Have you ever wondered what qualities make up a true innovator? How do they approach problems and create new solutions? Is it nature or nurture?

On this episode of Disruptors, an RBC Podcast, host John Stackhouse goes inside the minds of three Canadian innovators, all recipients of this year’s Governor General Innovation Awards: Gary Agnew, Co-founder and CEO, Ideon Technologies; Paulette Senior, CEO and President, Canadian Women’s Foundation; and Dr. Mark Stradiotto, Professor of Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry at Dalhousie University.

Innovation requires pushing the envelope until the end goal is reached. Our guests share how to foster an innovative culture and safe environment to achieve new ways of doing business. As we found out, innovation is within all of us, but the environment needs to be created to support it.

Show notes:

For more information about the Governor General Innovation awards, click here.

For information on what’s happening at Canadian Innovation Week, check out their website.

Speaker 1 [00:00:01] Hi, it’s John here. It’s no secret that innovators are wired differently. I recently attended the premiere of BlackBerry, the movie. BlackBerry is, of course, one of Canada’s most beloved stories of innovation. Even though it didn’t end well and the movie does a really nice job of capturing the spirit of innovation, whether it’s the Mike Lazaridis character speaking from the heart about his desire to build the world’s best phone, That’s why you would come to work for BlackBerry or the Jim Balsillie character flying all over North America and the world to sell that phone. Innovation is about drive. It’s about passion. It’s also about corporate partners. It’s about a supply chain, and it’s really about talent constantly building and adding to that team. As BlackBerry did so well and then struggled in its final years. But my big takeaway from BlackBerry, the story, as well as the movie, is the power of assumptions and how all of us innovating in our daily lives or in our work need to check and challenge our assumptions pretty much every day. Because even though we may have invented the best phone for today, tomorrow in innovation is going to be another day. As Professor Danny President told us last year on disruptors, innovation is not just about invention. Invention is the act of coming up with new ideas. Innovation is the act of taking ideas and making them into new products and services. In other words, making things better, faster, cheaper. You know, it may be the Canadian way that we have a lot of inventions under our belt, everything from green garbage bags to the two-way radio to the pacemaker. But we have a much leaner reputation when it comes to innovation. And that’s exactly where the Governor General Innovation Awards began. It was created by former Governor General David Johnston and that great Canadian innovator, Tom Jenkins. I’ve been on the selection committee a few times now, and it’s always inspiring to see nominations from every region and every sector and to see that innovation really is a Canadian pursuit. But what makes a great innovator? What goes into forming and building great teams of innovators? And can Canada truly be that innovation nation? This is Disruptors, an RBC podcast. I’m John Stackhouse. It’s Canadian Innovation Week. And on today’s show, we’re talking about that buzzword innovation and what makes an innovator. Are you born with it? Can it be taught? Is it nature or nurture? We’ll hear from three of this year’s six Governor-General Innovation Awards winners spanning pharmaceuticals, mining, even social justice. Proving that innovation takes place everywhere. Joining me first is Garry Agnew, co-founder and CEO of Iodine Technologies, a BC based mining technology firm that provides valuable intelligence to those who explore beneath sometimes way beneath the Earth’s surface. Gary, welcome to Disruptors.

Speaker 2 [00:03:11] Hi, John. Thanks very much for having me on the show.

Speaker 1 [00:03:13] It’s great to have you, especially talking about innovation and what makes an innovator. And I want to start with the intersection of mining and technology, and that intersection is innovation. Mining probably doesn’t spring to the top of the mind when people hear the word innovation. Maybe give us a sense of the DNA of a miner and the DNA of a techie and how those can intersect.

