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How to breed innovation, commercialization.

The Conference Board of Canada's director of innovation and knowledge management, Brian Guthrie, was "this close" to being an astronaut.

So it is no wonder the innovation guru endorses the idea of executives setting aside more time for employees to stare at the sky.

In an address to about 80 members of Greater Sudbury's business community at the fourth NORCAT/Northern Ontario Business Opportunity Breakfast Series (NNOS), he said there is a significant gap between companies that would say they are innovative and those that actually are, according to the board's definition.

Guthrie backed up the following statements with the Conference Board's Index of Corporate Innovation, a survey report of approximately 280 businesses.

Put simply, more innovative companies invest more time in innovation. One innovative firm, for example, set aside 10 per cent of its workforce's time for thinking outside the box; just staring at the sky and giving thought to problems.

He says an innovative idea is one that can make the trip not just from shop to store shelf, but from the shelf to the cash register. If the next big thing doesn't sell, he says, it's just a bunch of creative energy that went awry.

A good way to increase the odds of a new idea or product staying above water is to make sure your department, company, city and even country specializes in one thing and isn't gearing up to "out-Microsoft Microsoft," he said.

In today's information-technology (IT) driven global marketplace, a one-person operation can specialize and sell to Singapore from a Sudbury basement, for example.

He illustrated with Canada and the international space program.

Known, of course, for the robotic space tools Canadarm and Canadarm 2, he said Canada knows it can't be all things to all people. So researchers and developers focused on one aspect of the mission and did it better than any other country could.

Australia, some years ago, announced it would focus on only 20 sports or so at the Olympic level. The idea was not universally popular, but the result has been a dramatic increase in that country's gold medal production. Ireland specializes in software, he said, and Singapore put a lot of resources into one massive biotechnology centre.


A cluster, such as the mining cluster in Sudbury and Northern Ontario, is a good means to that end. Guthrie plainly defines a cluster as a place where someone can walk across the street from their place of work and find another job; where there are a few dedicated businesses and a university specializing in a given field. People there spend a lot of time in each other's offices and are interchangeable because they share the same expertise, he said.

Innovative businesses don't have to create everything under one roof.

"Find it in experts you work with ... clusters are good."

Darryl Lake is the executive director and CEO of the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (NORCAT). His job is to be the link between the innovators and those who can sell the product or idea.

"Many of the businesses in Northern Ontario are more innovative than they think they are," he said after Guthrie's presentation. Northern Ontarians tend to be innovative by virtue of the independent nature of living up here, he said.

"We need connectivity," he said. "We have to have partnerships to accomplish commercialization."

NORCAT has been on the issue for some time now, Lake said. The government can't just approach Joe Scientist at the university and say "Here, start a business." There must be an intermediary, an expert entrepreneur with the skill set necessary to get a product on the shelves, then off them and into people's homes and places of work. Scientists are scientists, and engineers are engineers, he says.

"That's long-term, but what we are saying is let's have some quick hits on the way. We can't put all our eggs in one basket."

Lake was echoing Guthrie's sentiment on the issue.

"We're fighting with the federal government right now," Guthrie said. "They think commercialization is about going to universities and having scientists create startup companies."

Startups represent a very small portion of the economy and have a success rate of about 0.1 per cent, he said.

"We need to get links between business and the universities," he said. "You don't turn PhDs into entrepreneurs. Those are completely different skill sets."

Take a machine shop boss for example, Lake said. If he were introduced to a systems integration specialist, he may be able to organize his operation in ways he never would have imagined. The net result would be increased productivity, seemingly out of thin air.

To encourage excellence in commercialization, there should be a $1-million award established for excellence in the field, according to Guthrie. The number isn't important, he said, but it has to be big enough to create a splash, attract attention and brand commercialization.


Northern Ontario Business
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Author:Gilbert, Craig
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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