Innovation doesn’t just happen. Without the dedicated efforts of researchers—and the funding needed to support those efforts—there would be no more world-changing technologies, products or services.
That’s why we’re talking about research on episode 32 of the TechTalks podcast with Dr. Laura Richard and Dr. Erik Scheme. Both of this episode’s guests are instrumental to New Brunswick’s thriving research and innovation ecosystem.
Erik is an Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UNB and, since last year, Associate Director of its Institute of Biomedical Engineering. There he works with colleagues and students to conduct research into biomedical innovations that can transform lives. (The Institute is involved in research into everything from artificial exoskeletons for patients with spinal-cord injuries to advanced prosthetics and even a “smart cane.”)
Laura, meanwhile, is Director of Research at the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation (NBIF). Her job involves finding and working with academics like Erik, helping them access the financial and other supports they need to turn their inspirations and innovations into new companies and products—to make them real in the world.
Their twin stories exemplify the innovation, collaboration and hard work making New Brunswick a hub of research innovation.
Making a Career of Curiosity
“I was the kind of child that never stopped asking questions,” says Laura. “Why? How? And that naturally took me to a career doing science as a living. “
A born-and-raised Frederictonian, Laura graduated from UNB with a degree in chemistry, before heading to the UK to study for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Inorganic Chemistry at Oxford University. (As she says, “Why not shoot for the stars and go for the fanciest university I can think of?”)
Her experiences at Oxford brought her into the orbit of some of the most knowledgeable people in her field on Earth. She stayed in the UK after graduation, working with a start-up spun out of Oxford, and in 2014, headed to Belgium to work as an analytical chemist with Proctor & Gamble.
One of the most important lessons of her European experiences, she says, was that her questioning, curious nature was an enormous professional asset—but only if it was focused.
“I remember one of my first presentations I gave to my first manager,” she says. “He pointed out a particular piece of data I had in the table: ‘And so why did you run that experiment?’ And I said, ‘I was curious.’ And he's like, ‘That's not enough. It has to be curiosity driving a business insight: how will knowing that help us sell more product?’”
That’s a lesson she brought home when she returned to Fredericton in 2018, to take a job as NBIF’s Director of Research.
“All research has its merits,” she says. “But the kind of research we fund is research that might lead to an impact for the end user…it's got to be more than just asking why. It's asking why to achieve some difference in the world.”
One of the most gratifying aspects of Laura’s work with NBIF, she says, has been bringing more money into the research ecosystem.
“When I started the job,” she says, “it broke my heart how many times I would have to speak to a researcher like Erik and say, ‘This project is so cool, [but] I don't have any money left.’”
Today, her NBIF team approaches research partnerships in a very New Brunswick manner: with a fairly casual, one-on-one conversation about what a researcher needs. What are their roadblocks, what is the impact they want to make, what is the potential of their innovation? She then tries to match those goals with an NBIF funding program—and if there isn’t one, but the researcher’s case is compelling, she may advocate to devise a custom solution.
“NBIF has been a tremendous supporter of the university in the work that we do,” says Erik—in particular, in helping to maintain research capacity over time. One of the biggest challenges he faces is that with students entering the university and leaving again within a few years, maintaining specialized knowledge is difficult.
“I liken it to trying to run a company where you could never keep your employees for longer than, say, two to three years…then they get good, and they leave,” he says. Funding from NBIF helps maintain capacity consistently, year over year.
Forging a collaborative future
The newest way this is all coming together is a collaborative investment between the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and NBIF, which will inject $3.2 million into artificial-intelligence research in New Brunswick by the end of this year.
The new AI fund will help Erik’s team develop biomedical applications for AI and machine-learning technology, forge new connections with industry and help ensure the university—and its faculty and students—are developing industry-specific skills. In the long run, he believes it’s this kind of investment that can continue to build the province’s small-but-growing reputation in the AI and biomedical landscape writ large.
“From a per-capita perspective, New Brunswick and our region continue to punch above our weight,” he says. “There's opportunities there for us to raise our profile and also create partnerships with those larger Institutes that will raise our level nationally and internationally.”
To get there, however, he suggests we ought to blow our own horns a little more loudly: “It's not something that we do as Maritimers too much, [but] maybe making a little bit more noise and celebrating our wins could help us raise our profile there as well.”
Laura agrees—and believes that doing just that could also help to bring New Brunswickers like her back home, in addition to bringing in talented newcomers.
“In order for this to be a good and rewarding place to live that offers a quality of life, we need to stay competitive on a global scale,” she says. “By helping companies…to develop products and services that are more competitive, we can make New Brunswick the kind of place where young people don't leave, but young people flock to.”
Check out our entire conversation by clicking here to listen.