Real-world research at colleges drives innovation in Canada

Colleges' applied research partnerships are vital to Canada's economic productivity.

We hear quite a bit these days about how “innovation” is an essential part of Canada’s efforts to drive economic growth.

It’s not always clear, though, what governments and others mean when they talk about “innovation.”

Naturally, we would all love to see someone in Canada discover the next big idea – creating some revolutionary new thing like the next iPad that completely transforms how we live our lives.

While that would be terrific, the real drive for innovation goes far beyond that. Often, it involves very focused research that helps businesses become more efficient or solve technical challenges that affect the quality of their products and services.

It goes well beyond the search for a single scientific discovery or innovation. To truly stimulate growth, innovative research is needed in every sector of our economy.

In this new age of accelerating automation, it’s particularly important to promote innovative research in our small and medium-sized businesses, which are responsible for most of the job growth in Canada.

Most smaller businesses in Canada don’t have the resources to do that kind of research on their own. That’s why a growing number of businesses have entered into research partnerships with Canada’s colleges.

In Ontario, there are more than 1,300 applied research partnerships between colleges and businesses. These partnerships have led to some tremendous successes.

Some recent examples include:

  • A professor and students at Mohawk College in Hamilton have developed a smart electric wheelchair for people with limited hand and arm mobility that can be activated with only a slight touch of a pad instead of the typical toggle system.
  • A student at Fanshawe College in London is developing a test that would alert maple syrup producers that they’re going to get a bad batch.
  • Researchers at Lambton College in Sarnia are working with a company to enhance a UV ray-detecting sticker that warns people when their sunscreen is no longer working.
  • Students at Cambrian College in Sudbury worked with a local business to promote the greater use of new technology in underground mining through the creation of shock-resistant charging stations for USB-powered devices.

These research projects lead to innovations that generate economic growth in the businesses’ communities and deliver excellent returns on government investments.

They also provide exciting opportunities for students to participate in research that addresses the actual problems those businesses face – finding solutions that help the businesses become more productive and create new jobs. Not surprisingly, this often leads to the students landing full-time employment at those businesses.

Applied research in Canada is a true success story. It demonstrates our tremendous potential to establish Canada as a leading nation in the new economy.

We must seize this opportunity. Our next federal government and the Ontario government must ensure innovation is a priority and provide increased support for research and innovation at Canada’s colleges.

Linda Franklin

Linda Franklin is the past president and CEO of Colleges Ontario, the advocacy association for Ontario’s 24 colleges.