We had the privilege to speak to Dr. Roseann O’Reilly Runte, President and CEO of the CFI, who discussed about the Canada Foundation for Innovation, how SMEs in Canada benefit from its investments, how the Navigator has helped jumpstart one of these collaborations, and her final thoughts for the Canadian SME community on how research can support their innovation goals.
On August 1, 2017, Dr. Roseann O’Reilly Runte became the fifth President and CEO of the CFI. Dr. Runte has previously served as President and Vice-Chancellor at Carleton University, President of l’Université Sainte-Anne, Principal of Glendon College, President of Victoria University and of Old Dominion University.
She graduated with a B.A. summa cum laude in French from the State University of New York and obtained her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Kansas. She is the author of numerous scholarly works in the fields of French, comparative literature, economic and cultural development. She is a creative writer and has received a poetry prize from the Académie française.
Dr. Runte has been awarded the Order of Canada, the French Order of Merit, fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada, and is Commander of the Order of the Crown of the Kingdom of Belgium and Officer in the Order of the Academic Palmes of the French Republic, along with several prizes for her work on the environment, and for community and national service. She also holds a number of honorary degrees.
Dr. Runte has served on numerous boards and commissions in Canada and the United States, including serving as President of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, President of the Humanities Federation of Canada, a member of the Executive Committee of Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, Chair of the Board of the Foundation for International Training, Vice-Chair of the Board of the Gardiner Museum, member of the Virginia Industrial National Development Authority, the Virginia Advanced Shipbuilding Integration Center, the Advisory Board of SunGard SGT, the non-profit LifeNet Health Board, the Ontario Quebec Private Sector Advisory Committee, the National Bank of Canada, and the Executive of the Royal Society. She currently chairs the Board of Fulbright Canada-U.S. and is a member of the executive committee of the World University Service of Canada. She is a member of both the European and the World Academies of Arts and Sciences.
The Canada Foundation for Innovation was created some 25 years ago with a very specific mandate and role to play in our country’s innovation ecosystem. Tell us more about that.
The creation of the Canada Foundation for Innovation in 1997 stems from a bold vision to make Canada a leader in cutting-edge research across all disciplines. For our organization, this means supporting researchers with funding to build the labs, provide the equipment, and create the environments they need to make discoveries and innovate.
Since then, we’ve invested $9.5 billion in state-of-the-art research tools and spaces at 172 research institutions in 80 municipalities across Canada.
The results have been transformative. “Research builds communities” isn’t just our tagline, it is something we see reflected in our work every day, and which we bring into focus through the stories we share about the researchers, businesses and communities who have benefited from these investments.
During your tenure as President and CEO of the CFI, you have helped navigate the organization through a rapidly shifting landscape, including the arrival of a global pandemic. How has the work of the CFI pivoted in response?
Throughout these highly dynamic times, our role has been to ensure Canada’s research community continues to have the strong foundation of skills, expertise and equipment needed to respond to the increasingly complex challenges we face, nationally and internationally.
For example, to help ensure Canada’s preparedness for future pandemics and other health emergencies, we worked with Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada to launch a new Biosciences Research Infrastructure Fund. This fund will ensure we have laboratories capable of handling contagious viruses. These laboratories will form a network of expertise where researchers will engage in discovery research and train students and where industry can receive the support needed to produce and market vaccines and remedial treatments. These investments will help build Canada’s talent and research pipeline, and support the growth of Canadian life sciences firms.
The rapidly changing climate is another global crisis that demands our best research minds to better understand its impacts and find ways to mitigate and repair the damage it causes. We support an extraordinary community of researchers who are leading many important projects in this area. Among those who most recently received funding is Julianne Gibbs from the University of Alberta, who is exploring how the use of an ultrafast laser to can help characterize and optimize the performance of synthetic materials to create alternative sources of energy. Another example is Stephen Déry from the University of Northern British Columbia who is creating a new observatory that will help us understand and address how a warming climate affects individuals, ecosystems, infrastructures and socioeconomic activity.
The CFI’s contributions to such urgent, large-scale issues are important. Closer to home, how do SMEs in Canada benefit from your investments?
It can be challenging for businesses to know where to find the research services they need to show proof-of-concept, create a prototype, or more generally to find the specialized knowledge and equipment they need to address an R&D challenge. At the same time, we are aware that researchers are interested in building partnerships and pursuing collaborative projects with industry and other partners.
Helping businesses find the researchers, students, labs and equipment that will increase their chances of success was our goal when in 2013 we launched the Research Facilities Navigator, the first national, open access tool of its kind.
The Navigator is a searchable directory of research facilities in universities, colleges, hospitals and government departments across Canada that are open to working with business. It includes over 800 facilities from virtually every discipline, and the number is growing. For entrepreneurs and businesses of all sizes, it is a tool for finding the research facilities that can help their business grow, stay competitive, design new or better products or processes, and foster relationships with highly skilled people.
Helping to connect researchers with the private sector also helps students gain real world experience and makes it easier for businesses to access a valuable talent pool for future hires.
Tell us how the Navigator has helped jumpstart one of these collaborations.
One recent collaboration involved an entrepreneur from Quebec who needed to access equipment to test a new concept that had promising applications in health care, agriculture and potentially other sectors. His product employed what are called “nanobubbles.” Through the Navigator he located a research facility that helped him develop a proof-of-concept, and that was the start of a partnership the entrepreneur expects will continue as he tests and explores other potential applications.
There is also an entrepreneur whose team developed a new way of making and breaking chemical bonds. He was looking for ways to apply this revolutionary technology in PET imaging to accelerate the discovery of new disease therapies. The entrepreneur found a research partner in the Navigator who helped him save time and money by avoiding the need to build out these capabilities in-house.
Entrepreneurs can find more inspiration on how businesses have achieved their R&D objectives on the Navigator’s story page.
Do you have any final thoughts for the Canadian SME community on how research can support their innovation goals?
I would emphasize the value of developing trusted, long-term partnerships with researchers and their students. Innovation cannot happen in a vacuum. Finding the right partners in innovation pays valuable dividends for companies seeking to innovate and for researchers and students looking for on-the-job experience as, together, we build an ecosystem that supports business growth.