Innovation and the Future of Canada Summit will host thinkers and doers from around the world

By Gordon Pitts, Business Writer in Residence, November 10, 2017

Christine Tutssel’s journey defies the popular clichés about innovation in Canada.

First, that we are risk-averse as a nation. Tutssel was 49-years-old when she stepped away from a consulting practice to pursue a new venture in employee learning. The sole provider in her family, she went largely without income for a year and a half, dipping into savings to provide for herself and two high school age children.

Second, that we are good at basic research but hopeless at commercializing innovation. In fact, Tutssel and her business partner, Carol Leaman, did not actually invent their big idea – a cloud-based knowledge platform using gaming techniques – but acquired the product in its infancy, adapted it to commercial use, and are taking it to a North American market.

The story of Tutssel’s company, Axonify Inc., is one of many to be told at the Innovation and the Future of Canada Summit, taking place at Toronto's Fairmont Royal York on Thursday, Nov. 16. Hosted by McMaster's DeGroote School of Business, with input from seven other Canadian business schools, the event will feature thinkers and doers from around the world.

Speakers will provide insights on, among other things, the disruptive trends shaking the planet; China’s strategy for innovation leadership; and wisdom acquired in innovation hothouses such as Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas. Underlying the Summit is the hope that, as Canada embarks on its next 150 years, it can apply these lessons in organizations big and small.

Tutssel says she had gained inspiration and know-how from tapping a community of innovators in the high-tech centre of Waterloo, where she has been able to learn what works and what doesn’t – and now she is passing on this knowledge. The hope is to extend this model to build ecosystems of innovation where a broad spectrum of people can engage in a vibrant national – and international – conversation.

That idea animates the Innovation Summit, and business schools are catalysts in this conversation. The Summit is a collaboration involving DeGroote and the business faculties at Dalhousie University, Université Laval, University of Ottawa, University of Alberta, University of Calgary, Simon Fraser University, as well as HEC Montréal.

The dialogue will be enriched by a host of business viewpoints – from IBM, with its Watson computer, to consulting giant McKinsey and Canadian financial-services player IGM – as well as government input from people like Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development and MP for Mississauga–Malton, who will deliver a video welcome message.

David McGovern, Associate Deputy Minister, Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, will offer an introduction. As well, Lisa Setlakwe, Assistant Deputy Minister of the Strategy and Innovation Policy Sector (SIPS), and John Marshall, Ontario's Assistant Deputy Minister, Commercialization and Scale-Ups, will be speaking at the Summit.

The Summit also underlines the potential for pairing startup companies  with established corporate players that rely heavily on innovation from the outside to drive growth and defend against competitive disruptions. Todd Roberts represents one of those players. As Senior Vice-President, Enterprise Innovation, CIBC, he's part of a group aiming to catalyze innovation across the bank. Roberts sums up his mandate: “For some people, their whole reason for existence is to eat our lunch, and I’m in the business of protecting our lunch and hopefully aspiring to dinner."

Roberts will speak on the Innovation Summit's Navigating Business Model Disruption panel, joining Rob Burgess, Director of the Board, Adobe Inc., Nvidia; David Fraser, President, AEGIS Canada; Jeff Carney, President and Chief Executive Officer, IGM Financial Inc.; and Michel Patry, Dean, HEC Montréal.

He observes that Canadian banks face a reality that does not apply to technology startups. Banks are businesses with millions of clients who expect flawless service, and they are also subject to regulation. The banks may vary a bit in branding, but the common expectation is that they are absolutely trustworthy. That can limit the possibility for experimentation and tinkering. For that, they turn to smaller partners.

“We’re not in the invention business – we’re in the integration business,” Roberts says. “We rely on people who will take a concept from a lab, road-test it, and turn it into a product that we can in turn consume.” That means working with companies that in some instances are competitors but, at other times, can be partners in innovation. “It is important to know when you are competing and when you are co-operating and when you are doing both,” he says, noting that this model of “co-operating” is more and more prevalent.

Roberts observes that Canadians have “a natural cultural reluctance to believe we can do great things.” On the other hand, that mindset helps explain why we are renowned on the global stage in achieving mediation and compromise. He would like to see more self-confidence without losing our natural aptitude for collaboration.

Laura Kilcrease has had seven weeks to observe Canadian innovation close-up. Born in England, with experience in Australia and as a key mover in the tech community of Austin, she is the new CEO of Alberta Innovates, a provincial Crown corporation helping companies innovate.  She'll participate in the Leveraging and Financing Science Excellence panel at Thursday's Summit, alongside Elicia Maine, Professor, Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Beedie School of Business, SFU; Geordie Stewart, Program Director, Weston Family Microbiome Initiative; and Michel Gendron, Dean, Université Laval.

In Canada, Kilcrease has found outstanding work – for example, artificial intelligence research at the University of Alberta. But we don’t focus enough on pushing our innovation into export markets, she says, and we often cling to our industry silos rather than exploring applications in other sectors.

That exploration starts with a forum for idea-sharing, such as the Innovation and the Future of Canada Summit. It is where government, industry, and business school leaders can trade ideas; where managers can talk shop with the academics shaping their human capital; and where students hungry for insights can learn about the magic and methodology of innovation and take them out into the world.