The following editorial ran in The Globe and Mail on Nov. 16.
Creating an ecosystem where startups and dynamic companies thrive
Jim Diodati’s city is home to the world’s most celebrated waterfalls. But Mr. Diodati, who is mayor of Niagara Falls, Ont., has so much more to be proud of these days.
Niagara Falls recently announced a billion-dollar mixed-use development – with the Chinese government as a major shareholder – that will include an innovation park and spaces for residential, commercial, retail and recreational use. The city is also building an incubation and commercialization hub where innovative ventures can get the support and resources they need to bring their products or services to market.
After an economic downturn driven largely by the decline of manufacturing in the region, Niagara Falls is building its future on innovation, and it’s getting help from a partner that knows how to link innovation with economic development: Ryerson University in Toronto.
“We’re looking at strategies to support technology innovation and to strengthen our backbone, small- and mid-sized businesses,” says Mr. Diodati. “Ryerson is helping us as we work to develop an ecosystem of dynamic companies with the potential to succeed on a global scale.”
Ryerson’s collaboration with the city of Niagara Falls is just one of several partnerships the university has forged with organizations and governments seeking to close the gap between innovation and application. Ryerson has worked recently with partners in Mumbai in India, Johannesburg in South Africa and Birmingham in the United Kingdom.
“Now we’re looking at our own backyard,” says Wendy Cukier, vice president of research and innovation at Ryerson.
In addition to Niagara Falls, the university has also started working with the Eastern Ontario Regional Network, a not-for-profit organization that’s leading a large-scale broadband project for the region. In both of these partnerships, Ryerson’s main goal is to complement existing local efforts to strengthen the regions’ innovation ecosystem.
To do this, Ryerson is creating an innovation ecosystem map that will give a big-picture view of each region’s capacity to create, develop and support startups, and that will show how existing industries are using technology.
“We are also looking at how to strengthen their connections to the Greater Toronto Area, and to national and global markets,” says Ms. Cukier.
Through extensive research on entrepreneurship, technology adoption and innovation processes Ryerson is developing models and best practices for turning technology research into useful – and well-used – innovations.
“When we look at the innovation gap in Canada, we see that Canadian companies are lagging globally and that big investments in research – particularly at universities – are not producing the desired impact from the point of view of commercialization, startups and job creation,” says Ms. Cukier. “Part of this is because we have focused on how to create new technology but paid insufficient attention to the drivers and impediments to adoption.”
She points to research by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, which found that 40 per cent of SMEs in Ontario do not have an Internet presence – a surprising finding given that these businesses are driving economic growth not just in the province but in all of Canada.
Another study, by Ryerson for Rogers Communications, reports that while Canadian consumers are world leaders in their use of mobile technology, Canadian businesses are laggards.
“We must focus on users, linking the technology to organizational goals,” says Ms. Cukier. “Many companies don’t understand the business case for using particular technologies, do not have people with appropriate skills, and do not have the time to figure it out.”
To bridge the innovation gap, researchers, organizations and governments need to adopt market-driven approaches to solving real world problems, she says. At Ryerson, research excellence is combined with relevance through close partnerships with private and public-sector organizations, Ms. Cukier adds.
“One of the strengths Ryerson brings is a multidisciplinary approach that considers the users, the applications, and the application processes,” she says. “Because if new technologies, processes and products are not actually used, there is no innovation.”