Canadian cities need a lesson in academic potential – by Nick Rockel (Globe and Mail – September 14, 2011)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

If you’re a student or a professor at the University of Waterloo, any intellectual property that you create there belongs to you. This unusual policy has helped make Ontario’s Waterloo Region a leading patent generator. It has also sparked local successes such as smart-phone giant Research In Motion Ltd. and software developer OpenText Inc., both university spinoffs.

“They basically have evolved from student days into incredible multinationals,” says John Jung, chief executive officer of Canada’s Technology Triangle Inc., the public-private economic development agency for the Waterloo Region.

Encompassing the cities of Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo, the region has long understood the value of close ties between business and academia. Its almost 60,000 full-time students – Waterloo’s two other key schools are Wilfrid Laurier University and polytechnic Conestoga College – are a vital source of talent for local companies.

Through the University of Waterloo’s decades-old co-op system, Canadian and international students apply their knowledge in the real world. The region’s three major postsecondary institutions have representatives on the Technology Triangle board, alongside business leaders. “They’re intimately involved in and integral to the process of making this community grow and succeed,” Mr. Jung says.

When it comes to using educational systems as an economic development tool, Canadian cities and regions lag behind Waterloo and such global centres of innovation as California’s Silicon Valley. To turn things around, they must recognize that quality higher education can give them a competitive advantage.

James Milway, executive director of the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity, a Toronto-based think tank, believes his hometown could build stronger links to its universities. With the possible exception of Waterloo, he argues, Canadian companies and cities overlook higher learning.

“We could raise our performance, but it requires business leaders to value education more than they do now,” says Mr. Milway. “It requires our civic leaders to realize that their local universities and colleges are great assets, and to work in partnership with them.”

Besides the United Kingdom, not many places can touch North America in integrating postsecondary education with business, Mr. Milway says. For him, two outstanding U.S. examples are Silicon Valley and Massachusetts’ Route 128.

Silicon Valley’s cluster of research and teaching universities includes Stanford University, while Route 128 is home to the likes of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Some great technology comes out of those schools,” Mr. Milway says, noting that Silicon Valley in particular draws many talented immigrants. “Then you’ve got venture capitalists who are sniffing around to find where [they] can invest. And the thing just gets going – it becomes almost a perpetual motion machine.”

One of the Waterloo Region’s strengths is its high volume of patents. In 2006, for example, applicants based there received 302 patents from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The region yielded 631 patents per million people that year, almost 4.5 times the Canadian rate of 148. By the same measure, Waterloo also rivalled California (725) and Massachusetts (682).

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