The findings were categorized and presented based on the main research questions examining 1) the role, 2) the impact, and 3) factors that support or inhibit the work of non-governmental intermediary agents in the innovation ecosystem. The following non-governmental intermediaries were selected as the cases - The Canadian Science Policy Centre, the MaRS Discovery District, and the university Vice Presidents Research of Ontario higher education institutions. The selection was made based on the following criteria – 1) their growing presence in the Canadian innovation scene as attested by the other stakeholders (federal and provincial governments, industry) in the interviews and policy documents; 2) the inclusion of intermediary activities in their mission (e.g. connecting partners, building capacity for policy and practice); 3) a location in Ontario, yet an active connection to all Triple Helix groups. This selection helped to analyze only the data directly relevant to the intermediary activities attested by the interviewees.
Non-governmental agents of change
Canadian Science Policy Centre
Canadian science policy, as well as innovation policy, has been characterized by limited coordination across stakeholder groups (Tamtik 2016; Goracinova et al. 2017). A unique non-government stakeholder that has made a significant mark in promoting science, connecting scientists and policy makers, and advocating for a greater presence of science policy among the federal and provincial governments is the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC). It is a grass-root formed Toronto-based independent organization, founded by an individual Mehrdad Hariri in 2009. Between 2013 and 2018 CSPC was hosted by Ryerson University. It governance structure includes Board of Directors (of six members), led by the founder who also serves as a President and Chief Executive Officer with the help of many volunteers from across the country. The Centre does not have an annual budget allocated to its activities as it operates based on sponsorship money and registration income generated through organizing an annual conference. The Centre’s mission is to create an “inclusive hub for connectivity, convening, capacity-building and catalyzing research in support of effective science policy community” (CSPC web). An interview participant from the Centre explained their primary purpose of functioning as an intermediary in science policy:
“We try to establish a national dialogue on science, technology and innovation policy across sectors and disciplines because, as you may know, the different sectors sometimes have difficulties to communicate when they differ in their mindset, their language, their technology, etc., their connectivity...We try to strengthen the linkages across various stakeholders of science enterprise.”
Playing an intermediary role, the Centre has built a significant social capital in mediating among all three Triple Helix pillars—university, industry, and government. Over the years, the Centre has facilitated communication through its newsletters, lecture series, panel sessions, webinars, and its Youtube channel featuring science and innovation policy developments relevant to industry-government-university and highlights of research innovations (CSPC 2018). The annual Science Policy Conference is the most prominent evidence of its intermediary activities, as panels of the conference are organized by presenters from each of the Triple Helix groups—academia, industry, and government. Since 2015 the conference has been strategically held in Ottawa, to secure the attendance of busy government officials who work on Parliament Hill in close proximity, also by being held in the capital, it makes it more accessible and neutral for the participants from other parts of the country to attend. By gradually growing its size, the Centre has managed to grow its visibility and reputation among the politicians that often make an appearance at the conference. Another key function and a guiding principal of the Centre is youth engagement. To further this goal, the Centre has initiated the first and only Science Policy Awards of Excellence in Canada for youth. The Centre is planning to start a Mentorship program where students, early career professionals, and new immigrants who are interested in science and innovation policy will be linked with Canadian science policy experts to facilitate connections and enhance careers. With all these activities, the Centre serves as a flagship in building and maintaining collaborative stakeholder relationships in the Canadian science and innovation landscape.
MaRS Discovery District
Another significant player that supports primarily university-industry connections but, government ones as well to a lesser extent is the MaRS Discovery District. It is Canada’s largest non-profit innovation hub, located in Toronto, and home to more than 150 organizations drawing over 6000 people to work there every day (MaRS 2017a). MaRS’s intermediary role is articulated in its mission of being “an entrepreneurial venture designed to bridge the gap between what people need and what governments can provide” (MaRS web). This innovation hub was initiated and funded primarily by the Ontario provincial governmentFootnote 1 in 2005 with the federal government providing additional revenues for its infrastructure. As such, MaRS is an example of government being the creator of a boundary-spanning mechanism that facilitates academic-industry relations (Todeva 2013). MaRS stands for ‘Medical and Related Sciences’, which summarized its early organizational focus. Currently MaRS’s scope has widened to four industries: social innovation; life sciences and health care; information technology, communications, and entertainment (ICE); and physical science, engineering, and “cleantech” (Slaughter 2014). As a registered charity, funding for MaRS comes from corporate sponsors, private donors, support from the provincial and federal governments, and revenue from events held inside the facility.
