Leading research in Canadian universities is contributing to a growing tide of water innovation in this country, but a lack of government and industry support is preventing it from reaching the marketplace.
Few of those browsing the web know that Google was created by university scientists. In fact, the Internet search giant, with market capitalization of $193 billion and a newfound appetite or smartphones, was invented by two grad students and started life at Stanford University in California.
Across the world, universities are hotbeds of innovation. And in Canada, a growing amount of that Ivory Tower ingenuity involves a vital subject: water. Unfortunately, many of the great Canadian solutions to water issues stay locked away in labs, never making it to the market. That’s happening despite the fact that the need for marketable, environmentally friendly water inventions—a.k.a. the Blue Economy—is more pressing as climate patterns change, the population increases and people all over the world strive for a higher and more water-rich standard of living.
The result, say some of those charged with bringing lab-born brainwaves to market, is that Canada is spending as much as $6 billion a year to fund academic scientists, but their discoveries aren’t making life better, greener or bluer for Canadian citizens.
“There’s no shortage of discoveries,” says John Molloy, president and chief executive of PARTEQ Innovations, a Kingston, Ontario based company set up to take inventions from Queen’s University to market. But, unlike the United States, Canada still lacks the suite of models necessary to push academic inventions into the marketplace, Molloy says.
A report from the Conference Board of Canada in June ranking 17 developed countries on innovation placed Canada near the bottom of the heap—at 14th. The report said that while scientific output s strong and internationally respected, “Canada does not take the steps that other countries take to ensure science can be successfully commercialized and used as a source of advantage for innovative companies seeking global market share. Canadian companies are thus rarely at the leading edge of new technology and too often find themselves a generation or more behind the productivity growth achieved by global industry leaders.”
Not only that, but while the scientific research on water is ripe for commercialization and the need for innovation is clear, the path to the market is not straightforward, says Bernadette Conant, executive director of the Canadian Water Network in Waterloo, Ontario, which seeks to ensure that science shapes the water-management innovations that draw investments. Some of the advances that could help instead fall into a political vacuum.
“The needs are clear,” says Conant. “What we lack is a single or clear client-approval process.”
And, in a trend Molloy sees as dangerous, more and more universities are shying away from available market mechanisms in favour of waiting for industry to front the cash. “I’d like to see it go the other way,” he says. An early triumph for Molloy’s group is a process developed by Queen’s scientists Stephen
Brown and Peter Aston who figured out how to find E.coli and other disease-causing organisms in drinking water more quickly and reliably. They were galvanized by the Walkerton, Ontario, tragedy of May 2000 in which seven people died and thousands fell ill from the notorious bacteria.
PARTEQ, which has about a dozen industry sponsors who pay to sit at the table and help decide what gets developed, helped license the Pathogen Detection Systems technology. It was eventually sold to the French multinational corporation Veolia, and spun off into its offshoot, ENDETEC. The new system is now being launched internationally and PARTEQ and the scientist inventors stand to make royalties once the upfront development costs are paid back.