Feature - The State of Innovation
The landscape on the screen is stark, mostly reds and browns. The perspective is from high overhead, likely a satellite, and I can make out a long, straight road leading into a built-up area, a warren of alleys and walled compounds.
It’s fairly obvious that this is Afghanistan, although less obvious is the meaning of the small red triangles scattered along the highway and the jumble of numbers running along the top of the screen.
“It’s both touch and pressure activated,” says Liam Porter of Thales Canada, summoning a jumble of numbers with a tap on the screen. Those triangles, he explains, represent a convoy of light armoured vehicles on patrol. Using a similar tablet, the commander of any of the vehicles could use this advanced military system to know at a glance where convoy members are, where they are headed and their speed. And all without having to risk a sniper’s bullet by actually opening a hatch and looking outside.
It’s futuristic, to be sure. But one of the odd things about the future is that it doesn’t always look the way you expect. Take the setting where Porter is demonstrating this leading-edge technology: a beige-carpeted room furnished with large folding tables and laptops for training. The building’s exterior is almost as plain. Located at 945 Princess St. near the corner of Concession, set well back from the street, it is nondescript, two storeys, vaguely industrial-looking. It’s probably the last place you would look for the Kingston of the 21st century. But in time, Queen’s University’s Innovation Park may mean as much economically to Kingston as the Canadian Locomotive Company did in the 19th century or Alcan did for much of the 20th.
That is, of course, a very big “may.”
“We’re essentially making one piece of Lego that fits onto another piece of Lego.” At the other end of a long corridor from Thales, chemists Toni Rantanen and John Board are in their lab trying to explain precisely what Snieckus Innovations, the company they work for, does. The “Lego blocks” they describe are actually custom bits of molecules that Snieckus creates for pharmaceutical companies and agri-business. Their customers attach Snieckus’s bits to their own molecules to produce chemicals with very specific characteristics.
As the journey down the hall from Thales’ high-tech software to Snieckus’s designer molecules suggests, Innovation Park boasts no one typical business.
But each of the almost 50 occupants — companies, labs, offices and what can only be described as “other entities” — helps explain the park and what it is supposed to do. Snieckus Innovations is a prime example. It is the creation of Professor Emeritus Victor Snieckus, who formerly held the Bader chair at Queen’s, where he has taught since the late 1990s. As John Board, a postdoctoral fellow who might normally be found toiling in a university research lab, explains: “We wanted to see if it was possible to sustain the lab by selling products and services, not just by getting grants.” He adds with a chuckle, “We still don’t know the answer.”
In the current jargon of economic development, Snieckus Innovations was created to commercialize the chemists’ work — take it out of the pure research setting and into the marketplace. With that new direction, the nascent company would need more space than it had in Chernoff Hall, home to Queen’s chemistry department. Moving into Innovation Park was the natural solution, one that has had, as it turns out, benefits beyond extra lab space.
That’s because Innovation Park is more than just a roof over the head of start-ups like Snieckus. It represents one important way in which Queen’s has responded to a new emphasis by governments and other funders on reaping the economic benefits of academic research, an area in which Canada has consistently come under fire for underperformance. It is a response that could also have a profound impact on Kingston, by spinning off more high-tech companies — and jobs —– from the university and keeping them in the city.
It’s important to note that going about commercialization the wrong way can be costly, a risk that looms larger than ever in the current era of belt-tightening. As Innovation Park director Janice Mady explains, the university recognized that it had to pick its spot. For example, there are 30 or so similar research parks in Canada and 300 scattered across the rest of North America, and some of them help start-ups with human resources or even funding. Innovation Park does not.
“Our strategy was to develop partnerships with organizations that did have these capacities,” Mady explains. So, numbered among its nearly 50 occupants are the Kingston Economic Development Corporation, known widely as KEDCO, and its Entrepreneurship Centre; the Kingston Chamber of Commerce; an office of the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program, which focuses on commercialization; and an Ontario government “centre of excellence” for innovation, with a mandate to help businesses, especially small- and medium-sized ones, find financing and talent.
The private sector is also there, providing services that start-ups, which are typically small, often have trouble accessing. Among them are a firm that provides benefit packages for small businesses and a lawyer experienced in intellectual property and technology law. Start-ups in the park can also tap the expertise of Parteq, Queen’s University’s own “technology transfer” office, which works with researchers, businesses and venture capitalists to help bring new technologies to market.
