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EPISODE #18 The Innovative Art of Applied Science with Eric Cook




I meet many smart, interesting people in my work, but my recent guest on the TechTalks Podcast sparked an especially stimulating conversation about applied science, productivity and the sixth wave of innovation.  

Get ready to be inspired by Eric Cook, executive director and CEO of New Brunswick’s Research and Productivity Council, who brought some big, forward-thinking ideas to the show.

A mechanical engineer by training, Eric discovered early in his career that he preferred managing technology rather than being hands-on with it, “being on what I'll call the leading edge, not avoiding the bleeding edge... and seeing science and technology applied and generating value,” as he puts it.  

Scientists + Industry Unite

The RPC is a natural home for Eric’s interests and skills. A provincial crown corporation and not-for-profit, it was founded in 1962 as a research and technology organization.  

“RPC is specialized in the translational aspects of innovation,” Eric explains, “getting things moving from the lab into industry to realize economic value. And that's really what innovation is.”

Their work falls into two main buckets: analytical services that tend to be repeatable work, usually done to an accreditable standard, such as sample testing water, soil, radon gas and even cannabis.

Then there’s the applied science and engineering bucket, which is exactly what it sounds like, and where RPC plays at all stages of innovation.

“We have our name on a whole number of patents,” Eric says. “But we're usually listed as a co-inventor, not an owner. And that's part of our public good. We're a provincial crown corporation. And we're not-for-profit. So we work to recover our costs. But unlike a for-profit company, we're not trying to take an IP position in your idea. And that makes us very business-friendly.” 

The breadth of RPC’s work is mind-boggling, from the range of project stages and company sizes to the numerous sectors they serve, including energy, environmental assessment, food processing, agriculture and more. Last year, they served 1,300 unique clients, ranging from small to large projects running into multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The diversity of its staff is equally as impressive. At RPC’s main site in Fredericton, around 160 specialists from over 17 countries work in a dazzling array of fields, from all types of engineers to a variety of chemists, biologists and more.

The “P” in RPC

Productivity is so important right now, and Eric talked about it in such a grounded way.

“Productivity goes straight to our quality of life,” he says. “If we're not a productive economy, the things that we like to have, whether it be healthcare or other services, good roads, those things, they're not possible.”

We’ve had a relatively easy ride in New Brunswick on this front because of abundant natural resources, low-cost labour and a favourable trade partnership with the U.S.

“All those things are changing,” he says.

Factors such as looming labour shortages, the global economy and price pressures are a wake-up call, and productivity is on the other end of the line.

“Companies that are going to thrive in the next phase here will be those that make a commitment to be a productive company,” Eric says.

The first step is a mindset change. The second? A business assessment and mapping to determine what technology or processes can deliver the best ROI, begin to change your culture and make you more profitable and competitive. When it comes to productivity adoption, Eric uses the adage of eating an elephant: go one bite at a time.

Eric & Cathy.png

The Next Wave

In April, in the “early, dark days of the pandemic,” Eric co-authored a paper about how waves of innovation have long been observed to drive waves of economic growth. He and his co-author speculated that we're nearing the end of the fifth wave and entering the sixth.

“We were trying to think differently; we were trying to think about what opportunities this might provoke,” he says.

The paper explores how the innovation wave is usually triggered by a major world event, like a depression or war–or a pandemic.

“The inflection points could be the one-two punch of the 2008 economic meltdown and the pandemic,” he says, similar to the Spanish Flu followed, a decade later, by the Great Depression.

This next wave will likely encompass a shift to clean energy, more sustainable businesses and huge opportunities in biotech, where Eric sees lots of opportunity for New Brunswick.

“And values are going to start to change,” he says. “You're going to think about the garbage you’re generating, you're gonna think about how long your product lasts. An ideal customer gives value to quality and delivery, as well. And I think that's good news for our economy.”

As the first anniversary of COVID19 approaches, this conversation offered such a refreshing look forward. It’s really showed how scientists and industry need to collaborate to drive our economy. And it was a good reminder that embracing innovation to become more productive isn’t an end unto itself, but the way to a better quality of life for all of us.

You’ll definitely want to check out our full conversation by clicking here to listen.

Here's a peek at some of the highlights from this episode:

>>[08:26]: Eric on what innovation really means.

>>[15:00]:  Eric describes the range of RPC’s activities and the diversity of its staff.  

>>[29:28]: We talk about productivity and the mindset shift that’s required.

>>[36:02]: Eric on how automation, AI and other tools aren’t just for big companies.

>>[44:19]: We chat about the paper Eric co-authored last year about the next wave of innovation. 

>>[52:00]: We close out by talking about what we can learn from Arctic-based research.


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