Research vs. innovation vs. start-ups

The Premier announced (re-announced?) the government’s innovation strategy – which will be anchored by a new Research and Innovation Council co-chaired by a good pick – Geoff Flood from T4G.    I am a bit confused by the mandate of this new intiative.  Is it to foster more research?  Promote innovation or foster more new tech-based start-ups?  My confusion stems from the ambigious language around the effort.

Of course I have no problem with R&D spending.  Read the thousand blog posts on that subject here.  I have no problem with innovation as a theme.  I am very interested in how we stimulated tech-based start-ups.  In fact, I am dramatically more interested in that latter pathway to economic dvelopment than I was five years ago.

But if the government wants more tech-based start-ups why not just be more blunt about it and set up a Tech-Based Start-Up Council?  That would likely look and feel a whole lot different than a Research and Innovation Counci.

The Atlantic Innovation Fund was set up to stimulate more research among mostly SMEs in Atlantic Canada.  It is a worthy initiative and has done good work but it hasn’t led to a massive new crop of tech-based start-ups.  That wasn’t its mandate.

My only point here is one of seeking clarity.  Government officials seem to be conflating terms such as ‘research’ and ”innovation’ with ‘start-ups’.  While there can be a causal link between them, they are essentially three separate terms.

And then it all comes back to priorities.  Is the priority to stimulate economic growth?  If so, the focus should be on how do we foster more private sector investment in the province.   I am not sure R&D as a primary focus is the best pathway to stimulate a lot of new private sector investment.

Of course economic development has a lot of moving parts.  We need a strategy to firm up the potential of natural resources, energy and other areas of opportunity.  Some of those were pointed to in the Premier’s address last night.

A pure R&D focus is a longer term play.    If you talk with folks at ACOA about the AIF they will say it’s benefits have yet to be played out on the regional economy.

In the shorter term we need to foster private sector investment.    We need to turn over every rock. Target and Walmart should be encouraged to put regional distribution centres in Moncton.  Plans to reverse the LNG facility in Saint John should be underway.  If SWN is getting cold feet about shale gas, we should be out talking to ExxonMobil or some other credible player.   We should be convincing our many call centres to migrate into social media from their New Brunswick operations.  We need a plan to foster more tech-based startups.  I favour bringing them in from India, Poland and other emerging markets where there are numerous tech entrepreneurs hankering to get into the North American market.



4 thoughts on “Research vs. innovation vs. start-ups

  1. I’m generally in favour of what is proposed here (but let’s be clear about returns on investment, and not just throw money at companies hoping they’ll do something good).

    About entrepreneurs in India and Poland – it may make more sense to set up partnerships with them, because they may not want to relocate to Canada.

    I would also note that a great way to stimulate entrepreneurship is to reduce risk – that’s why it’s so easy for rich kids to be entrepreneurs, they already have income support. But adding taxes you simply can’t avoid – like health care premiums or user fees – increase this risk, and make the province a lot less attractive.

