Making 'innovation' more than a buzzword

It’s the biggest buzzword in Canadian business today, and seemingly no entrepreneur – or politician, for that matter – can get through a conversation without uttering it at least once.

But Ottawa businessman Gabe Batstone is well aware that overusing a word can dull its impact, a fate he sincerely hopes this one can avoid.

“Innovation is almost a four-letter word at this point,” the CEO of software firm Contextere said in an interview with OBJ on Tuesday. “It’s a word that’s become to some extent meaningless.”

Mr. Batstone is one of the organizers of the Innovation Machine, a one-day conference at the Westin Ottawa on Wednesday. The event will see representatives from business and government discussing the role of innovation in the country’s economy and examining ways to ensure “innovation” is more than just a word people like to throw around.

“The one thing certainly I’ve noticed is that there’s lots of reports and lots of charts and data (on innovation), and that’s important,” Mr. Batstone said. “But we aren’t maybe spending as much time actually talking about innovation as opposed to everybody presenting their report to someone else.”

The federal Liberals’ much-ballyhooed “innovation agenda” needs to focus on strategies that drive productivity and job creation, he said. The way to do that, he suggested, is by encouraging the growth of stable, profitable businesses that use the latest technologies to create cutting-edge products.

“Every company is a technology company today,” he said. “If you’re not a tech company, then you’re probably in some trouble.”

Mr. Batstone sits on the board of directors of the Canadian American Business Council, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that advocates for the private sector on issues facing both countries.

He said the idea for the conference grew out of a research paper the group presented to the Liberal government last spring calling for more emphasis on research and development and better access to capital for Canadian companies.

After the report was done, Mr. Batstone said he thought the time was right for business and government leaders to sit down together in one room to listen and learn from each other.

“In the end, innovation is what’s going to drive growth, and growth is what drives jobs,” he said. “It’s not the old world of manufacturing. Whereas land was the raw material of the agricultural age and iron was the raw material of the industrial age, in today’s world data is the raw material of this information age.”

Wednesday’s conference includes a number of panel discussions and speeches from industry and government leaders in Canada and the United States. Among the keynote speakers is Robert Atkinson, a Calgary-born economist who heads the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a public policy think-tank based in Washington, D.C.

There will also be a panel discussion featuring executives from organizations including Amazon Web Services and Facebook, while the president of Sony Pictures Imageworks, Randy Lake, will talk about why the visual effects and animation firm moved its headquarters from California to Vancouver in 2014.

“Here’s an example of a U.S. company moving to Canada to do innovation,” Mr. Batstone said. “That’s an interesting perspective that many people don’t know about.”

The conference will conclude with a roundtable discussion featuring Ivan Houlihan, vice-president of the Industrial Development Agency of Ireland’s Boston office. The agency’s success in luring foreign direct investment to Ireland has helped fuel that country’s rise as a technology hub.

About 200 people are registered to attend, and Mr. Batstone hopes they come away a little more enlightened about what innovation really means.

“I’m very proud of the presenters that we were able to get up here,” Mr. Batstone said. “It’s a mix of really great Canadian leaders but also the highest levels of large U.S. organizations.”