As was the case last year, yesterday’s budget once again proved that when it comes to building a more innovative future, the Prime Minister and Finance Minister are willing to put their money where their mouths are. But making investments is just the beginning. For Canada to truly position itself as an innovation leader, all of us in the innovation ecosystem will need to work together to deliver the goods.
Despite being home to some of the leading researchers and research institutions in the world, Canadian companies struggle to commercialize R&D and innovation, scale up, protect IP, and retain and attract skilled talent. What’s more, Canada continues to show middling performance on global innovation rankings when compared to other countries, spending only 1.5 per cent of its GDP on research and development compared to a 2.5 per cent OECD average.
With over $100 billion of committed investments and a focus on building for the long term, last year’s budget asked us all to think bigger about what comes next and to aim higher than we had before the pandemic. This year, we are seeing more investments in other key areas, including affordable housing, childcare, and climate change – all areas where innovative solutions can make a real difference in the lives of Canadians.
This builds on renewed support for innovation in provincial budgets across the country, including the Legault government’s recent multibillion dollar commitment to the renewal of Quebec’s research and innovation strategy.
Governments have recognized that there are problems when it comes to nurturing innovation in this country – including underinvestment in research and development, a lack of access to skilled talent and underperformance on productivity – and have shown themselves willing to make the investments necessary to help close the gap. But that alone is not enough.
The Canadian innovation ecosystem needs to make a concerted effort to improve productivity and support economic growth.
And how do we do that?
By ensuring Canadian companies have access to the best skills and talent our postsecondary institutions have to offer, including top international students and researchers. By prioritizing key strategic areas like AI, clean tech, and quantum computing, where Canada can lead.
However, many startups and growth stage companies are still not aware of the full range of services available to them to fully benefit from the world-class talent in Canada.
Research conducted by Mitacs shows that one of the biggest challenges preventing small- and medium-sized businesses from becoming more innovative is a lack of access to qualified talent. In order to push back against this trend, we need to make it much easier for businesses to access the right types of industry support from government partners, including access to the right talent.
Investments are just the first step to Canada positioning itself as an innovation economy. We need true policy alignment – at all levels of government – and a commitment to fostering the talent we have while giving businesses the opportunity to pivot and be competitive in an evolving business environment.
Yesterday’s “back to basics” budget once again reiterated the government’s commitment to strengthening innovation, improving productivity, and supporting SMEs in the post-pandemic economy.
By being highly responsive to business needs and pairing them with highly educated students and postdoctoral researchers, we can play to our strengths as a country.
Now it’s time for all of us – business, research networks, universities, communities – to come together to unleash the talent we have right here in Canada and drive innovation by matching skills with opportunity.
John Hepburn is CEO of Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada by solving business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions.