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Hubs for innovation: The important role of universities in Nova Scotia's future

- November 2, 2015

For Jordan Carlson, a masters student in the School for Resource and Environmental Studies, the quest to consider future opportunities for Nova Scotia took him to Northern Ireland.

Carlson received a research travel grant from the Offshore Energy Research Association to take a tidal energy course at Queen’s University Belfast and explore the university’s small-scale tidal-energy lab first hand. His focus: determining whether small-scale tidal development (as opposed to large-scale projects) holds serious economic potential for areas like Nova Scotia.

“The biggest competitor for the large-scale [tidal] is Europe, and Europe has 450 million people that are subsidizing the large-scale tidal development with their tax dollars; Nova Scotia has 900,000,” he explains. “We really don’t have the tax base to compete with Europe. But there’s nothing to say we couldn’t develop small-scale tidal for our own energy needs for export to island states, or the arctic, or the developing world.”

Enhancing Nova Scotia’s future


Carlston's experience connects with some of key themes coming out of the ONE Nova Scotia Coalition. That’s the group tasked with developing a strategy for addressing the recommendations of last year’s Now or Never report (commonly known as “the Ivany Report,” after its author). This week, the coalition continues the rollout of its action plan, highlighting the impact universities and Nova Scotia Community College have as hubs for innovation and their role as one of the province’s greatest competitive advantages.

Read more: Universities and NSCC as Innovation Hubs

“Universities have a crucial role to play in addressing the challenges ahead for our province that were outlined in the ‘Now or Never’ report: developing young talent, creating a vibrant innovation community, growing our export markets,” says Martha Crago, Dalhousie vice-president research and member of the oneNS Coalition.

“If, as the ONE Nova Scotia Action Plan says, ‘we choose now,’ it means universities need to enhance their institutional capacities to address the province’s economic, social and cultural development needs.”

Nova Scotia hosts approximately 56,000 students, with 40 per cent of them coming from other provinces and countries. (At Dalhousie, that percentage is more than half.) The oneNS Action Plan challenges universities like Dalhousie and other institutions to play an even greater role as regional innovation hubs that connect with surrounding communities and strengthen opportunities for students to benefit from experiential learning.

As the only Atlantic Canadian member of the U15, Canada’s group of leading research universities, Dalhousie has a particularly crucial role to play. The action plan supports Dal’s efforts to establish its place among the world’s top 200 universities, and its three points of focus correspond to areas where Dal has been stepping up its efforts.

Enhancing student skills


The first of these areas connects back to the student experience: a focus on skills development through co-ops, experiential learning and entrepreneurship.

The province’s universities attract young people from across Canada and around the world. About 20 to 30 per cent of graduates from out of province stay in N.S. after finishing at Dal, and President Richard Florizone said in a speech to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce last fall that he wants to boost that number. But a key part of achieving that goal is providing students with opportunities that allow them to connect their classroom learning with real-world experiences — ones that often bring them in contact with local organizations and businesses. The oneNS Coalition believes that all students, regardless of their program or institution, should have the opportunity to engage in experiential learning.

Many of Dal’s efforts align with this goal. Dalhousie offers a third-year “Innovation” course, taught by the Faculty of Management’s Mary Kilfoil, that is open to students in all faculties (including Agriculture in Truro). Dr. Kilfoil also teaches “Starting Lean,” another course open to students in all disciplines that provides real-world, hands-on learning on what it’s like to actually start a scalable company or enterprise. Last year, the course featured 26 teams with 108 total students. The courses are part of the Launch Dal set of entrepreneurship programming from the Norman Newman Centre, which also includes the LaunchPad Accelerator program for new businesses.

Then there are the three inter-university “sandboxes” hosted at Dalhousie: collaborative, interdisciplinary spaces where students can come together with peers, mentors and external advisors to take business concepts from idea to execution. With funding from the Province of Nova Scotia, Dal is hosting three such sandboxes: ShiftKey Labs (the information communications technology sandbox) in the Goldberg Computer Science Building, the Cultiv8 Sandbox on the Agricultural Campus, and the IDEA (Innovative Design and Entrepreneurship Academy) Sandbox on Sexton Campus.