Then there is the building itself. Innovation Park includes other facilities, like the building next door and part of the Queen’s biosciences building, but 945 Princess St. is its largest and most important structure. Originally constructed by Alcan as a purpose-built research facility and now owned by Novelis, it provides companies like Snieckus with the infrastructure they need — complex ventilation systems, in particular — but would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in Kingston on a commercial basis.
All of this comes at a cost, of course. Mady says that some occupants get a case of “sticker shock” when she reveals the rent per square foot, which is several times higher than most industrial space in Kingston.
But clearly, many have decided that the benefits are worth it. In addition to the proximity of funders and other support, growing companies get proper office space and access to meeting and lecture rooms. There’s an on-site fitness centre and a cafeteria, important for staff who work long and irregular hours. The building itself is secure — everyone must use a badge to enter and exit — valuable if you’re developing new ideas and don’t want to share them with anyone off the street, and essential if you’re dealing with commercial clients.
But the benefits go far beyond those tangible elements. Talking about Snieckus Innovations’ move from the main campus two years ago, Rantanen says, “Both John [Board] and I agree that we have learned more here than in the academic setting.”
While taking care to emphasize that they are still very much focused on fundamental scientific work, Board explains that, “when you are doing contract research, you can do 10 projects in a row and not one resembles the other. In the academic world you tend to have a narrower focus.”
It’s also nice, Board says, to be in a “professional work environment. When you are at the university, it’s very hard not to act like a student.”
Founded four and a half years ago with just two staff members, Janice Mady and Rick Boswell, Innovation Park has not had the time to produce that one big winner dreamt of by those working in commercialization. Something on the scale of the most obvious — if now painful — Canadian example, Waterloo’s Research in Motion.
“Some pretty exciting things can emerge,” says Mady, “but you have to have patience.” Her preferred example is Saskatoon’s Innovation Place. Originally three people and an empty farmer’s field on the edge of Saskatoon, today it is home to 130 separate clients employing more than 3,000 people. Satellites of the original park have opened in Regina and Prince Albert. This, however, took some 30 years to achieve.
Caution aside, exciting things are beginning to happen at Innovation Park. Venture capitalists and economic gurus talk a lot about places like Innovation Park serving as “incubators” for businesses — as if they were hatching eggs. Looked at that way, there are now a few companies at the park that are truly hatched, even if they haven’t yet left the nest.
Endetec is one of these. It predates Innovation Park by several years, having been founded in 2003 as Pathogen Detection Systems, based on technology created by Dr. Steven Brown in Queen’s department of chemistry. Brown was one of a loose collection of academics from across a variety of disciplines — chemistry, engineering, the health sciences and others — drawn together in the closing decade of the 20th century by an interest in a particular subject: water. As Doug Wilton, a Queen’s engineering graduate and Endetec vice-president of operations, says, this led to the sort of co-operative venture “that can only happen at a university.”
Then Ontario was rocked by the Walkerton tragedy. In early 2000, seven people died as a result of drinking tainted water from their municipal system. Walkerton highlighted the key role of water testing in safeguarding public health — and the need to determine, quickly, whether water is safe to drink. Typically, water samples have to be sent to government-approved labs, where they are cultured and then examined by a trained technician. The process can take 24 to 48 hours, longer if the water is sent from a remote location. Brown and his group wondered if this process could be sped up, even automated. They looked to research that had been done to study the toxicity of oil spills on fish, and decided to apply the same methods to detecting bacteria in water. The result is what they have dubbed the TECTA system. Water is poured into a test cartridge that is in turn inserted into the TECTA instrument, which can detect bacteria such as E. coli and other coliforms in two to 18 hours, a fraction of the usual time. The higher the concentrations of such bacteria, the faster it can find them. The small size of the instrument — it fits on a tabletop — and the simplicity of its operation mean it can be used right at the water source and in remote areas by untrained personnel.
The technology appeared to be highly useful, but Pathogen Detection Systems had a hard time finding financing. The biggest obstacle was the nature of the drinking water sector. “Water-testing methods haven’t changed much in 20 years,” Wilton explains. Governments remain understandably reluctant to allow new technologies that would take monitoring away from closely regulated labs, particularly for something as important as water. This frightened investors.
