Editor's letter: It can't all be about stargazing

Revolutionary thinking has to meet up with market reality if innovation is to be more than an empty buzzword.

We all like to think of ourselves as innovators. We are not stuck in the old ways! No siree! We have our eyes firmly trained on the glow beyond the horizon. There lies possibility, hope and progress.

Innovation has long been a favourite buzzword in business — it has the twin benefits of sounding portentous without being at all specific. No surprise, then, that governments have lately been picking up the baton and bringing forth “innovation agendas.” Usually, this means giving money to universities and a select handful of “knowledge industries” that fit the modern politician’s guide to businesses everybody can get behind. Windmills anyone?

Now before you get the wrong idea, let me be clear that I’m not down on innovation. Developing new ideas is important to our future, and holds within it the promise of a stronger, more prosperous, more sustainable country. The thing is, we often fall into the trap of believing that innovation is an end in itself. But the cold truth is, our ideas are ultimately only as valuable as our ability to popularize them and monetize them.

This, unfortunately, is a notion that some of our brightest minds resist. Scientists, academics and engineers generally aren’t business people, and most of our institutions are not structured to translate groundbreaking discoveries into marketable products.

Last week, I spoke with Michael Tymianski, a brain surgeon who has spent more than a decade studying the mechanics of how strokes cause brain damage. He has made astounding revelations and has developed a very promising drug treatment that could one day mitigate the impact of strokes — one of the most common causes of death and disability in the world. That’s because Dr. Tymianski took his discoveries and obtained approval from his university to develop the drug through a private company that he founded with $8 million in capital he raised himself.

He did this because he knew that well-meaning staffers at his university lacked the resources to commercialize his work to its full potential. If his science was going to save lives, he needed to make it happen. So now, Dr. Tymianski is a doctor, a researcher and CEO of NoNO Inc.

That spirit of connecting ideas with action is where we began our thinking for this week’s Insider’s Guide to the Future issue. We have tried to shine a light on the places where revolutionary thinking is meeting up with market reality and, one hopes, building a more dynamic world.

Perhaps we don’t need innovation agendas so much as we need a national commercialization agenda. Rather than focusing all our energy on the innovation side of the ledger, perhaps we should be dedicating more of our efforts to building bridges between the scientists and the providers of private capital.

As Dr. Tymianski told me: “I don’t believe in stargazing … science must have a purpose.” That ought to be a rallying cry for Canada. Stargazing is a fine way to spend a warm summer night. But if you want to build a nation, you have to get up and figure out how to reach those stars.