The growth of the Canadian economy depends on the success of its entrepreneurs. But the country’s current innovation and productivity gap risks stymying its entrepreneurial ambitions. Government efforts to address this gap typically focus on research and development within existing private companies —and leave post-secondary institutions out in the cold. 

Yet these post-secondary institutions play a crucial role in fostering innovation that businesses often can’t afford. A shift in thinking is required based on strong evidence that many universities are actively creating and supporting Canada’s new entrepreneurs. 

Super-charged startups 

Universities like Waterloo train large volumes of highly entrepreneurial students who, thanks to their extensive co-op education experience, are motivated to bring innovations to market. They often achieve this faster than existing companies because, unlike most established enterprises, students aren’t constrained by a particular business model. 

With the right support, such as the Velocity Incubator program, these students become agents of change. Many have established successful startups in Canada, with recent examples including big names like ApplyBoard and Faire as well as those on the rise like Avidbots and Vena Medical.  

Waterloo’s entrepreneurial energy is fuelled by the institution’s creator-owned intellectual property rights policy, which grants full ownership to the inventor. This policy has given rise to a university culture that has become the engine for driving commercialization and the success of student-led and research-based innovation. 

Deep tech disruption 

Deep tech startups disrupt the status quo with significant scientific advances and engineering innovation. Good examples include digital cameras and online search engines, which have forever altered the likes of Kodak and the Yellow Pages. What might come as a surprise is that post-secondary institutions in Canada, rather than businesses, generate many of the unique research and development-based deep tech discoveries. This differs to the U.S. primarily because Canada is not home to technology giants such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, IBM and Intel. 

To commercialize deep tech requires capital and specialized technical labour. But most small or medium-sized Canadian companies don’t have the will or ability to allocate the necessary resources. Commercializing deep tech through university startups is a great — and very viable — alternative approach. But it needs government and industry support to succeed. 

Not only do these startups engage the university inventor who is the prime repository of deep technical knowledge, they also benefit from a supply of capable graduate students with the requisite deep tech knowledge. What’s more, these students often take up leadership positions within the startups instead of heading to the U.S. for what can appear to be more lucrative opportunities. In other words, talent stays here. 

Social impact success 

The current cohort of entrepreneurs is quite different from past generations. Many of today’s young people are motivated by the social mission and desire to deliver real change for an improved world. Their business ambitions are driven more by positive human impact than financial metrics.  

And who can blame them? Despite decades of economic growth, challenges such as climate change, sustainable health care, economic inequality and food insecurity continue to put humanity’s future at risk. Traditional business with its profit-making priorities has failed to align economic growth and social impact because the financial returns are modest and the time to returns are lengthy. 

Sustainable social enterprises founded on university campuses like Waterloo can and do take on these societal challenges with financial success. They attract qualified employees who are motivated by the social mission, and they find capital to grow from a new generation of social impact investors and programs that value social impact alongside financial returns. 

Integrate, innovate, improve 

To achieve a thriving, entrepreneurially rich economy, the Canadian government needs to invite universities to the table. Research, innovation and commercialization are part of a continuum, they are not mutually exclusive. If we constrain one part of the pipeline in favour of another, the whole ecosystem — and Canadian society — suffers. 

An integrative approach that acknowledges universities as active enablers of entrepreneurial success is key. With greater support from programs such as the Canadian Innovation Corporation (CIC), universities can advance the commercial readiness of new technologies for startup development and private sector use.  

“An integrative approach that acknowledges universities as active enablers of entrepreneurial success is key.”

Dr. Karim S. Karim (BASc ’99, PhD ’03)

Dr. Karim S. Karim

The government and the CIC have a golden opportunity to engage with experts at universities and incubators who have proven track records of commercializing specialized technologies. A co-ordinated and integrated approach is crucial. It will help close the productivity gap and improve Canada’s socioeconomic prospects for all.