment is at record lows and the economy is performing well, global uncertainties amplified by the pace of technological change, geopolitical positioning, and an aging workforce are placing stress on Canadian companies. Over 98 percent of Canadian companies have fewer than 100 employees, and in most cases, fewer than 50*. These small businesses typically do not have the financial and technical capacity to address the headwinds they are facing.

Polytechnics and colleges can provide some relief to Canadian companies through research infrastructure and access to knowledgeable faculty and enthusiastic students, addressing the need for talent in companies while solving technical challenges. Traditionally, industry proposes challenges to an academic partner and then awaits a suitable solution to be provided. Although this approach has resulted in some well-documented successes leading to new products and services, it misses the opportunity to build stronger and closer relationships with the partner and reflects more of a fee for service approach – with the fee often funded through government programs. The lack of closer integration also results in lost opportunities. The company can’t gain an understanding of the total capabilities and capacities of the academic institution, and the academic institution isn’t able to fully grasp the variety of challenges facing the partner in growing and developing their business.

At Humber, we are exploring new innovative ways of working with our partners to encourage closer collaboration. For example, we recently launched a project with SEW-EURODRIVE that integrates two SEW-EURO-DRIVE engineers within our Barrett Centre for Technology Innovation. They showcase their world-leading technology not only for potential customers but also to students, faculty and

visitors to the facility. When business opportunities arise, they are then able to engage our students and faculty in trying to find suitable solutions. In these projects, the team is not divided into Humber and SEW-EURODRIVE personnel, but rather a cohesive team that works together to achieve a goal. Early results have been very encouraging. SEW-EURODRIVE has been able to create new products and secure new sales opportunities. Humber students have helped train the company’s employees and been hired on permanently as a result of the collaboration.

The success lies in both parties understanding their roles and areas of focus – Humber in creating an innovative learning environment for its students and SEW-EURODRIVE in driving its commercial priorities.

Innovation is complicated and takes more than sweat equity. Working harder does not necessarily translate into innovative products and services. Rather, innovation means trying different approaches, realizing that there is no magic bullet or one size fits all solution. The traditional approach to industry working with academia has merit and, in many cases, will work well for solving technical challenges. However, we must develop new models that will build and support an effective talent pipeline, placing students and workers at the forefront of the engagement.

Working closely with industry, Humber is committed to finding and developing innovative approaches that will benefit the partner, the existing workforce, the institution and of primary importance to Humber, our students. Together we can help ensure a brighter future for Canadians.

*Source: Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada