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Applied Research at Ontario Colleges Stimulates Innovation

Daniel Munro, Principal Research Associate, Organizational Effectiveness and Learning
May 16, 2011

Ontario’s colleges are poised to play an increasingly important role in stimulating and accelerating business innovation. Through applied research collaborations, colleges help Ontario businesses—especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)—overcome barriers to research and innovation.

In its report, Innovation Catalysts and Accelerators: The Impact of Ontario Colleges’ Applied Research, the Conference Board found that applied research collaborations between colleges and businesses offer students and employees opportunities to improve their innovation skills.

Improving Canada’s innovation performance is an urgent priority. In the Conference Board’s report, How Canada Performs: A Report Card on Canada, Canada received a “D” grade on innovation performance, ranking 14th out of 17 peer countries.1 Moreover, Canada has been a consistent “D” performer in innovation since the 1980s.

Viewing Applied Research as an Investment, Not a Cost

Despite a recent entry into applied research and only modest resources, Ontario colleges have shown they can spur entrepreneurship. Colleges have many of the things SMEs need to pursue innovation: industry-relevant research expertise; strong industry connections; local accessibility and province-wide reach; and research facilities and equipment.

One-third of industry collaborators said they would not have pursued these innovations without the help of Ontario colleges.

With additional funding, Ontario colleges could help businesses produce more high-value goods and services for domestic and global markets. These businesses would become more competitive and profitable, creating more jobs for Ontarians.

Impact of Applied Research

The Conference Board studied 29 collaborations between colleges and businesses, and found that nearly all have led to the development of a new—or improved—good, service, or process. Notably, one-third of industry collaborators said they would not have pursued these innovations without the help of Ontario colleges. The other two-thirds of businesses said that partnering with colleges helped reduce delays, lower costs, increase quality, and improve revenues; businesses added that the colleges provided ideas and opportunities for additional collaborations.

These impressive results are convincing many SMEs that investing in research and development (R&D) and innovation is good for business. One-third of the collaborations prompted firms to increase their R&D spending, while another 10 per cent of firms anticipate spending more in the future.

Future Actions

Recognizing the role that colleges play in innovation, Colleges Ontario brought together 125 business, education, and government leaders for a symposium in February 2011. Participants discussed leading Canadian models of college applied research, shared examples of successful collaborations, and considered the impact of applied research on innovation, education, and local economic development.

The Conference Board’s follow-up report, Applied Innovation: Next Steps for Colleges, captures key ideas and insights from the symposium and recommends that:

  • Ontario colleges receive more funding and time to develop and deploy their applied research capacity;
  • a College Applied Research Leaders program be created to help college faculty members conduct applied research, and mentor colleagues and students; and
  • funding programs and collaborations ensure that students have significant opportunities to participate in applied research.

Taking these steps will help Ontario colleges continue to contribute to business innovation, the development of an innovation-ready workforce, and economic and social well-being throughout the province.

1 The Conference Board of Canada, How Canada Performs: A Report Card on Canada (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2010).

Daniel Munro
Daniel Munro
Principal Research Associate
Organizational Effectiveness and Learning
Innovation Catalysts and Accelerators: The Impact of Ontario Colleges’ Applied Research
Applied Innovation: Next Steps for Colleges

Related Publications
How Canada Performs: A Report Card on Canada
Report Card on Management, Business, and Finance Education in Canada: Are Graduates Ready for Business?
Canadian SMEs and Globalization: Success Factors and Challenges
Small Companies, Big Connections: The Benefits and Challenges for SMEs in Working With MNCs