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Opinion Jim Balsillie on commercializing our ideas: ‘Where the innovation game is won or lost’

In a six-week series of interviews, Canadians with a variety of experiences discuss the major challenges our country is facing and how best to address them. This instalment deals with increasing the innovativeness of our economy.

Jim Balsillie, co-CEO of Research in Motion Ltd. (which became BlackBerry Ltd.), was interviewed on Sept. 22 by Monica Pohlmann, a consultant with Reos Partners.

Pohlmann: What concerns you about Canada?

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Balsillie: Let me first say I'm bullish on Canada's prospects for the future. We have strong fundamentals and a creative work force. But I'm concerned about Canada's prosperity, specifically how we commercialize our ideas globally. In the past 32 years, growth in Canada's multi-factor productivity – a measure of how we commercialize our ideas – has been zero. Yet during that same time frame in the United States, their multi-factor productivity soared. You can pay for a lot of social services, hospitals, schools, and transit systems with that kind of prosperity. As a country, with all our creativity and smart, hard-working people, why aren't we more successful in commercializing our ideas?

In Canada, over the past century we largely got the ecosystem right for a resource economy, and continue to prosper because of it. This ecosystem includes physical elements like roads and pipelines, geopolitical elements like market access and investment protection, universities that appropriately educated students and researched key areas, courts that fairly addressed domestic commercial issues, and public sector-private sector structures to address the important issues of various time horizons.

We got a lot of the macroeconomic elements right, such as our stable banking, monetary and government fiscal systems. We invested generously in all of the right microeconomic areas like tax incentives, granting programs and R&D funding, and so the issue is not more government money. The question we must ask ourselves is, Why aren't these micro inputs creating the macro outputs for us when our overall system is so stable?

The critical challenge and opportunity for Canadian policy-makers and business leaders is to fully understand the differences between the ecosystem for a resource economy and the ecosystem for an innovation economy, and then ensure that these all gaps are addressed. Once this is achieved, I am certain our commercialization performance will then start rising as we have always expected, given our levels of investment and world-class skills.

Pohlmann: What important decisions will Canada have to make in these areas of ecosystem gaps to create an innovation economy?

Balsillie: We need to reorient both our domestic and our geopolitical engagements to ideas commercialization, particularly in the complex, predatory and evolving realm of intellectual property rights management. Ownership and commercialization of intangible ideas is very different than for tangible natural resources. Sophisticated capacity here will increasingly be needed as new emerging economies seek to also advance their national innovation champions and as various carbon-pricing regimes are inserted into global trade. The academy needs to research it and our schools need to teach it, the courts need a strategy to advance it, industrial programs need to encourage it, and public sector-private sector structures need to ensure it's addressed on a priority basis.

Commercialization is where the innovation game is won or lost: It's where you get paid for your ideas. When you get paid for ideas – otherwise called transferring intellectual property rights – then you get multi-factor productivity, you get prosperity and wealth, and you can spend it wherever you wish.

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Pohlmann: What important lessons can we learn from the past?

Balsillie: When Canada hosted the Olympics in Montreal and then again in Calgary, we didn't win any gold medals as a nation. We were deeply unsatisfied with our national performance. To our credit, we didn't rationalize our results by saying, "That's okay, gold medals don't matter." Instead, we created and funded a coherent program called Own the Podium and realized its ambitious goal at the Vancouver Olympics by winning fifteen gold medals – the most of any country in the world. These results thrilled and inspired our entire nation. It teaches us what an ambitious, orderly and systemic approach can do. These are nation-building exercises and they prove that if Canadians want to win, Canadians know how to do it.

Possible Canadas is a project created by Reos Partners, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and a diverse coalition of philanthropic and community organizations. For longer versions of these interviews, or to join the conversation, visit possiblecanadas.ca.

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