In academic settings and in industry innovation is not always encouraged, but combining academic research with industrial production can be a potent combination.
By Michael Cumming
Published October 28, 2009
The McMaster Innovation Park (MIP) had its official opening on October 26, 2009. I took a tour with several others and found the experience enjoyable and interesting.
MIP is a research park and technology transfer facility whose goal is to take technologies developed at McMaster University and transform them into viable businesses. MIP joins dozens of other university research parks in Canada.
The main building in which the opening took place will be known as the Atrium @ MIP. This renovated building was the former headquarters for the former Westinghouse/Camco facility. In the Atrium the commercialization firm Trivaris is an important tenant, under whose umbrella several local start ups have found support.
A new CANMET (Canadian Centre for Mineral and Energy Technology) building is under construction next door to the Atrium. In this new building CANMET's Materials Technology Laboratory will be housed. This lab appears to be an excellent tenant and anchor for the MIP and will produce over a hundred high-quality research jobs.
Such stable, federal agency jobs are a great find for Hamilton and may help turn this part of West Hamilton into a little slice of Ottawa or Kanata.
The Atrium is an attractively-renovated industrial building with a large, bright atrium. It appears to provide high-quality office and workshop space in a convenient location. The Atrium already houses several high-value and viable-sounding businesses.
Atrium of the Atrium building at MIP
The site plan for the MIP appears ambitious. It may take awhile to build out the entire MIP site since it offers lots of land for expansion. Its proximity to McMaster University, to attractive residential areas, and its convenient highway-side location are advantageous.
MIP represents the capital-intensive end of business development: the kind of innovation that requires significant investment from government, universities or venture capitalists to bring to fruition.
Currently, from an urban design perspective, MIP is relatively isolated from surrounding urban areas. If MIP's site were connected to Frid St it would become much more accessible to the residential and industrial neighbourhoods that lie to the east.
The ideas that appear to motivate MIP are the following:
Some of these strategies rely on the prediction that manufacturing and steel production have a future in the region. This, I think is plausible, despite the fact that manufacturing and steel production in the region have been severely hit during the current recession.
I'm not sure, though, that all eggs should be placed in that one basket.
The word 'innovation' takes on a slightly civic-booster quality at the MIP. When the word 'innovation' is used in a general, non-specific way it can become a motherhood-type issue that loses meaning and significance. The word 'excellence' is in a similar category: nice to have but just saying it doesn't make it so.
Remember too that innovation is not always required to make money and to create employment. Stelco may not have been the most innovative steel producer in the world but it did employ many people.
If you are trying to establish a successful university research park, of course, what you profess to encourage is innovation. In all of the other university research parks in Canada innovation is also the method for creating value. But if everyone is doing it, then there is little differentiation from your competition.
Getting true innovation started in a place like MIP is tricky to design and depends on fortuitous blends of interesting research, discoveries that are commercial exploitable and the overall business and social climate in the region.
Innovation also depends on the type of people who end up working at MIP. If they are motivated, connected, well-trained and interesting then innovative work might result; or it might not. Innovation is a difficult quantity to conjure on demand.
In academic settings and in industry innovation is not always encouraged, but combining academic research with industrial production can be a potent combination, as witnessed by successful research parks near Stanford, MIT, Cambridge, Tokyo, and so on.
Lacking a real insider's perspective on what is going on at MIP, it is difficult to assess whether what I saw on the tour was innovative or not (with the exception of Crazy Daisy, a firm that links awareness of mental health issues with floral design - now that's a cool idea).
At MIP, there was little mention of green development or alternative technologies. Canada currently is very weak in these areas, despite the fact that green technologies will likely provide substantial future employment in all developed countries.
It is this exclusion that makes the MIP seem much less interesting and progressive than it could have been.
View from the Atrium building to CANMET
At the MIP Opening there were few cultural, social or community aspects to the project beyond the display of art on the walls. The art I did see seemed like a token inclusion.
What would have been interesting is to see an art installation, involving technology found at MIP, that occupied the entire building atrium.
Technology and business development appear to be king at the MIP. It appears to be a button-down kind of place. Scruffy artist types or grad students with wild hair were nowhere to be seen.
MIP is focused on domains such as material science and biomedical engineering. These are inherently less glamorous and engaging to the popular imagination than research areas such as media arts, green design, artificial intelligence, robotics, and so on.
However, investment and employment growth do not always require glamour. Many cities earn lots of money working on the dullest things.
This essay was originally published on Michael's blog.
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