Tuesday, October 18, 2016

By Paul Heidebrecht, the director of the Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement. This article originally appeared in the October 3rd edition of The Hill Times.

WATERLOO, ONT.—At the recent Waterloo Innovation Summit, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains stressed that the Canadian government has an important role to play in helping homegrown startups scale up. One new area of focus is for the government to drive research and development by becoming a customer for new products and services.

This is a welcome approach for a host of reasons noted by the minister in Waterloo, and outlined by the contours of the federal government’s much anticipated Innovation Strategy. It is also welcome for another key reason that hasn’t received as much attention: the opportunity to constructively address a host of societal challenges.

After all, innovation isn’t an end in itself for the Government of Canada. And as significant as it is, economic growth shouldn’t be the only measure of success for its innovation policy. Innovation should be encouraged because it can help build a better Canada, and a better world.

Canada’s new 'Innovation Strategy,' led by Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, will require a much broader institutional shift, and mechanisms to align it with many other strategies and agendas, writes Paul Heidebrecht.

I recognize that expanding our view of innovation to include a focus on generating positive social impacts does present a challenge to Bains, since helping the government prioritize problems and implement new approaches to solving them is not only the work of his ministry. Every government department should be thought of as a potential customer for innovations that could transform how they pursue their respective missions.

Thus Canada’s new ‘Innovation Strategy’ will require a much broader institutional shift, and mechanisms to align it with many other strategies and agendas. In addition to public consultations on innovation, the government has been busy seeking the input of Canadians on a dizzying array of policy issues in recent months, including climate change, defence, electoral reform, immigration, international assistance, and missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. What problems will be prioritized in each of these policy areas?

The strategy will also require partners beyond the federal government. One inspiring example can be found in the “Procurement by Co-Design,” innovation partnership between MaRS Discovery District and Ontario’s Ministry of Government and Consumer Services. This new program will link “Innovation Briefs” from individual vendors that respond to “Challenge Briefs” from health-care providers, and then support the design, prototyping, and procurement of solutions. It is based on the conviction that innovations in health technology will not only drive economic growth, but significantly improve the care and well-being of patients everywhere.

No doubt there are many other practical ways to make a “whole of government” approach to innovation possible. There are also many potential roadblocks, and l will conclude with one scenario that underscores the work that remains.

Paul and Landmine Boys

Landmine Boys is a Waterloo-based startup that is developing a new approach to defusing landmines that promises to dramatically accelerate the global effort to eradicate landmines. After winning high-profile pitch competitions as engineering students, they are taking advantage of Kitchener-Waterloo’s dynamic innovation ecosystem in order to develop their technology and business model. They have established partnerships in Cambodia to field test prototype devices. They have attracted local, national, and international media attention. And yet they are struggling to line up the funding they will need to bring their product to market. 

As we approach the twenty-year anniversary of the Ottawa process that led to the Mine Ban Treaty, it is hard to imagine a more compelling startup story than the Landmine Boys. They are young entrepreneurs who have set aside a more conventional career path in order to create a tech company focused on export markets. Moreover, they are pouring their heart and soul into applying technology to a problem that really matters, and a problem that addresses, I would argue, a foreign policy priority for Canadians.

How will Canada’s innovation strategy help open the doors of the government for startups like Landmine Boys?