Turning The Innovation Lens Inward

Small Business Canada

John Hepburn, CEO and Scientific Director, Mitacs

John Hepburn studied at the University of Waterloo (BSc, 1976) and the University of Toronto (PhD, 1980), followed by two years as a NATO Postdoctoral Fellow at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He began his academic career back at the University of Waterloo, where he was appointed an Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Physics in 1982, and ultimately Chair of Chemistry in 1998.

In 2001, he moved to the University of British Columbia as Head of Chemistry and Professor of Chemistry with a joint appointment to Physics & Astronomy. He became Dean of Science in 2003, and Vice-President, Research in 2005. The international portfolio was added to his list of responsibilities in August 2009. In June 2016, he became Vice-President, Research and Partnerships at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) and served in that role until January 2020. He began as CEO and Scientific Director of Mitacs in February 2020.

John Hepburn has served on numerous boards and advisory committees, both nationally and internationally. He is currently on the Boards for WestGrid (as Chair), Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping, and BrainsCAN (a CFREF-funded research center of excellence), and is on the advisory committee for the France-Canada Research Fund.

How do you go about instilling a culture of innovation within your organization?

  • As a not-for-profit organization dedicated to fostering growth and innovation in Canada, Mitacs recognizes the importance of ‘turning the innovation lens inward’ – that is, fostering collaborative and innovative approaches to improve productivity and outcomes within our own organization as we advocate for companies to do the same.
  • It’s important to aim high, but it’s also important to understand challenges and barriers within an organization by maintaining communication with all levels across the organization and cultivating a culture of exploration in order to innovate and succeed.
  • Similarly, in order to be truly ambitious, organizations must realize they do not exist in a vacuum. At Mitacs, we strive to be open to ideas and suggestions from anyone at any level in our organization. If the idea is a good one, it doesn’t matter if it comes from the highest-ranked person in the organization or someone just starting out.

What are some successful transformations that you have managed in the past?

  • Like all organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Mitacs to pivot quickly. The federal government entrusted us with $40 million as part of their COVID-19 economic response to create more opportunities for Canadian post-secondary students struggling to find work and business that needed to quickly shift gears to keep their doors open.
    • For example, in response, we were able to rapidly launch our new Business Strategy Internshipsthat provided support for both SMEs and students. Since launching in May 2020, we were able to create more than 1,000 new internship opportunities.
    • A fewexamplesof students and businesses include:
      • Mitacs intern and UBC Sauder student Amogh Rao — who completed his Master of Management in 2020 and is now pursuing a Master of Business Analytics — considers himself lucky. After lining up a summer job with Vancouver-based consulting firm Veza Global, Rao was disappointed to learn that the position could no longer be funded due to COVID-19. But the newly launched BSI program came as a win-win, giving Veza Global the financial support it needed to benefit from Rao’s expertise while providing him with an opportunity to test his newly acquired knowledge.
  • Bosco and Roxy’s, a gourmet bakery for dogs based in London, Ontario, approached the BSI program for help reducing technology costs during a period of transition. The company decided to quickly pivot during the pandemic, expanding from solely producing dog cookies to also making bread and other baked goods for human consumption. From Western University’s Ivey School of Business, Master of Science in Management student intern Calvin Ncube stepped in to automate their production planning process.
  • Montréal-based start-up Calixa Technologies Inc. approached the BSI program to support a pivot of their business model triggered by changes in market dynamics. Just months after launching in 2020, the company decided to switch its focus from helping large retail corporations to giving a leg-up to small businesses instead. Mitacs intern Marie Fuchet, a Master of Business Analytics and Information Technology student at HEC Montréal, is helping with the transition.
  • By partnering with the federal government and provinces across the country and thanks to the dedication of our hard-working and flexible employees, we managed to create 17,000 internships last year that provided opportunities to students to put their skills to work for businesses and not-for-profits to drive innovation and economic development.
  • The Government of Canada announced earlier this month that they will provide Mitacs with $708 million to create 85,000 innovation internships over the next five years. This will be a new, transformational challenge for us, but I am sure that we can draw on our strengths to rise to the expanded mandate.

What are your strategies for overcoming resistance to change amongst key decision-makers?

  • Overcoming resistance to change often speaks to something that needs attention in the culture of the organization. We consistently survey our staff and leadership to assess engagement and areas where we need to improve.
  • As in research, it’s important to provide data-driven results to influence decision-makers. By showing positive outcomes, we demonstrate how by building a culture of collaboration and implementing innovative approaches, an organization can attain its desired outcomes.
  • A proven track record of success is part of what has propelled Mitacs to be a trusted partner of governments across the country and international partners. The increased funding we’ve received from provincial governments and the federal government can be directly attributed to a record of success that shows that our collaborative model drives research and innovation, provides opportunities to young innovators, and supports businesses with the talent and energy they need. By showing that we deliver outcomes, Mitacs has been able to help partners across the country navigate a path to innovation.

How do you keep abreast of opportunities for innovation within the market?

  • Mitacs is well-positioned to stay on top of the newest opportunities for innovation in the market.
  • Our unique position as the bridge between academia and industry – between our present situation and future success – allows us to get a sense of the challenges facing the post-secondary sector and businesses across the country.
  • Beyond challenges, though, it also gives us line of sight into exciting new ideas being embraced in the market that we can help implement elsewhere.
  • Mitacs has a distributed network of 90 business development professionals located from coast to coast. They are our key to connecting market need with innovation solutions.

On a final note, what are your tips on how small businesses can embrace innovation?

  • Embrace collaboration and innovation.
  • Small businesses face challenges and too often don’t know where to turn to help solve them. That’s where Mitacs comes in.
  • Mitacs helps reduce cost of talent procurement and helps locate interns with precisely the necessary skills to address the challenge at hand.
  • Take advantage of special offerings. Over the past year, and likely in the future, Mitacs has offered special incentives for SMEs and groups that may have historically faced barriers to accessing our programs due to costs. Take advantage of the funding sources we are able to leverage.
  • Our model is based on bringing together experts from academia to solve real-world problems that businesses – including small businesses – face. This type of collaboration breeds innovation, so take the leap and look beyond your bubble for the next solution or great idea!
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