For all the talk around innovation, there’s still a lot of confusion about what, exactly, it is and why it matters. But innovation isn’t grey or nebulous, not a trend. And it’s not just for coders. It’s real, it’s simple, and it is key to our economic recovery.
That’s why I was excited to have two Atlantic Canadian innovation visionaries as my guests on Episode 4 of the Tech Talks Podcast. Jeff White, CEO of the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation, and Malcolm Fraser, president and CEO of Innovacorp, joined me to talk all things innovation, including the tangible ways it's transforming our econom
Malcom says innovation is about creating something unique that is valuable to someone. Jeff talks about it as creative problem solving, using technology to come up with new and novel responses to challenges. Commercialize the solution and economic activity is spurred.
While the solutions are often complex, the concept is simple: innovation is about ideas. And, as Jeff and Malcolm point out, ideas live everywhere. They come out of our universities and colleges through class work and research. They come from businesses looking for a better way. And they come from tech experts who see a problem they are drawn to solve.
A Whole New World
Atlantic Canada’s innovation ecosystem is itself an innovation. Twenty years ago, it didn’t exist. It was a new response to an old problem: how to build a prosperous economy. With the global explosion in tech entrepreneurship, a community of local builders got together. They started what is now a rich tech innovation environment, with ambitious plans for our region to be one of the Top 10 places in the world for startups.
We chatted about how far our region’s innovation ecosystem has come and the various ways it spurs economic activity. It’s not just the headline-grabbing exits that matter. There’s a whole spectrum of wins along the way: successful founders reinvesting time and capital in other local, early-stage companies; building and attracting talent; and growing our capacity are just a few spinoff benefits.
The Ingredients For Success
So how did it happen here? Well, the innovation recipe calls for things like money and infrastructure. But you may be surprised by the magic ingredient: people. Talent is key. And if you think I mean just technical architects and programmers, think again. Innovation, like any healthy ecosystem, relies on a diverse mix of species. That means researchers. Business people. Tech folks. Government workers. Entrepreneurs. Investors. Marketers. Mentors.
We talked about our Atlantic Canadian advantage of natural networks and a collegial culture. We can take it for granted, but the ready support and easy access to people, advice and early-stage capital is really unique. And it’s a huge benefit for any students or job-seekers who are eyeing the innovation space: you will be welcomed and helped.
It Takes a Village
When it comes to innovation, it really does take a lot of factors to mature from baby idea to grown-up companies. And that’s another place our conversation went. In Atlantic Canada, our innovation ecosystem–the network of people and organizations with a stake in commercializing new technology ideas–is strong.
It includes hallmarks of the tech industry: accelerators, lab facilities, maker spaces, mentors, start-ups, venture capitalists, and more. But it extends beyond the usual suspects, to encompass lots of partners and stakeholders outside this world, including traditional industries looking for new and better ways to do business. The pandemic has highlighted how the entrepreneurial mindset that’s so prevalent in tech is valuable for any company to rebound and be more resilient.
Supporting innovation and entrepreneurs in all fields is critical to our economic growth.
Good News For Emerging Entrepreneurs
For students and young founders, this is a golden era of innovation opportunity.
Our universities and colleges are “talent factories” giving the next generation the technical and entrepreneurial skills you’re going to need. There are multidisciplinary programs that welcome all stripes, so you can have a philosophy student next to a chemical engineer next to a history major. Again, ideas and entrepreneurship aren’t limited to the techies.
And there are as many pathways as there are talents. For some, it comes from working with a professor on research. For others, it’s by testing the waters with a co-op, summer job or internship. Whatever it is, I encourage you to explore innovation for your career. We need you.
If you want to dig into the full conversation, and really get informed and inspired, click here to listen.
Here’s a peek at some of the highlights from our conversation:
[14:33] Malcolm talks about how innovation isn’t limited to pure research, and the role of commercialization.
[22:30] Jeff explains how disruptions like COVID create tremendous opportunity for innovation. Many of our region’s greatest companies have come out of economic downturns or times of great upheaval.
[28:32] Malcolm explores the growing engagement of more traditional companies with the innovation sector. He points to the Port of Halifax as an example of a long-established organization that’s looking to startups for ideas.
[30:21] Jeff explores how our innovation ecosystem is maturing. He points out that 15 years ago, it was primarily startups, people working out of the proverbial garage. Now, innovation is needed in every sector.
[34:53] We chat about how a culture of resilience, adaptability and growth is the broad power of the entrepreneurial mindset.
[45:11] We talk about how being a researcher no longer means necessarily becoming a prof. There are lots of ways to impact the world with your ideas, including commercialization.
[50:00] My guests share a couple of local examples of companies that are changing the world. Malcolm tells us about a robotic weeder developed by a team of young scientists. Jeff describes a team of engineers and business people who had evolved their early idea to apply AI to vehicle safety and performance.
[55:44] We close by talking about the exciting future of innovation in Atlantic Canada, and how the pandemic is fueling our ecosystem.
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