Interview: UBC president Arvind Gupta on academic innovation

Breaking out of the ivory tower

Arvind Gupta on the University of British Columbia campus. (Portrait by Hubert Kang)

Arvind Gupta on the University of British Columbia campus. (Portrait by Hubert Kang)

When it comes to innovation in Canada, there’s no shortage of folks willing to point out our national failings, but Arvind Gupta is among the few making a positive change. Before Gupta was appointed University of British Columbia president in July, he was CEO and scientific director of Mitacs, a not-for-profit founded in 1999 that’s aimed at spurring partnerships between academia and the private sector. Under Gupta’s guidance, Mitacs has worked with 60 universities and more than 6,000 companies to solve real-world challenges—from building better tools to locate lung tumours to modelling the spread of forest fires. In 2011, Gupta served on a panel reviewing the Canadian government’s policies for sparking innovation. The report resulted in a doubling of grants provided through one federal program and a $400-million fund for venture capital investments.

When you were announced as the next president of UBC, most of the media coverage described you as an “innovation expert.” I know you didn’t pick that title, but how did you go from being a computer science professor to a leading thinker on innovation in Canada?

Yeah, labels! Well, I think it came because I got involved in starting Mitacs, a non-profit aimed at developing partnerships between businesses and academia. At Mitacs we asked ourselves why so many companies around the world come after our graduate students, but our students—who want to stay in Canada—struggle to find the same opportunities in this country. One day, I just said: “Let’s try the simplest thing and just ask the companies what they’re looking for. What are the problems they have? What are the challenges they face?” The companies started giving us these interesting problems, and we got graduate students to start working on them, and the graduate students started solving the problems. Companies saw that these kids were brilliant and they wanted to hire them, and the students saw that these companies had great problems to work on and wanted to work at these companies. We kind of turned the research paradigm inside out. It wasn’t that I sat down and said, “Jeez, I want to do innovation.” I was trying to solve a challenge professors were having at universities.

You say that turned the research paradigm inside out. How so?

In Canada, we’re very good at what I call a “push” model of research. We at the university devise new algorithms, new ideas, new technologies, and then we say, “Let’s see who is interested in these ideas and can commercialize them.” There’s a huge market for that—Google started as an idea at Stanford University. But the flip side is that society sometimes has challenges and needs someone to address them. We haven’t been as good in Canada at thinking of that side of the equation—the “pull” model. How do you pull ideas out of the university? So we started asking companies, “What challenges are keeping you awake at night?” They were really interested in talking with us.

Can you give an example?

Sure. One project at Mitacs I always found fascinating involved a company called SideStix Ventures. The founder, Sarah Doherty, was trying to design better crutches. People who use crutches get carpal tunnel and all sorts of chronic joint injuries. We had a young woman, Megan MacGillivray, a UBC PhD student in rehabilitation science, do tests on these crutches to help optimize the shock absorbers to take pressure off the joints. She had people who use different types of crutches walk on a treadmill and measured their CO2 output. She knew from that how much energy they were expending, and she could show that there was much less energy being expended with SideStix crutches than with other types. In fact, the shock absorber could absorb energy and then release it back to the user. It’s been great for SideStix because they’ve been able to go out into the marketplace and talk about how UBC has validated the research they’re doing. And it’s been great for Megan because she’s now a sought-after commodity and she’s still finishing her PhD.


What are the hallmarks of a successful collaboration between the business community and the university?

We have an academic mission at the university: We want our students to learn and to conduct research that adds value to society. So for us, the hallmark is that the students are benefiting, the research is benefiting and the faculty is benefiting in its core academic mission. On the company side, they have to see that the research has impact on their bottom line. Companies are very clear that if they put money into a project, they want a return on it. But at the university, we never ask about the business case. We ask, “Is this sufficiently valuable that the company’s willing to allocate resources to it?” If they are, then it must have a business case for doing it. And we know 78% of the projects end up being put into some commercial application, which is just off the charts compared to other programs.

Your friends say you’re good at getting results without ruffling feathers. What’s your secret?

Someone asked me a couple days ago: “What is the one characteristic of a great leader?” It’s the ability to say you were wrong. I’ll come in convinced I’m right and argue my case, and then I’ll come in the next day and say, “You know what? I listened to you, and you make more sense than I do.” I think it comes from my past as a computer scientist. Scientists can be passionate about their point of view, but they also listen to what everyone else is saying and that helps them gather the evidence.

Part of your job is to drive innovation at UBC. Do you think students need to be more interdisciplinary now?

I’ve been a professor since 1991, and all I’ve ever heard is that we should be more interdisciplinary. I’m still hearing it 23 years later. One thing that was amazing about Mitacs was that the projects were inherently interdisciplinary as well as multidisciplinary. They either involved students from different disciplines coming together and finding ways to collaborate, or a student had to learn about a bunch of different disciplines to get the work done. It’s funny—as people’s technical skills get more specialized, the world is actually demanding individuals that can see across silos, and so I think our students actually know what they’re doing when they’re trying to get a broader education.


So in your engagement with business leaders, are you pointing at the humanities students and saying, “This is a resource you need to tap?”

When you talk about an actual research project, often it starts as something more technologically oriented, but as you build deeper partnerships, you find that some of the problems they’re really struggling with are human problems. Sometimes you start in one place and realize there’s a bigger issue and a bigger conversation to have.

Can you give an example of that?

Sure. We were working with a video game company on generating faster images. In video games, the faster you can get an image on the screen, the more realistic you can make things like driving games feel. We started a conversation with them about why some games are very popular and some games just crash and burn. So we set up a project with a bunch of sociology and psychology students, and a test lab where these PhD students could watch kids playing games, and this company would change which games they released based on what our PhD students were seeing. Lo and behold, they started learning all sorts of interesting things about how kids decide which games are interesting and not interesting to play.

The knock against Canada is that we’re not particularly good at innovation. Do you think that’s true?

Well, I mean, the metrics aren’t good, to be honest with you. We’re slipping on productivity growth, we’re now below the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] average. We’re slipping on total business investment in R&D and innovation spend. Our universities are still some of the best in the world when you adjust per capita. So my contention is that the universities are doing a great job on the research side. If we can make a link happen, that’s the way to boost industrial innovation performance.

So how does the business community go about spurring a closer connection with the universities?

Our ecosystem in Canada is not as well developed as other countries. In some countries, we see cluster development where companies support one another, with universities in the mix. In other countries, we’ve seen an innovation supply chain develop, where companies farm things out to smaller companies. In some countries, we see much richer connections with government labs. Different countries have taken different strategies. But if you’re a company in Vancouver or Toronto, how do you actually access UBC? I mean, UBC is big. It’s daunting. Frankly, we want to make it really easy so you don’t feel like, “Oh my god, there’s going to be all these contracts and IP negotiations, and it’s going to take forever.” We want to just get people working together, so they can help one another.