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While the term “research" may bring to mind images of people peering into microscopes or poring over white papers, organizations across the country are committed to bringing research out of the lab and into key areas of the economy.

Usually not-for-profit, research centres fill a gap between breakthroughs and business opportunities.

It’s a vital gap to fill: while Canada has long been a leader when it comes to scientific expertise, the country has had a harder time commercializing that expertise. A 2015 Conference Board of Canada study gave Canada a score of “C” on their innovation report card and a 9th-place ranking out of 16 countries included the study. The study found that though Canada was strong on entrepreneurial ambition, it was weak when it came to business research and development (R&D), patents and productivity.

Canada’s research and commercialization centres, many of which are part of the federally-funded Networks of Centres of Excellence program, aim to connect researchers with the companies that need innovative solutions to compete and commercialize.

Ocean Networks Canada Innovation Centre is one of these forward-thinking organizations. Based in Victoria, B.C., it operates world-leading ocean observatories equipped with sensors that capture data like temperature, current, carbon-dioxide levels and seismometer readings. It then leverages the technology and expertise of those operations in the development of new products and services for the global ocean observing industry.

The centre also offers Canadian marine technology companies commercialization expertise and the opportunity to demonstrate their sensors and instruments in a real-world setting. Some of the equipment that has been developed and tested at the Ocean Networks Canada facilities has become industry standard.

It’s a great example of how research centres can field-test ideas under real conditions, verifying market potential and “de-risking” technology for investors.

“Having an embedded commercialization group in a research infrastructure is unique,” says Dr. Kate Moran, president and CEO of Ocean Networks Canada. “We have innovative technology and we have extremely high-quality data, and so when you have those two together, it’s a magic formula. Any kind of operational or commercial product related to oceanography requires solid science, and that’s our foundation.”

Other research centres have a health focus, such as the Pan-Provincial Vaccine Enterprise Inc. (PREVENT), a not-for-profit corporation headquartered at the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization in Saskatoon. It aims to fast-track veterinary and human vaccine development and address the commercialization challenges faced by Canada’s biotechnology industry. The Centre for Imaging Technology Commercialization (CIMTEC) facilitates the commercialization of medical imaging technology at its two locations in Ontario.

The mission of GreenCentre Canada in Kingston, Ont., is to work with industry and academia to transform chemistry breakthroughs into environmentally-friendly products and services. What makes the organization stand out, says executive director Pete Pigott, is that it offers infrastructure to researchers and entrepreneurs as well as expertise.

“We have PhD- and Master’s-level chemists and engineers that help to put research in practical terms,” says Mr. Pigott. “How are we going to turn the research into a product or a process that can be applied in the marketplace today?”

GreenCentre Canada’s research and development (R&D) work focuses on scale-up: taking something from a concept right through to market application. One of the companies it helped launch is Forward Water Technologies, which treats industrial wastewater streams.

“It can be used in oil and gas, mining and agricultural purposes; it has a whole variety of different applications,” says Mr. Pigott. “It’s very rewarding for GreenCentre to see that because it really is effectively taking the innovation that’s happening in research centres across country and translating that into action, getting it into the marketplace, creating jobs, creating opportunities to clean water. There are a whole host of benefits to the economy.”

Based in St. John’s, Newfoundland, C-CORE is an applied R&D corporation – with an emphasis on “applied” – that leads the world in ice and iceberg research. C-CORE has a history of involvement in international remote sensing projects that transfer space technologies to harsh environments on Earth for the benefit of industry and society.

“A lot of times, if you’re an entrepreneur in a garage who has invented something unique or if you’re a researcher at university who’s found a new molecule, the likelihood of that becoming a commercial success is not very high, because venture capital or investors who would help with commercialization don’t necessarily want to invest in these nascent kind of technologies,” says C-CORE president and CEO Dr. Charles Randell. “C-CORE is ready and willing to take that risk, but it’s a calculated risk.”

While centres like C-CORE de-risk technology, they also are an in valuable resource to businesses by finding and accelerating applications for knowledge. “That helps the entrepreneurs put their attention to the things they do best, like building growth,” says Dr. Randell. “We help with intellectual property, technology and scale, and we help them afford the resources they couldn’t acquire themselves in the early stages.”

Some initiatives lead to unexpected outcomes. For example, a group of researchers had set up a mock mine at C-CORE to examine pattern recognition in the mining industry when a venture capitalist visited the centre and noted that the technology would be extremely useful in financial markets. Today, those researchers run a company called Verafin, which specializes in fraud detection and money laundering software.

Dr. Randell says the team at C-CORE assesses technologies based on the what’s going on that particular market, potential applications and the scale-up possibilities.

“You can show up with a better mousetrap, but you need a plan as to how you’re going to merge that into operation.”

This article originally appeared in the Globe & Mail in October 2016.

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