  2. Innovation Suggestion for NB
    Mactaquac Could Hold Key to Solving NB’s Debt Mess
    The crumbling concrete at Mactaquac dam could turn into a good news story – if we look at a scenario to turn that sour lemon into lemonade.
    As many New Brunswickers know in 1964-65 someone made the mistake of using an alkali aggregate when mixing concrete for the dam resulting in a slow expansion and crumbling of the concrete. If nothing is done the dam will lose much of its structural integrity by 2028; it would be in danger of collapsing. Estimates to rebuild the dam are in the $2-3 billion range so this is a brutal blow to a province already suffering from high deficits and vanishingly little growth. Or is it, perhaps, a serendipitous opportunity?
    An elegant upside is reachable by returning the head pond to its 1968 level and uncover ninety-six kilometers of prime riverfront property. Currently one million retired Americans live abroad, mostly in Mexico, Central America and the sunny parts of Europe. This number of senior expats is expected – U.S. Census figures – to rise to five million by 2025. Building riverfront homes in purpose-designed cluster communities on the new Saint John River shores would attract some of these retirees. If we succeeded in attracting just one percent it would transform our finances so thoroughly the citizenry would smile, and then smile again. Our deficits and unsustainable debt would become history.
    In favour of this project is the trend that Americans are already starting to move to Canada in record numbers (CTV News, July 12, 2012 + Time Magazine ’what’s driving Americans to retire abroad’, July 25, 2012). We may be on the cusp of an historic transition in immigration flows. Americans know that Canadian government services – including health care, gun control/security and transportation infrastructure – are superior to any of those on offer in Sun Belt countries and that affluent, well educated Americans would find permanent residence in Canada easy to obtain. The odds are good that, given proper planning, we could recreate a 21st century version of the huge 18th century Loyalist flows to this province.
    Given the significant potential to attract Americans the Mactaquac question then becomes: how do we replace its 653 megawatt power, i.e., 20 % of Energy NB production?
    Some might say we should look at building a second nuclear power plant at Point Lepreau. This would cost about seven billion dollars, require ten years to build and give rise to much controversy. A few unimaginative souls might say that shale gas could take up the slack but that would be sure to cause even more controversy. A better alternative is to look four miles below the surface of the Earth where the temperature is over 200 degrees C – hot enough to drive steam turbines. Drilling technology used to be incapable of reaching such depths because the hot temperatures would melt drill bits. Experimental technologies such as extremely high pressure water were tried (Los Alamos, Switzerland) but found wanting in various ways; deep rock heat continued to be inaccessible. Until 2006, that is.
    In its 372 page 2006 report, The Future of Geothermal Energy, MIT concludes that the time for action is now.
    Google the words ’plasma deep drilling technology’ to view evidence that the time for deep geothermal has come. The development of plasma drill bits has opened pathways to this little known resource – see .
    While the upside of taking on such a project is vast and we must not shirk from the challenge we also must be prudent. Our decision making process could begin by having Premier Alward task his newly created Energy Institute to study deep rock geothermal energy. Drilling deep wells is expensive – tens of millions of dollars – so this decision must bear intense scrutiny. To help start this process those of us living in the north of the province indicate our willingness to have drilling take place in our area. The soon to be decommissioned Dalhousie Generating Station would be a highly appropriate location.
    Replacing hydropower with deep rock geothermal would imbue the whole 21st Century Loyalist venture with an enviable green energy aura. These green qualities would be of tremendous assistance when it comes to marketing this project to Americans.
    New Brunswick’s debt/deficit challenge is huge; only with genuine risk taking can we tackle our problems. The Premier has stated he wants our province to be known as the ‘innovation province’; taking on this project would show the world New Brunswick is serious about innovation.

  3. SWN had their equipment damaged and so many protests, then you have the government taking long to get back to them about regulations. Sackville turns down wind energy and box stores like Walmart so they go to Amherst.

    Plus you have a province who is largely against change. I agree that taxing more is not the answer. Seasonal workers happy to collect EI all winter and not get retrained. There’s a serious attitude adjustment required, but let’s forget them and focus on bring more professionals like myself and my wife who work at home with remote clients and bring lots of revenue into the province. It doesn’t all have to be about large companies or entrepreneurs.

  4. I wrote a column for the NSBJ on this and venture capital this month, looking at Bay Area companies and what they do different. Innovation and research go hand in hand because they’re cultural aspects – you invest in research to develop innovative new approaches to a problem. I like companies like CarbonCure and Ocean Nutrition who are innovative solution-makers to old problems.

    Tech start-ups aren’t by nature innovative – just because it involves programming doesn’t mean you’re blazing a trail. Innovation is as much a grind as traditional business development is (guess and test, invest, slow improvements) but it seems many businesses in the region don’t invest in much more than business development. To me, the big piece is the fact that most tech companies plan to innovate as much as they plan to sell stuff, and that works.

    I will admit I was a little confused too at the new Research and Innovation Council – investing in R & D is good, putting new resources and young people in play is good, but ultimately how do you foster a collective desire to think differently? I don’t know if that’s covered.

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