Different from CSPS, MaRS’s primary capital is economic in nature as it provides (venture) capital helping individuals to launch and grow companies through grants, training programs, and rental space in their downtown Toronto building. Similar to CSPC, its strengths lie also in social capital, as its mission is to build connections between people and physically bring together entrepreneurs, educators, researchers, and business experts. It is governed by a Board of Directors, with the President of the University of Toronto and a professor from Western University included among the corporate board members. With reported revenues of $50 million in 2017, it brings together a mix of tenants including new starts-ups, already established global tech leaders like Facebook, Autodesk, Airbnb, and PayPal, and scientists from the higher education sector (MaRS 2017b).
While MaRS representatives work closely with private sponsors, industry, and both the federal and the provincial governments, the interviewee from MaRS emphasized its essential connections with the municipal government of Toronto. As MaRS is the urban innovation hub in the city of Toronto, it is crucial that the political leadership supports and promotes its work. The participant noted:
“We work very closely with the municipal government, not as a funder per se, but as a collaborator within the innovation ecosystem in Toronto...It may be municipal policies, which give favourable zoning support or lower commercial tax rates to innovation centers.”
By building a connection with the university sector and making start-up activities tangible and desirable among individuals, MaRS plays an important role in Ontario’s innovation system (Currie 2011). Through collaborative relationships, MaRS provides a formal platform for linking individual entrepreneurs with other Triple Helix stakeholder groups.
University vice presidents research
Increasing research evidence demonstrates that individuals within the university sector, such as rectors, presidents, and vice-rectors or vice-presidents, are becoming important players in innovation policy, actively advocating for new industry partnerships, creating regional innovation networks, and attracting talent to local economies (see Benneworth and Charles 2005; Bramwell and Wolfe 2008; Lehmann 2015). Canadian Vice Presidents (VPs) Research are no different as they play a significant advocacy role in the Canadian innovation system (Tamtik 2018).
Within the organizational structure of the Canadian post-secondary education sector, Vice Presidents Research (VPs Research) are top-level administrators whose primary role is to develop and strengthen institutional research capacity. Of the three cases, the work of university VPs Research tends to focus most closely on political relationships with the federal and provincial governments. While their work involves close communication with the industry sector, the informants tended to reflect on their advocacy activities with governments. Vice Presidents described their responsibilities often in regards to strategic participation in external policy processes (“I have to act as an advocate for research outside the university”, “We try to influence the policy objectives”, “One of my roles is to be an advocate for Canadian innovation and research policy”).
The representatives from the federal government as well as granting councils confirmed that university leaders have become significant stakeholders in shaping the innovation agenda. The granting council administrators noted that their policy directions are increasingly influenced by bottom-up initiatives coming from the research institutions. Such broad recognition confirms the advocacy and intermediary role university VPs Research play in Canada’s innovation agenda.
Evidence of influence
There are several ways to demonstrate evidence of direct outcomes of the intermediary activities examined in this study. For the Canadian Science Policy Centre, the significant evidence of their success in increasing networks has been the growing number of participants in their annual conference and gradually increasing number of subscribers to their social media channels. For example, at its most recent Science Policy Conference there were 677 registered participants representing mainly the decision makers and influencers of policy with their organizations, as 23% of them are executives (CEO, Presidents VPs, Executive Directors) and 24% from senior management (CSPC 2018). The dramatic increase in the number of graduate students and post-doctoral students attending the Science Policy Conference in 2017, from 7% to 22% (CCSP 2018), is one indicator that demonstrates the impact of its community-building work. A youth participant reflected: “There is currently no or very limited, let’s say, channels for the younger generation scientists, graduate students to be introduced to science policies” (CSPC 2018, p. 6). The conference participants have included high-level government officials and politicians including the Minister of Science, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, and the Governor General of Canada. In addition, there has been external sponsorship money attributed to their activities. In 2018, the Fonds de recherche du Québec’s (FRQ 2018), a provincial research funding agency, announced their support for the Centre over five years to further enhance Québec’s participation in advancing Canadian science policy. Another attestation of the Centre’s influence is the recent project in partnership with the Chief Science Advisor Dr. Mona Nemer (@ChiefSciCan, Tweet) titled “Science Meets Parliament” that brings scientists working in Canada to Parliament Hill in order to attend committee meetings, discuss scientific research, and gain familiarity with the political process. All those activities are crucial for popularizing science and building a coherent community around the topics relevant to science and innovation policy.
MaRS is regularly collecting and reporting on the impact of its activities, measuring capital raised, revenue generated, and the number of people involved in MaRS-supported activities (MaRS 2017b). One of its key roles is maintaining close linkages with industry and other private partners to secure private investments for its capital programs. The pool of private donors investing funds through MaRS include CIBC, Microsoft, Thomson Reuters, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the RBC Foundation (Slaughter 2014). As noted by Currie (2011), MaRS’ activities have put Canada on the international map. While mostly focused on university-business connections, MaRS has had a role in policy development as well. The representative from the MaRS innovation hub noted MaRS’ role in providing feedback to the government:
“When the government is doing a review of existing policies or existing programs in innovation, we’re often consulted./.../ MaRS is a very large player, I suppose, within Ontario’s ecosystem. So we’re consulted on an ongoing basis about the operations of our programs, about the emergence of new programs and the desirability of those.”