Speaker 2 [00:03:37] Historically, mining has been thought of as one of the late adopters of technology, and certainly there’s some good evidence as to why that’s the case. You know, I would, John, in the last five or more years, the acceleration of innovation in mining is absolutely breathtaking. And because there’s a long history, I don’t think the public truly appreciates the amount of innovation that’s happening in mining today. And just to give you an example, there’s a lot of talk about autonomous vehicles on the road. Autonomous vehicles have been running in mining probably for over a decade now. And so the mining industry is innovating and we’re excited to be part of what I see as a huge acceleration in innovation in this sector.

Speaker 1 [00:04:15] Give us a quick sense of what Adyen does.

Speaker 2 [00:04:17] Yeah, we use the energy from supernova explosions in space in the form of cosmic rays, and we use that energy to image down to a kilometer beneath the surface to help our clients identify areas of mineralization.

Speaker 1 [00:04:31] That’s awesome. What have been the big hurdles in making that happen?

Speaker 2 [00:04:36] Certainly over the last decade, we have had to repeatedly develop world firsts in order to bring the technology itself to market. But the technology and science is only one part of the equation. Partnering with the world’s largest mining companies, helping really understand their problems, and then being able to apply technology and change management with the client to be able to actually get the outcomes they’re searching for. What we don’t want to be in the business of is just delivering technology. We deliver technology to help improve and transform the customer’s business. And so that’s really a lot of the work is non technological work, if you like.

Speaker 1 [00:05:14] But we’ve talked a lot over the years on this podcast about how sometimes technology is easy, people are hard. Give us a sense of that change management challenge on the people front and how you help miners who have centuries old traditions and practices that work really well in some of the world’s harshest conditions, regardless of the economic conditions? How do you help them change?

Speaker 2 [00:05:37] Yeah, I remember a client for many years ago using the phrase with me that it’s very difficult to be a prophet in your own land. And what I think he meant by that is sometimes it takes an external force or body to actually help stimulate and be a catalyst for innovation with inside the company. Now, because we provide a breakthrough technology that really gives the customer a step or a change in terms their ability to understand the subsurface by delivering that technology, it opens up a whole array of possibilities for the mining company. And so, yeah, it’s what the technology makes possible is what excites us. Obviously the science is pretty cool, but the science in itself is not with the values that.

Speaker 1 [00:06:21] Confidence can also be a key word in innovation, and innovators tend to be very confident because they’re taking on those great unknowns. I wonder if you can give us a sense of how you maintained confidence in what you were doing, even when it wasn’t proven?

Speaker 2 [00:06:37] Yeah, I guess we’ve been told many times over the last decade that it’s impossible. You will never do it. And in actual fact, in our facility up on the wall is a Nelson Mandela quote. And that quote is it always seems impossible until it’s done. And what we try to embed in our organization, John, is this sentiment that not giving up is actually what gets you to breakthrough innovations because there’s hundreds and thousands of problems we have to solve along the way. And so the moment when you’re just about to give up, when you push and push again, suddenly there’s this amazing breakthrough on the other side that seemed impossible only a few steps before.

Speaker 1 [00:07:16] I love that Nelson Mandela, quote, Innovators tend to love the word impossible. It’s the great idea. I wonder if you can give us a bit more sense of how you’ve built a culture for innovation in ideas.

Speaker 2 [00:07:28] Yeah, well, it very much started with our vision, mission and values. One of our values is informed by industry, driven by science. Another one of our values is boldly ambitious, exceptionally human. And what we’re trying to characterize in that, that kind of double edged sword. And each value is creating a tension, but ensuring this science is leveraged to solve real world problems for the industry and being boldly ambitious because our customers needed us to be. But being exceptionally human in the way we show up without arrogance and a partner prepared to roll up our sleeves and really lean into solving the problem with the client. So yeah, a definition is the start of creating a great culture and that of course it’s in in every act that you do as a leader, in every communication that you have with the team engagement with customer. People pay more attention to what you do than what you say as a leader. You’re being assessed every single day in terms of the actions and the decisions you make.

