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Propelling Canada to lead the innovation race

Five years—more than 130 companies helped—Canadian leadership established internationally in standardization—amid a global pandemic: this is the story of the Innovation Initiative.

In 2017, it was apparent to the Standards Council of Canada (SCC) that Canadian innovators needed a leg up. Canada was falling behind in the innovation race, having dropped from

8th on the Global Innovation Index in 2011 to 18th 1.  In working with government and industry for decades, the organization understood the challenges facing Canadian businesses and the need to increase exportation for the economic health of the country. Standardization could help.

The federal government announced an ambitious strategy to establish Canada as one of the most innovative countries in the world through its Innovation and Skills Plan. It aimed to foster Canadian leadership in potential high-growth areas such as advanced manufacturing, agri-food, clean technology, digital industries, health/bio-sciences and clean resources. SCC’s Innovation Initiative supported this plan by putting standards-setting front and center.

The new program offered tailor-made strategies and solutions to bring the full benefits of the standardization system directly to Canada’s entrepreneurs. These benefits can be immense, from enabling commercialization and scale up to reducing costs, increasing revenue, and improving productivity. Standardization also helps entrepreneurs influence marketplace rules and protect and leverage their intellectual property. However, most organizations are not aware of the role that standardization plays in Canada’s innovation ecosystem and the difference it can make.

SCC sought to embed standardization within the ecosystem by raising awareness and leveraging partnerships. Working with universities and innovation hubs such as University of Waterloo, MaRS Discovery District and Canada’s Superclusters, as well as collaborating with many support providers and funders, including the Accelerated Growth Service and the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, allowed the program to reach Canadian entrepreneurs directly and to educate other organizations of the role that standardization can play in supporting their work.

Companies emerged with problems that standardization could help solve. During the five-year period, SCC worked with more than 250 innovators and supported standardization solutions for over 130 companies. Their products and services are broad, covering important areas of growth for the country, including data, artificial intelligence, clean tech, and emerging technologies such as telecommunications beyond 5G and digital twins. 

One such example was Quebec start-up Moov AI. Although Canada is a leader in AI research, it has fallen behind other countries in the application and use of the technology, partly because companies lack confidence in AI systems. Moov AI has tried to address this by developing a tool (Snitch AI) which allows organizations to validate the usefulness of their AI systems. SCC supported the company to successfully develop an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) technical specification that provides concrete guidelines that align with the tool to compete in the global marketplace.

I’m delighted to work with ISO and with SCC. It’s really worth it for a start-up like us because you can have an international impact – a way bigger impact than you could imagine – by working with them. This ISO standard is benefiting to Moov AI and Snitch AI any other start-up.” Olivier Blais, Moov AI

One of the pillars of the program was to encourage leadership in standardization. By establishing common rules and languages, standardization helps innovators enter and compete in markets around the world. Thousands of new standards are published every year to support new products, services, or ideas. Being first to develop international standards for these innovations is not only an opportunity to protect Canadians and promote our economic interests, but it can also be key to a company’s success. 

Through the program SCC facilitated the participation of over 400 Canadian experts on national and international technical committees, including ISO and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), with nearly 30 chairs, conveners and project leads in key growth areas such as artificial intelligence, data governance and clean technology.

When the pandemic struck, the program was quick to pivot, continuing work with innovators online and advancing projects crucial to the health and well-being of Canadians. With the supply of personal protective equipment in jeopardy and no Canadian standard in place at that time to ensure its certification in the country, SCC worked with CSA Group and Health Canada to facilitate the development of a National Standard of Canada for Medical Grade Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), including the establishment of a certification program so that Canadian manufacturers had access to the necessary product testing in Canada. In addition, the program supported employers as they reopened workplaces by helping to identify guidance needed to enable safe operation in such times. 

Contributing to the health and safety of Canadians beyond the pandemic was another key area for the program. For example, the program supported standardization to enable the use of genomic sequencing data by researchers and clinicians to provide important insight into human health and disease. In the past, there was no common method of providing a uniform, machine-readable, phenotypic description to enable data exchange between clinical systems. With SCC’s help, the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health (GA4GH) advanced a standard at ISO for Phenopackets, a common file format that the group had created to share this type of information to make health data more accessible around the world.

By having more Canadian representation in these international communities, it can help with making sure Canadian needs are represented in these standards development communities. It could help put Canada at the forefront of some of these initiatives as well. I think those are the main two things, making sure we’re represented and making sure that we are part of that innovation community.” Lindsay Smith, Vice-Chair, SCC’s Mirror Committee on Genomics Informatics 

After five years of dedicated support to Canadian innovators, the Innovation Initiative has sunset, but its successes continue to come. In a recent survey of program participants, 68% of the innovative companies reported job creation, increased exports or revenue as a result of working with SCC. 65% of the industry and 91% of the products/services/technologies supported by the program are in either the introduction or growth stage, meaning these are products or industries have great potential to grow. 

Investing time in standardization does not necessarily result in immediate returns. Rather, like an investment in equipment and machinery, and in people, it pays back in the longer run. The same can be said of investing in standardization. There is a strong need for advisory and faciliatory services like the Innovation Initiative. Canadian companies need help navigating the system, education and awareness on how to leverage it, and assistance in participating at the international tables where the rules are created. This is the fuel that will help propel Canada to lead the innovation race.

Read the Innovation Initiative final report to learn more about the program and Canadian innovation projects.

For additional case studies, read the Innovation Initiative Case Studies Compendium.

1Cornell University, INSEAD, and WIPO (2017): The Global Innovation Index 2017: Innovation Feeding the World, Ithaca, Fontainebleau, and Geneva.