Nancy Carr, Special to Financial Post | November 24, 2016 | Last Updated: Nov 24 12:00 AM ET
Innovation is a building block of a great society, spurring advances in business, education and health. It’s also where Canada lags: according to the Conference Board of Canada, we ranked ninth among 16 peer countries in 2015.
While encouraging innovation is high on the list of priorities for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s year-old Liberal government, some Canadian individuals and organizations are committed to innovation on their own.
For Natasha Walji, head of industry for branded apparel at Google’s Toronto office, being innovative means looking for commonalities in things that seem unrelated. That led her to take what she learned from developing forecasts for Google’s US$13 billion purchase of Motorola and apply it to a very different project: contributing to a global effort to stem the spread of Ebola.
“I had to do a lot of forecasting for the Motorola transaction, and thinking about that helped me think about Ebola, which was in the news a lot in 2014,” says Walji.
She and the Google Crisis Response team developed a mathematical forecasting model to determine the possible worldwide impact of unchecked Ebola. Her work helped escalate the Google global response to the Ebola crisis.
Walji, who studied computer science at the University of Victoria before completing an MBA at Yale and a master’s degree at Cambridge, credits her parents with instilling in her an interest in innovation. Her mother returned to school in her forties and became a therapist focusing on domestic violence. Thanks to her father, a software entrepreneur, Walji was the first student in her high school with a laptop.
She thinks Canada should find ways to keep its innovators at home. “The challenge that we have is actually retaining the talent,” Walji says. “There’s a big opportunity for Canada to continue investing in technology and incenting Canadians to stay and develop technology here.”
Dr. Linda Maxwell, founder and managing director of Ryerson University’s Biomedical Zone, agrees that there are things Canada can do to become more innovative. “I think there’s a large opportunity for Canada to really develop creative thinking, resourcefulness and resilience in its youth before they hit university,” says Maxwell, a surgeon who also worked in finance and management consulting before turning to Ryerson’s new student-focused incubator for health-care ventures.
“We need to focus on young people from marginalized backgrounds who might not have access to startup opportunities or access to resources that allow them to look at their environment, analyze it critically and start thinking about problems and solutions.”
Maxwell’s contribution to making Canada more innovative is in founding the Biomedical Zone at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. Her commitment to mentoring is also adding innovators to our ranks. “I spend a lot of time mentoring young people. The more that entrepreneurs and creative thinkers can mentor others and foster these ideas, the better.”
For Sandra Oldfield, being an innovator means having patience and a healthy time horizon.
“I think about the long game more than the average person,” says Oldfield, president and chief executive officer of Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in Oliver, B.C. “A lot of the things that I’m working on tend to be things that might take 10-plus years to get done.”
Oldfield, originally from California, moved to B.C. after studying enology — wines and winemaking — at the University of California, Davis, and meeting her Canadian husband there. She’s credited with establishing British Columbia’s first wine-growing sub-appellation — the Golden Mile Bench in the South Okanagan Valley — in 2015. She’s currently working to reinvent Canada’s archaic interprovincial liquor laws, which restrict the movement of alcohol between provinces.
She’s also an environmental innovator who is improving her property for the humans and wildlife that use it. For instance, she’s had experimental rattlesnake fencing installed on her property to protect her workers and the endangered reptiles.
“We don’t kill snakes anymore,” Oldfield says. “We’re relocating them to the other side of the fence if we find them, which is pretty innovative in this area.”
This story was created by Content Works, Postmedia’s commercial content division, on behalf of WXN.