Speaker 1 [00:08:25] Those are really great insights, Gary. People often look to the leader as being kind of the lead dog of innovation, and yet innovation is also a team sport or a pack activity with everyone playing different roles. How do you pull out the really innovative people in a team and also pull out the innovative spirit that exists in everyone, regardless of who they are or what they do?

Speaker 2 [00:08:51] Yeah, and just to clarify, I absolutely do not see myself as the chief innovator and far from it. And my role is much more about creating the environment, hiring the very best talent, creating the culture that supports innovation. And then my job is to ask the right questions and to encourage the team and challenge the team to take on difficult problems. And I CTO Doug shooting is really a remarkable innovator, a great scientist and technologist. And so Doug really takes the credit for the technological innovation that happens at IBM and of course with huge support from the cast of the Alien team.

Speaker 1 [00:09:31] Gary, I feel like you’ve already given us a masterclass in both leadership and innovation. As we wrap up, I wonder if you can share with our listeners, regardless of the sector there and your best advice for being the best innovator that we can all be?

Speaker 2 [00:09:47] Yeah, I would start with leadership. The words have to be aligned with the actions. If you say one thing and do something different, people see through it very, very quickly. It’s inauthentic. And so really, as a leader, be focused on being your authentic self, creating an environment where people want to come and do great work and then creating a culture that is about never giving up, a culture that relishes those problems, wants to get after those problems and get the other side of those problems. For me, that’s the crux of what innovation is about.

Speaker 1 [00:10:18] Keep an open door to problems. That’s part of the recipe of any great innovator. Gary, this has been a great conversation. Thanks for being on disruptors.

Speaker 2 [00:10:25] Thank you very much, John. Enjoyed the show.

Speaker 1 [00:10:29] Up next, I’d like to welcome a social justice innovator helping victims of domestic abuse. In 2020, the Canadian Women’s Foundation launched the signal for help to help abuse survivors in the pandemic spike of gendered violence. The hand gesture innovation is simple Talk the sum into the palm and cover the thumb with fingers to ask for help without leaving a digital trace. It has saved lives and continues to do so every day all around the world. Joining me now is the president and CEO of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, Paulette Senior. Paulette, welcome to Disruptors.

Speaker 3 [00:11:08] Thank you, John. Great to join you today.

Speaker 1 [00:11:10] Before we get started, I want to extend a sincere thank you for all the incredibly important work you do to fight domestic violence and supporting women, particularly through difficult. Times in their lives.

Speaker 3 [00:11:22] Thank you, John. It’s been a life long journey on this path to supporting women to live their full lives without the barrier and the devastating experience of gender based violence.

Speaker 1 [00:11:36] Well, I’m looking forward to learning more from you about innovation, particularly social innovation, because too often when we hear the word innovation, our minds go to technology, but it’s also about human behavior and how do we innovate our ways to being better people, better humans. Maybe you can start by sharing a bit about the COVID 19 pandemic. There were increased levels, shocking levels of domestic violence, particularly during the lockdown. I’m curious how the idea of creating a secret hand signal came about.

Speaker 3 [00:12:06] Well, as you said, when the pandemic came about, we were seeing and hearing from frontline gender based organizations, shelters, who were hearing loud and clear that they were seeing very eerie increase in numbers. And so we were really thinking, what is it that we can do to address this? And so we immediately started raising more money. And we were also approached by your PR firm who also wanted to do something based on what they were hearing in their community together. We came up with a signal for help, this hand gesture, something that seemed innocuous, something that couldn’t be traced by their partners because their partners were home with them as well. And so we needed to figure out how do we keep women safe in the circumstances we’re in, where everyone had to be paying attention and listening to the order to stay home. And so we put our heads together and came up with something that could work in this sort of new reality we’re all living in.

Speaker 1 [00:13:08] And it’s clearly had a very positive, profound impact. Some people hearing this, though, may think a hand gesture. How is that innovation?

