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Fertile ground

Innovation ecosystem at Memorial University helps ideas grow

Part of a special feature showcasing Memorial’s innovation ecosystem, a pan-university effort focused on supporting the development and success of innovators across Newfoundland and Labrador.  

By Rebecca Cohoe

A good idea can happen anywhere, but sometimes the place where it takes root can play a major role in whether or not it is able to reach its full potential.

The Innovation Initiative at Memorial is a pan-university effort focused on supporting the development and success of innovators across Newfoundland and Labrador. The initiative includes units from across disciplines, including business, science, music, and the humanities and social sciences.

Build on Memorial’s strengths

“Memorial boasts extensive and growing expertise and capacity for innovation of all types and we want to build on those strengths,” said President Gary Kachanoski.

“Our Innovation Initiative is focused on re-imagining the nature and configuration of innovation supports across the university to leverage the capacity across all our campuses, faculties and units to ensure they best empower faculty, staff, students and external partners. They have so many good ideas. We want to be a world leader in helping to foster them.”

What does innovation look like at Memorial?

Defining innovation can be challenging.

At its root, innovation is about using ideas to create value, whether economic, social or otherwise. Similarly, innovation isn’t limited to a product or a technology.

“Memorial has tremendous capacity across our campuses, faculties and units, and we need to enable them to collide and interact.” — Dr. Rob Greenwood

While inventions are an important part of the equation, it could also refer to a process, a business model or service.

“The literature about innovation often refers to the idea of an innovation ecosystem,” explained Dr. Rob Greenwood, executive director, Office of Public Engagement, and leader of the Innovation Initiative.

“Like an ecosystem, innovation is not linear. Memorial has tremendous capacity across our campuses, faculties and units, and we need to enable them to collide and interact. In addition, we need to foster connections with partners outside the university.”

Emerging strength

Social innovation — innovation that is socially beneficial both in terms of its goals and the way it is undertaken — is also an emerging innovation strength at Memorial.

Along with a number of highly visible initiatives such as Enactus Memorial’s Project Sucseed, which is addressing both food insecurity and vocational training for youth, the Centre for Social Enterprise provides social innovation incubation for new social entrepreneurs, offering knowledge, support and experience in helping turn ideas into working realities.

Team members brainstorm ideas to support food security at a recent Centre for Social Enterprise event.

The centre, a unique partnership among the Faculty of Business Administration, the School of Social Work and the School of Music, also offers placements for students who are interested in learning more about social enterprise, and plays a role in developing academic capacity to increase understanding of social entrepreneurship and social enterprise within the Memorial community.

Entrepreneurship is a key element of innovation. Across Memorial, there has been an increased interest from students, faculty, staff and partners in learning about starting a business.

Supporting that interest is the Memorial Centre for Entrepreneurship. Launched this fall, the centre provides a starting point for potential entrepreneurs at Memorial. From entrepreneurial work terms, to pitching contests, to funding opportunities, the centre creates an environment where good ideas can flourish.

Of course, when it comes to entrepreneurial incubation, the Genesis Centre is also a significant resource for Memorial students, faculty and staff, offering business incubation for technology startups.

The centre has experienced incredible growth recently, and has been the starting point for many of the province’s technology success stories, including Solace Power and Verafin.

Arts innovation

As part of the greater innovation initiative, the Arts Innovation Strategy is made up of projects, programs, services and infrastructure designed to develop creative capacity within Memorial, while partnering with other organizations to develop creative capacity provincially.

The strategy has been developed through consultation both within Memorial and with the public, provincewide. Along with the development of a plan to revitalize the Reid Theatre, there are several pilot projects already underway. 

Innovation on the west coast

On the west coast of Newfoundland, Grenfell Campus has undertaken a number of recent initiatives to support innovation.

Partnerships are being formed between community members, all levels of government, industry, staff, students and faculty to develop new ways to find solutions for important issues in the western region and beyond, including what is needed to drive economic development, social-cultural vitality and ecological sustainability.

At centre, Dr. Raymond Thomas, of Grenfell’s Boreal Ecosystem Research lab, is working on crop development at the Pynn’s Brook research field and is assisted by graduate students and project collaborators, from left, Muhammad Zaeem and Md Hossen.
Photo: Lori Lee Pike

Together, these groups are exploring opportunities in food security and agriculture, converting waste to value-added resources in the pulp and paper industry, and pursuing tourism, arts and culture, and recreational development with municipalities and Indigenous communities.

As well, Grenfell is encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation through the development of business incubators and makerspaces, to provide spaces that allow students and community members to develop and hone skills needed in the work place and to create new and expanded enterprises in a dynamic, vibrant region.

Facilities in development

Probably the most visible new development is the Core Science Facility currently under construction on Memorial’s St. John’s campus.

Once it is completed in 2020, it will provide modern research and laboratory teaching spaces primarily for the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science. About 125,000 square feet has been set aside for industry partnerships.

Construction at the Core Science Facility in August 2017.
Photo: Submitted

Of that, approximately 18,000 square feet will be dedicated to the provincial headquarters of the Ocean Frontier Institute, which is working to harness the vast potential of the world’s oceans in a safe and sustainable manner, through collaboration among university, government and industry partners.

Another new development is even closer — the Battery Facility on Signal Hill is expected to open the doors of its innovation and public engagement centre in September 2018.

The Battery Facility will provide a space for innovation and public engagement on issues of importance to Newfoundland and Labrador, and beyond.

Among other things, this redeveloped space will allow a number of current innovation units, including the Genesis Centre, the Gardiner Centre, the Office of Public Engagement and the Harris Centre, to co-locate, forming a provincial innovation and public engagement hub that will build on existing strengths in social innovation, commercialization, entrepreneurship and regional development.

Graduate students are already living in the adjoining accommodations and will have the opportunity to participate in innovation-focused programming once the rest of the facility is operating.

“We are committed to supporting the development and success of innovators across Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Dr. Kachanoski, “and through that, contributing to a vibrant, successful and thriving future for the province.”

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