The Trouble with Canada’s Innovation Policy


In October 2017, in my capacity as Chair to the Conference Board of Canada Council on Innovation and Commercialization, I participated in a Council meeting held in Montreal. During this meeting we examined how innovation performance is measured in Canada and how innovation leadership needs to be focused on demonstrating value.

We had an opportunity to look at government policy and practice for funding innovation in businesses conducting product development and commercialization activities. Decisions countries make on funding availability, what is funded, and how these programs are managed have direct impact on the performance we see in our national innovation ecosystem.

Establishing Eligibility for Research Funding: Technology Funding Levels

In Canada, one aspect of our innovation ecosystem is that we use TRLs—Technology Readiness Levels—as the key measurement to establish eligibility for research funding. This practice serves to define project scope, progress and resource requirements by categorizing product development stages across industries on a 9-point scale. When applying for government sponsored funding, businesses make applications based on their Technology Readiness Levels. Policy decisions influence funding available at each TRL.

The Innovation "Valley of Death" in Canada

In our exploration of this topic, we learned that funding is limited—or just not available—to organizations in Technology Readiness Levels 4 and 5, where innovation moves from applied research to experimental development. In fact, this place on the TRL scale is referred to as the “Valley of Death”; without a means to cross this funding chasm, many viable products can’t make it to commercialization.

Commercialization is one area where we are having challenges as a nation. A critical component of innovation research and development is to make sure we can apply that research to create value. Without commercialization we can’t create value and our economy doesn’t benefit.

Additional Challenges to Innovation in Canada

Presentations to the Council meeting looked at our innovation policy and helped to bring other issues to light. Consider these facts:

  • Canada lags other countries in number of patents, trademarks and industrial designs filed.
  • What Canada considers “research” isn’t sufficient to compete globally.
  • While Canada has over 160 government funding programs, it’s difficult to know to whom the funding is targeted or what TRL or activity each funds.
  • While Canada is a world leader in educational attainment, our education system is detached from research and innovation. Innovation is a national issue, while education is provincial. Research shows that countries that take a national view on education and innovation achieve greater innovation performance.
  • Our workplace skills do not mirror the skills required for innovation.

Some Positive Innovation News

It’s not all doom and gloom though. While policy decisions on funding availability and how we promote innovation in Canada influence current innovation performance, the federal government has initiated change through an Innovation Agenda for Canada – Innovation for a Better Canada. And, the Conference Board of Canada’s Centre for Business Innovation continues to conduct research to shed light on how to improve firm-level innovation in Canada and to influence government policy decisions.

Learn more…

Need help assessing your eligibility for government funding for your innovation research and development? Talk to our colleagues at RDP Associates.

Are you personally primed for innovation? Find out by downloading the Innovation Skills Profile.

How is your organization primed for innovation? We can help you understand where you are on the innovation map and to assess your next steps through proven research-based diagnostic tools. We do this through our partnerships with the developers of the OGI - Organizational Growth Indicator and the CViG - Competitive Value Innovation Guide assessment

Need help developing capacity and skills for innovation? We develop innovation skills in your workplace using our Creativity and Innovation Training and our Innovation Services and Programs.


With thanks to Chris Mathis, Ken Doyle, and Robert Luke who presented their experience on innovation funding and measures.

What are Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) retrieved 2017-12-16 from



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