Leaders from the worlds of academia, business and politics are calling for a more rapid and expanded investment into fundamental science to ensure society capitalizes on the unexpected outcomes of deep research.

As the world grapples with massive issues like climate change, an aging population and geopolitical strife, it has never been more important to make big risks on long-term problems, those leaders told an audience at the Waterloo Innovation Summit in London, England. 

As digital and demographic disruptors touch “every organization on the planet...  during the most disruptive era in 200 years,” according to Dominic Barton, global economic advisor and chancellor of the University of Waterloo, more focus needs to be placed on the bigger questions that strike at the core of humanity's existence – of what makes us work, how we got here and where we are going.

By diving into those basic questions – researching them for the sake of research itself – humanity will not only address some of the world's most pressing issues, but set the stage for unimagined findings, new technologies, and entirely new sectors in the coming decades.

“First and foremost, we don't want to just be a supplier of talent for our communities and Canada,” said Feridun Hamdullahpur, president and vice-chancellor of Waterloo, as he opened the summit. “We have an ambition of being a part of building our nation – of being its chief architects.” As part of that effort, we must focus on connecting innovation with real-world problems, he said.  

A shift in focus to basic science should be motivated by economic concerns, said Randall Howard, an angel investor who has built a successful career building and funding global firms based on innovation. In an age when even the Vatican is preparing for the effects of artificial intelligence, it is critical that countries, companies and investors brace for the “inevitability of change.”

Investing in science for the long-term

Speaking on a panel on entrepreneurship in front of a crowd of about 100 people, Howard warned that Canada, where oil accounts for a significant portion of the country's gross domestic product, must prepare itself for technological disruption in the energy sector. Now more than ever, attention and investment must be going into deep science and technologies to ensure the economy is able to survive a sea change.

“The person who can bet on the 30- to 50-year ideas are the ones who will change the world,” he said. Not only are these ideas the ones that will “bend the universe,” they are ideas that will pay back investors many times over, he said.

Earlier at the event, Donna Strickland, Waterloo physics professor and Nobel Laureate, told a rapt audience about her win in October and noted that while there are many high-tech practical applications based on her work, the research itself took place in the 1980's without today’s uses planned out.

“We didn't have applications in mind,” she said. “We just wanted to see if we could do it.” It is that kind of science that will ensure humanity continues to progress, she said. “Twenty years down the road, investing in science pays off.”

Unexpected outcomes

When her company developed the world's first 3D printer for circuit boards, Katarina Ilic would not have been able to predict the myriad ways her technology is now in use around the world, the Waterloo alumnus told a panel.

The co-founder of Voltera, which came up through the Velocity Garage, said it's important for more investors to take bets on companies such as hers, even though the payoff might not be as immediate – and the concept perhaps not as easy to comprehend.

It was in large part because of a community of entrepreneurs and academics across disciplines in Waterloo, and the willingness of investors willing to bet on deep tech, that her company has grown worldwide – and now has customers ranging from Mennonite farmers making maple syrup to NASA scientists in space.

But both Ilic and Howard said startups are still having a difficult time raising funds, no matter how groundbreaking their idea might be. Investors are more willing to play it safe with consumer products, they said, rather than invest in something they don't fully understand.

“You never really know how certain research is going to work out,” Ilic said. “By putting money into research, you don't know how it will benefit someone, but it will.”

Kristine Boone, a PhD candidate and researcher at the startup Quantum Benchmark, said her company's technology is poised to play a major role in the transformational quantum-computer age. But the success of her company and others like it are borne from an ecosystem in Waterloo that understands science, encourages risk and creates access to a concentration of experts across disciplines. 

“Experts in blockchain or cryptography might not see the whole problem,” she said. "But together, we're able to see a bigger picture, and to answer questions we didn't know we had.”

Boone said it is difficult to say exactly when the first universal quantum computer will be powered on – she estimated 10 years on the pessimistic side – but more than 20 quantum companies have already come out of the Institute of Quantum Computing. Their successes are likely to fuel the rise of even more startups, which means innovation in this space could happen faster than anyone anticipates.

Connecting deep research and commercialization

It is this very mix of deep science and commercialization that make the University of Waterloo a model of innovation, said Barton, managing partner emeritus at McKinsey & Co.

Barton pointed to the Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging, a foundation dedicated to enhancing care and quality of life. It is an immensely important issue as the population grows at an unprecedented rate and it is being tackled in a unique manner at the institute, where they apply research in real time in real-life settings.

The institute is a strong example of connecting research with skills, he said. The ability of our scientists to move from research, to development, to commercialization is key to the future of innovation hubs and society at large. The idea of science for science's sake can pay off in unimagined ways, he said.

Taking place in Canada House overlooking the historic Trafalgar Square, the London event was the first Waterloo Innovation Summit to be held outside Canada and represented an important step in the University's bid to bring its story to the world, President Feridun Hamdullahpur said. The next event in the summit series heads back home to Waterloo in the fall.