Top innovator wants to know why Quebec companies innovate less

Stephane Rolland, The Canadian Press

MONTREAL — Why do Quebec companies invest less in innovation? This is the question that haunts the province’s main innovator, Luc Sirois, who has set himself the mission of awakening the desire to innovate among Quebecers.

Sitting in a modest office where a chalkboard wall displays the remnants of a brainstorming session, Sirois says he is concerned that corporate spending on research and development (R&D) is decreasing in Quebec.

“I was in shock (when I saw this decline), he says during an interview with The Canadian Press. In Quebec, we are creative, we are enterprising, we develop. Yes, I go to bed and wake up in the morning thinking about it, asking myself: what are we going to have to do so that, structurally, things change course.

The Conseil de l’innovation du Québec, of which he is executive director, has received a mandate from the Ministry of Economy and Innovation to help him make this change in direction. The organization, created in December 2020, is at the heart of the Quebec Strategy for Research and Investment in Innovation 2022-2027 (SQRI), released last week.

Many statistics demonstrate the lag that Quebec companies are falling behind in terms of innovation, in particular: the drop in R&D spending, the low number of companies developing new products and services or the share of companies that have carried out their digital transformation. . “In Quebec, we are particularly good at academic research, but business innovation is on the decline,” explains Sirois.

The decline in business investment in intellectual property products worries Desjardins Group chief economist Jimmy Jean. In the fourth quarter of 2021, this type of investment was down 2.8% from its level in 2019, that is, before the pandemic. In Ontario and the United States, these increased by 10.7% and 14.0%, respectively.

In addition to the numbers, these statistics are of real importance to Quebecers, because innovation is a necessary “ingredient” to increase gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, explains Jean during an interview. “It all comes down to a population’s standard of living and its ability to provide effective public services.”

outstanding questions

Mr. Sirois admits he doesn’t know what the reasons are that hold back innovation in Quebec. This is a mystery that the Council’s team, made up of a dozen employees, will try to unravel. He can also count on the support of the “sages” of his advisory committee, chaired by the dean of Laval University, Sophie D’Amours, whose mission is to advise the government.

The Council is working on launching an “innovation barometer” that will attempt to paint a granular picture of research and innovation in Quebec by region and by sector. A first version of the barometer will be published this fall, but the main innovator points out that the tool will be enriched in its later versions. “The barometer is the economy, social innovation, the fight against climate change and the talent issue.”

The Council should also conduct a study on R&D funding to verify that public funds are used effectively to stimulate innovation. The mandate will be entrusted to external experts. “As a reimbursable R&D tax credit, $2.5 billion is awarded to companies. Despite this, corporate spending is falling. (will) work well? The question has to be asked.”

The project does not start with a preconceived idea, however, says Sirois. The intention is not necessarily to reduce public funding for R&D. “Where it works, you don’t want to undo it. It’s delicate. Perhaps the answer is to increase it.”

The Council will also play a role in the field, guiding entrepreneurs to the right resources among the multitude of government, regional, industry and university stakeholders, explains Mr. Sirois. “Resources are many. Businesses are mixed. We make them breathe. We explained it to them calmly and managed to refer them to these organizations.”

Mr. Sirois also wants to create an informal network of 300 economic development professionals working in different organizations. A first cohort of about forty professionals is expected to receive training this fall. “We want to equip them with training, with directories, with IT tools. He will have “a red phone” to contact us.”

The taste of failure

Beyond economic policies, Quebec’s top innovator expects a mindset shift that encourages innovation. He believes that the collective psyche is very “afraid” of the idea of ​​suffering failure. He says he observes this reluctance on the part of entrepreneurs when considering changes within the company. “There is discomfort with the risk that is present here.”

Failure is inevitable when you want to change the way things are done. Mr. Sirois makes an analogy with a hockey player trying to score a goal. “If you just give it a go, when you’re sure it’s going to work, well, let’s see. We know that in hockey you have to shoot a lot of shots to get a goal. That’s how it works.”

We can accept failure by being cautious, nuance Mr. Sirois. The best approach is to do small, focused tests and put the rubber on the tests that give the best results. “You want to fail quickly so you know which project to stop, and you overinvest in the one that works.”

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