In addition to unique experiential learning opportunities that vary by discipline, there are Dalhousie’s co-op programs. Increasing co-op opportunities is a key priority for Dal, with President Florizone saying he’d love to be able to double or triple what’s available to students — not only to help them gain the skills to succeed, but to support local and regional businesses and community organizations. (Approximately 60 per cent of Dal co-op terms are conducted in Nova Scotia). While that’s an ambitious goal, Dal is making progress: last year, for example, saw a 6.6 per cent growth in work terms at Dal, with a total of 1,775 placements.

A hub for development and innovation


The second major priority for the oneNS coalition related to universities is to enhance their role as hubs for innovation and economic/social/cultural development. The idea is to place universities at the centre of what are called innovation “ecosystems”: a network of individuals and groups — PSE institutions, entrepreneurs, incubators, governments, labs — that conduct and support innovative activity through research, product development, and more.

Efforts like those described above (the sandboxes, for instance) fit into this model. So do spaces like the newly-launched Collider, located in the Killam Library — a dedicated space for student teams, faculty members and community mentors to come together and collaborate on start-up projects linked to Launch Dal programming.

But it’s also about building ecosystems around Dalhousie’s research strengths. As the region’s largest research university, Dalhousie hosts $135 million in research funding, and last year recorded 1,654 research grants and 609 research contracts. The university aims to be a national and international leader in its priority research areas (ocean studies, advanced materials and clean technology, health and wellness, and government, social and culture) and emerging research areas (information science and communication, agriculture and food technologies, energy and the environment).

Take oceans as an example: Dal has been a strong advocate (together with with Waterfront Development Corp, Innovacorp, NSCC and others) for the recently announced Centre for Ocean Innovation and Entrepreneurship (COVE) opening in a cluster of former Coast Guard buildings on the Dartmouth waterfront. The project has the potential to propel Dal, Nova Scotia and the Atlantic region onto the global stage.

“It’s a potential game-changer,” said Stephen Hartlen, Dalhousie assistant vice-president, industry relations, in a recent Progress Magazine piece on COVE. “We’re already great at the science. If we create a cluster of local companies with a little support, it could grow exponentially.”

And on the research front, Dal has approved the Ocean Frontier Institute (OFI) and is applying for several million dollars of funding from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund with key strategic Atlantic Canadian and world-famous international partners. This funding will build major international research strength to understand the economic potential of the North Atlantic. Together the OFI and the COVE will build research and development around Nova Scotia's oceans advantage.

Supporting R&D and commercialization partnerships


The COVE model aligns with the third pillar of the oneNS Coalition’s action plan related to higher education: the role universities have to play in supporting research and development (R&D) and commercialization. That refers to the translation of ideas and innovations to new products and services. In Nova Scotia, most R&D is in the public sector, with 85 per cent of it happening in universities and federal labs. The coalition calls for an increase in private-sector R&D — but that can only happen with the support and partnership of the universities currently doing much of this work.

In this area, Dalhousie is already the province’s leader: 98 per cent of industry-sponsored university research happens at Dalhousie, and the university ranks third among all U15 schools for industry-partnered research per faculty member. There many different intersection points between the university and private-sector research, whether one-on-one collaborations or programs through the Industry Liaison and Innovation office. Last year, Dalhousie counted 412 research and service agreements, 32 patents, four technologies licensed and 12 university start-ups assisted. Dal also hosts the Nova Scotia Product Design and Development Centre, a union of two different units designed to help small- and medium-sized companies with innovative product design work.

Together, these efforts (along with many others) suggest great enthusiasm for Dalhousie playing a stronger role in supporting the province’s future — enthusiasm that is poised to lead to more initiatives and supports in the months and years ahead.

“Dalhousie has a lot to be proud of when it comes to our efforts to support Nova Scotia's development, from our entrepreneurship programs to our strong track record in industry collaboration and research,” says Dr. Crago. “But there’s still a lot more we can do, and much more potential to be unleashed, in contributing to the future of our province.”


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