Dr. Lesley Rigg’s enthusiasm and passion around innovation has resulted in a vast number of strategic partnerships and programs in the Faculty of Science at the University of Calgary. Dean of Science for the past four years, she believes the foundation is set for a new way of thinking about innovation in science, where partnering with the community is paramount to effecting real change.
“We’re just getting going,” she says.
“We’ve worked hard to create a culture of innovation and one that rewards innovation and awards entrepreneurial thinking. While we have been building that culture up, we are really on the cusp of what is coming. We want to make sure our fundamental research is connected to community, industry,government partners so that our fundamental research can translate into impact.”
Dr. Rigg points to a number of efforts created to facilitate the faculty of science’s participation in the innovation ecosystem to broaden and strengthen those connections. Creating an innovation reactor in 2016 has been a cornerstone, providing an opportunity for anyone working on an innovative idea to compete and pitch their concept.
“When we say reactor that’s exactly what it is, it’s to try to get those reactions going between community and academia,” says Dr.Rigg.
“It was a way to bring community and academia together to celebrate the innovation potential at the university.”
Last year’s winner, Teddy Seyed, who has a PhD in Computer Science, helped to develop StitchKit, a fashion tech kit that contains all of the components needed to turn fashion design into wearable tech garments. Seed funding from Google is helping him to develop the next generation of this technology.
Partnered with the Hunter Hub for Technology, the event has grown to become an annual program that kicks off in September and runs through the year.
Dedicated to innovation
Establishing a leadership role in the faculty dedicated to innovation has also been important. Dr. Frank Maurer was appointed the Associate Dean for Innovation and Strategic Partnerships, first of its kind in a faculty of science in Canada.
“His role is really to create the space for faculty, staff,students to have innovative ideas and figure out how to advance those ideas -who could be partnered with and how we can translate that knowledge into the innovation ecosystem in Calgary,” says Dr. Rigg.
Intrigued by the impact of innovation
Interestingly, it is a role much like Dr. Maurer’s where Dr. Rigg developed her passion for innovation. With a background in forest ecology, she had been in academia for 15 years when she was promoted to Vice-President for Research at a former academic institution. At the behest of the president of the University at the time, the role was expanded to become Vice President for Research and Innovation Partnerships.
“I went from 0 to 60, I didn’t really know what innovation was. I jumped in the deep end and started to learn about intellectual property rights, about the amazing research that some of our individuals were doing,what partnerships with industry could provide the researchers and what researchers could provide industry. I was intrigued by the relationship between fundamental science and helping humanity.”
It was during this time that a key example of how research could really make a difference through the right partnerships made its impression on Dr. Rigg. A researcher working on sound engineering was looking into the negative impact of sound on premature babies and had developed a system where they were blocked from hearing anything but their parents’ voices and select health care providers. Partnering with a company making helmets for premature babies to prevent flat head syndrome, the technology was hoped to be deployed much more broadly and to help more babies preserve their hearing.
“This is one example of how, if researchers weren’t talking to industry and people weren’t creating partnerships, you wouldn’t have those technologies. It got me really excited about the impact you could have if you made those connections.”
Increasing partnerships and broadening connections
Dr. Rigg and her staff have been developing programming that works to increase partnerships in all areas of the community. Reinvigorating the University’s participation in Technovation – a global program for girls in Junior high and High school - allows students to take a global problem and develop a local solution.
“We don’t want to wait until students get to university, we want to be creating an excitement in our junior high and high school students so when they get to university, they expect innovation and entrepreneurship in science.”
Reaching out to industry partners through an external advisory group within the Faculty, a ‘What the Tech’ series downtown, and innovators workshops all aim to connect fundamental research with specific industry questions or challenges.
“If we can link our fundamental research with a specific problem that’s either out in the community or industry or globally, if we know what the problem is – we may have a potential solution. If we work together, we can ensure that that solution is translated into action.”