Three provincial government officials confirmed the role of MaRS in connecting industry and private partners in government-initiated projects. One reflected on the Advanced Computing project: “Through MaRS and through other channels we’re trying to get small, medium and large businesses to uptake big data practices and make use of advanced computing.” Another government administrator noted: “They [MaRS] bring together investors and entrepreneurs, mentors, business advisors, people with business ideas./.../The aim for companies is to be innovative for investment and innovation.”
MaRS experts have been involved in provincial program evaluations, which have been used as guidelines for the next steps in provincial innovation policy: “In 2012 and 2013 we undertook a major strategic review of the policies and programs in innovation within the Toronto region.” Another example involved establishing decisions for a new entrepreneurship center in Ontario to support innovation, partnering with a Ministry, and providing expert advice on which centers should be established across the province.
The university Vice Presidents Research commented on successful advocacy activities that have led to significant funding increases through establishing new grant programs for innovation to secure economic advantage for Canada. One specific example was the creation of the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF). The proposals need to demonstrate partnerships with the private sector, international research institutions, and academic organizations with a focus on commercial endeavors and mobilizing research discoveries. The CFREF is a $1.5 billion dollar investment, announced by the federal government in 2014, that addresses the need for Canada’s research-intensive universities to compete on the world stage and attract research talent (Canada First Research Excellence Fund [CFREF] 2017). According to the participants, the fund was created in response to collective lobbying from university leaders representing the top 15 Canadian research universities (U15). Initiating such a program also aligned with the federal elections in 2015, where the federal government was eager to establish a flagship program supporting innovation in Canada. A college sector representative described a different collective advocacy success story, initiated through Polytechnics Canada, which has led to the creation of a specific ‘college only’ research funding category within the NSERC funding scheme. According to the informant, it took them about eight years from the early negotiations to the final outcome of creating this ‘Community and Colleges Innovation Program’. In those cases, the informants noted that factors that they believed led to success included collaborating together as research universities and delivering a consistent and unified message to the federal government. The role of industry in facilitating the Triple Helix relationships of the Vice Presidents tends to be significant. On the one hand, establishing new and maintaining old relationships with industry is crucial for institutional innovation agenda. However, sometimes a tokenistic approach is applied in regards to industry when lobbying the government. An interviewee reflected:
“All we do is bring industry partners who we have served and we put them in front of a bunch of politicians, both provincial and federal, and they tell their stories. That’s a way to get industry involved, but absolutely there is no way that you could say that the private sector is putting a lot of time and energy into influencing or improving innovation research policy in Canada. I just don’t think that’s true.”
An industry representative from IBM noted that they get involved in academic partnerships only because government is supportive and expects such an involvement. Those statements indicate the importance of political support in university-industry relationships. Intermediaries then can use it as leverage in their work to facilitate relationships among the Triple Helix stakeholders.
Factors that support and inhibit intermediary activities
The participants highlighted several factors that tended to have an influence on their work as intermediaries. Political priority allocated to research and innovation activities was the theme most often mentioned. Operational processes are greatly enhanced by having politicians and other high-power government officials involved. Such participation serves as a signal to others that the issues are important and worthy of attention. For example, a government official noted that “If you get a minister involved, you usually don’t have a lot of problem getting people’s cooperation”. However, in Canada, innovation and research policy in general has not been a highly visible topic in policy debates. Innovation policy is not a topic that is typically used in political campaigns to attract voters’ attention. Another interviewee from the federal government characterized the process as follows: “Political stars have to align in order to get everyone working with the same interests and energy levels.” Several informants mentioned the absence of a clear mandate for innovation policy as an inhibiting factor in Canada. A university Vice President noted: “We need one captain; we don’t need four of them.”
The intermediary organizations described how they would take action when high-level political representation was close by. One informant talked about his proactive strategies:
“For example, big city mayors meet in Toronto to talk about infrastructure and transportation. What I would do is add innovation to the agenda because that way you can create a common framework for thinking about these kinds of issues. If a federal government won’t do it or can’t do it, then there are other ways in which it can be done. What it involves is having a big enough constituency of players who can make a difference to actually get together to want to do some things.”
Political priority is important as it is associated with the financial supports essential for creating a well-functioning innovation system.