Veolia Water Solutions and Technologies, however, was not scared off. A division of the Paris-headquartered water giant Veolia, which has annual revenues approaching $20 billion a year, it recognized the value in what Pathogen Detection Systems was doing. In 2009, Veolia bought PDS. Renamed Endetec and positioned as Veolia’s global sensor platform, its mandate today is to develop convenient, automated water-monitoring systems to be marketed and sold worldwide. In an exciting example of the synergies that research parks are meant to foster, the chemical substrates used in the TECTA test cartridge are manufactured by another Innovation Park occupant, GreenCentre Canada.
“It’s very important that our substrates be manufactured locally,” says Wilton. “They’re the core to our technology and we want to keep that close. To have a lab of that calibre with that staff and their capabilities — as soon as we discovered them, we told Veolia.” Veolia investigated further and was impressed enough to become an industrial sponsor and now sits on their Board of Directors.
Endetec is very much part of Innovation Park and connected to Queen’s. Located in the park’s incubator within the biosciences building on campus, the company works closely with three labs at the university. Of the 20 people who work there, half are paid for by the research and development contract that Endetec has with the university. Both sides benefit: Endetec from Queen’s research, the university from developing a relationship with a technologically sophisticated multinational.
So far, Endetec has no plans to leave Innovation Park. “Quite frankly,” says Wilton, “we’re still a start-up company. It would be difficult for us to stay in Kingston without Queen’s and Innovation Park.”
So there’s Endetec, which started inside the park and is increasingly looking out — especially after its acquisition. Thales is its opposite. Also a French multinational like Veolia, Thales is mainly a defence contractor. The interactive map they showed me on the tablet computer is part of their current work for the Canadian army. It involves creating networked systems that allow commanders, staff, armoured vehicles — and someday even individual soldiers in the field — to feed information to one other and gain real-time visual access to the bigger picture. Up to now, Thales has maintained a low-profile presence in town, basically limited to customer support, with its employees in various units at CFB Kingston. Their move into Innovation Park marks a shift in strategy. It will allow them both to engage more closely with researchers at Queen’s, particularly on a touch-activated tabletop simulation system to teach commanders how to control troops in theoretical scenarios, and to create a potential pool of future employees by exposing students to Thales and its products.
The arrival of Thales also tells another important strand of the Innovation Park story. “From my point of view,” says Janice Mady, who worked for a year and a half developing a relationship with the French firm, “Thales is really, really, a success story.” It shows that Innovation Park, Queen’s — and, of course, Kingston — can attract multinational corporations. Where one has gone, others will likely follow.
It is tempting to see Innovation Park as a swirling mass of innovations and inventions, of synergies and start-ups. It’s all too easy to overlook the fact that, as Steven Liss, Queen’s vice-principal of research, puts it, Innovation Park is also “a real estate proposition.” This is where the future gets cloudy. Queen’s doesn’t own the building on Princess Street.
Liss says that when the provincial government gave Queen’s the money to set up Innovation Park in 2007, the university thought about buying the building from Novelis. Instead, “the grant was used to buy land, and Queen’s wound up as a tenant.” The land in question, about “50-odd acres” in Liss’s estimation, is beside the buildings on Princess Street. The building at 945 Princess would constitute Phase One of Innovation Park. The research department of Novelis remained in part of the building. Phase Two would be future buildings constructed on the land Queen’s owns.
Then, in early October 2012, Novelis announced it was closing down its research activities here in Kingston, and moving half of the 32 jobs to its new facility in Atlanta. The move is slated to be finished by July. Left unsaid is what will happen to the building. And at this stage, no one seems to know. Neil Hirsch, Novelis’s manager for North American communications, could say only that they “don’t have a clear idea for now.”
Today, about 350 people work in Innovation Park’s main site and at the incubator on the Queen’s campus. It’s not yet in the range of Saskatchewan’s Innovation Place, and certainly nothing like the number of people who work in the biggest research clusters, like Route 128 in Massachusetts or the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina, but it’s a big jump from the two-person office of just a few years ago. Even if the issue of who owns the main building is solved, a bigger question is whether Innovation Park will trigger a real and lasting transformation in Kingston’s economic life.
There are those who argue no, that you can’t force innovation to happen. And others who contend, just as avidly, that all it takes is the right set of inputs. At the end of the day, no one seems to know. But what keeps coming back to me is a sentence spoken by Steven Liss: “Innovation Park is a state of mind.” And the experiences of researchers who have seen what happens when their work is put to use in the world outside the university. Its bricks-and-mortar existence may be in doubt, but Innovation Park may yet spark a change that Kingston will feel in the decades to come.