Five questions for B.C.’s innovation minister
Ravi Kahlon on how funding research infrastructure can drive solutions to the province's most pressing challenges.
Welcome to this week’s Sunday Digest, brought to you by Acetech. In this special Q&A issue, we speak to one of the most important figures in B.C.'s innovation economy about new investments in research infrastructure. (Editor's note: This interview style format is just a test. We'll be back to our regular layout later this week.) Have a great day. We'll see you again Thursday.
Five questions for Ravi Kahlon, B.C.’s innovation minister
Last week, the B.C. government announced investments of $30 million into 120 post-secondary research projects through the BC Knowledge Development Fund (BCKDF). Among the eight institutions getting funding, Vancouver Island University and the University of Victoria are receiving a combined $1.9 million.
VIU was awarded $218,823 for three research projects focused on eco-evolutionary dynamics, sustainability, and resilience. UVic was awarded $1,694,873 for 10 research projects that range in focus from biomedical analysis to data, and brain structures to public health priorities, and more.
We spoke to Ravi Kahlon, Minister of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation, about the funding and its role in driving innovation in B.C. This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
William Johnson: The BC Knowledge Development Fund predates you and your government. Why is it important now?
Minister Kahlon: This fund has been around for over 10 years and when something is positive, it transcends governments. We know that now more than ever, we need to invest in the critical research that's going to help us drive the innovations that we want to see to address major challenges – whether that's health-related, climate, or how we grow our food. The knowledge research fund helps us advance all of those. Every one of the projects being funded through this recent announcement is fascinating and could be a story in itself.
To that point, are there any that catch your eye or that you believe the public would be excited about?
There is a brand-new chair for mental health at [University of British Columbia.] I think mental health is a top issue right now for everyone. To be able to support the new chair to take on the challenge of helping us navigate this very challenging period in British Columbia's history is important stuff.
We also have a project at UVic where they’re looking at the sanitation systems, and how we can not only improve designs but also have better health outcomes coming from it. If you've ever travelled to rural communities, know that this is a big, big issue. Plus, as I’ve travelled through Europe and met with different stakeholders, one of the areas that we’re very well-known is for water management and waste management. So to make sure that we are leaders in not only the research space but also in innovation and product – that’s going to be very important.
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One could argue that investing in so many different projects might dilute the impact of the funding. What is the argument for investing in 120 projects versus 10?
We sometimes hear from stakeholders that the funding should be kind of own-the-podium style — where the ones that will be most successful should get the funding. But we don't know if that is the best model. The biggest challenge for us is not having many projects with a little bit of money, but how do we leverage the research happening in one sector in another sector? I think that'll be the opportunity for us: to understand how we connect with projects so that something that's being discovered on one side is being used in other fields.
How does this funding fit into the province’s larger economic goals and innovation ecosystem priorities?
As part of our economic plan, we laid out the lessons and the challenges that we need to take on as a society including how we have both sustainable and clean goals going forward. So if you look at this fund, and when you look at the type of projects that are funded, there's a big alignment with the Centre for Innovation and Clean Energy and with InBC’s goals. In the StrongerBC economic plan, we highlight the opportunities in our life science network. We highlight the opportunities with agritech and regenerative agriculture. Those are some of the projects that are being highlighted here.
In addition, what I really like about this fund is how it's aligned with the federal government. There are no extra hoops to go through. There’s one process and one door. We agree on what's important together, and I think we're going to see more of that as we go forward.
Is there anything else you want to highlight?
The investments we're making are critically important. We need to do more. You can never do enough in this space. And we're going to be looking to explore ways to invest further in this type of innovation. Then we want to find more ways to have spin-off companies that come from this and to get more patents to come out of this research as well. That's some of the work that we're doing behind the scenes and something we're looking to advance in the very near future.
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