A representative from the Canadian Science Policy Centre emphasized the importance of communication and the inclusion of a variety of partners for building trust and strengthening working relations among industry, university, and government partners. The participant talked about situations where a government has moved forward with initiatives without a proper consultation process and caused stakeholders’ resistance as a response. He noted:
“So they [the federal government] did something on their own without proper consultation and inclusion of other stakeholders and the results may not have been necessarily positive. Inclusion of the stakeholders is always important, so that everybody is informed, everybody is included in the process, included, being considered, and heard.”
Similarly, a participant from MaRS highlighted communication and the inclusion of partners in the process:
“Innovation policy is a team sport and in order to get better innovation outcomes, you need to link the various players in the ecosystem effectively. That means you have to look at conductivity, you have to look at communication, you have to look at partnership collaboration and you have to ceaselessly promote it.”
The key obstacle that most informants pointed out was a systemic issue: diverse stakeholders with diverse interests across policy sectors and government levels complicate the creation of one coherent ecosystem of innovation. A MaRS informant summarized the challenge:
“Factors that inhibit the system are size and diversity and frankly the fact that it’s pretty confusing. I mean, Canada isn’t all that big of a country but we have way too many, it seems, too many places where policy is developed and managed and the proliferation of actors within the system, all with similar kind of objections, creates, I think, unnecessary competition. Innovation seems to be the responsibility of many and therefore the stewardship of no one when it comes to policy. I think that’s a big problem.”
The participants agreed that the complexity of the innovation system within the governments has often served as a barrier to utilizing a more coordinated approach to activities. According to most of the interviewees, the key challenge in policy support was a lack of vertical communication—collaboration between provincial and federal governments. Provincial policy officers emphasized that stronger coordination with the federal government was needed in terms of data sharing, making decisions on larger capital investments, and collaborating on decisions over broader national priorities.
A strategy that has been helpful among the VPs Research is to create alliances among stakeholders that share common interests. A participant described policy coordination as “a means of coordinating the development of policy in a manner that is nationally beneficial to the broadest number of stakeholders”. The most commonly mentioned approach for getting a unified message to the government was to use professional (university/college) associations and other organizations that are increasingly involved in innovation policy debates. Organizations such as the U15 (Group of Canadian Research Universities), the Association of Universities and Colleges Canada (AUCC) (now Universities Canada), the Ontario Council on University Research (OCUR), Colleges Ontario, and Polytechnics Canada were mentioned most often. In order to advocate for innovation policy, there needs to be a clear national-level vision, and common understanding to make effective connections among stakeholders.
Another condition that emerged from the interviews that inhibits long-term intermediary activities was clarity in measuring innovation and its impact. The traditional performance indicators such as R&R expenditure, patents and scientific article count have its flaws (Schwanen 2017), while innovation in social spheres with high impact on societal groups especially in terms of job creation might not be counted. Unless there is clarity on what the expected end goal is and how to measure it, the work of intermediaries has limited focus. An informant pointed to the current weaknesses in the Canadian approach:
“Our policy framework around measuring impact is weak and it creates a problem for all of us. It probably means there’s money invested in areas where it shouldn’t be because no one is really measuring or they don’t have an ability to measure and areas of synergy aren’t identified because people can’t see the system overall to know which parts of the system when connected work really, really well and what parts don’t.”
Two provincial government representatives recognized that there is currently no clear way of measuring policy coordination within the innovation system. One of the main indicators for assessing innovation remains expenditure on R&D through funding that has been distributed through research councils or provincial programs. The question of whether the money has been allocated towards supporting an emerging ecosystem or limited project-based initiatives remains unclear.
Not all coordination initiatives related to research funding have led to success stories. There were several examples mentioned, mainly to do with cross-provincial infrastructure projects for research, that are still works in progress. One example was brought to illustrate the limiting eligibility criteria regarding industry partners established by the government in order to apply for funding. Universities are required to partner only with Canada-based industry branches, excluding international industry partners. University leaders frequently shared how limited cross-provincial policy coordination has forced them to reconsider major innovative research collaborations and become more active in advocating for collective interests:
“There’s an opportunity to build cyber infrastructure in the North. We’re working with a bunch of industry partners across the country. We wanted to implement a program that involves Yukon, Nunavut, Northern Ontario, Northern Labrador. The province of Ontario only wants to support any implementation in Ontario, while it might be a provincial priority in Ontario and therefore Quebec doesn’t want it. So what do you do, skip over that province because it’s not a provincial priority there?”
The findings demonstrate that there are several operational factors that influence intermediary activities. Political priority, inclusion of partners and clear policy coordination mechanisms would help to enhance the connections within the Triple Helix system. Exclusion of partners, ignoring the diverse interests of stakeholders and lack of clarity for a unified vision for innovation agenda serve as some of the inhibiting factors in intermediary activities. Institutional memory and knowledge on how to handle such increasingly complex system with diverse interest becomes essential.