Speaker 3 [00:13:18] That’s true because there are many hand gestures in the society that we live in, some that are good and some, you know, will tell you different messages. And so we had to kind of figure out something that is not currently being used. That doesn’t mean something else in another language or in another culture. So we did the research and that was an important part of it because we didn’t want to send confusing messages to society or to different cultures. And so we were able to kind of land on something that seemed innocuous but had a serious meaning behind it and was translatable across languages and cultures and societies. And also, Don, it was also the opportunity to send a message that was clear yet simple, which is I need help. It had to be that simple. It had to be that clear.

Speaker 1 [00:14:07] And innovation is often most effective when it is simple. I wonder if I can focus a bit on management approaches, especially in leading a large, high performing organization and how you think about innovation as a leader, setting the aspiration and the ambition that creates the right pathways for your teams to do this kind of innovation.

Speaker 3 [00:14:28] Well, I’m a strong believer in diversity. I’m a strong believer in collaborative discussions, debates, dialogs around issues, having the right people at the table, but also with a deep understanding of what it is we’re trying to address. And so we had all of that. We also had a strong desire and passion to not just make a difference, but to have an impact. We know gender-based violence steals lives in this country and around the world. So how can we develop something that’s going to have an impact that’s going to be accepted by the wider public? And so with the diversity of voices and understanding and perspectives that people brought to the table, it’s helped us to really create something that had behind it a ton of meaning and a ton of expertise upfront. It was simple and it was clear.

Speaker 1 [00:15:35] As a leader, how do you take that inclusive and diverse culture and also make it one that is focused on execution? You’ve talked in very inspiring ways about how you bring people together, and that usually leads to better ideas than anyone would have, certainly on their own. Then there’s the challenge of executing, getting to market. How do you balance that?

Speaker 3 [00:15:55] Well, for me, being a leader is not necessarily about having most or all or even any of the answers. I truly have a deep belief that we actually have the solutions for the problems we face because we are the ones that cause them in the first place. Right? And then the execution part to me is a bit of an insistence. You know, execution has to happen because the man that we’re charged with is about addressing something that is taking people’s lives. And so I work with some really great people who come to the table with the same passion and understanding, but also want to make a significant difference now. And I think that in itself kind of pushed us to not just create and be proud of something we’ve created, but to implement it in a way that actually was living in the world.

Speaker 1 [00:16:51] We’re all looking for great people. I’m curious how you make the Canadian Women’s Foundation a destination for the great people that you want to continue to add to your team?

Speaker 3 [00:17:01] I do my best to lead from a place of authenticity, from a place of unapologetic love and passion for this work, from a place of really believing that change is possible.

Speaker 1 [00:17:19] Those are really inspiring words. I’m curious, Paulette, just since we moved to close for the segment, what’s next for the foundation? What’s your next great challenge?

Speaker 3 [00:17:27] I love this question because I’m excited about the future. I see nothing but growth. I see nothing but the ability to speak to more people, to influence more people, to bring more people to the table, and for us to actually have the impact that we desire. And in order to do that, we have to keep innovating. We have to keep thinking about how can we reach the public in a different way than the usual. Because preaching doesn’t do it right. I’m convinced that people are essentially good and essentially want to see change and essentially want to see justice. And it’s our responsibility in terms of the work that we’re doing to support gender justice, to end gender based violence, to tap into that desire of people.

Speaker 1 [00:18:20] I can’t wait to see all that. You’re going to continue to build. Pull out. Congratulations on all that you’ve done. And thank you for being on disruptors.

Speaker 3 [00:18:28] Thank you so much for having me.

Speaker 1 [00:18:36] Welcome back. Most of us have taken some type of prescription medication in our lives. Joining me now is a Canadian chemist responsible for inventing a key component of relevance to the pharmaceutical industry, which has been commercialized and used around the world. Dr. Marc Strada Otto is the Arthur B MacDonald research chair and the Alexander MacLeod, Professor of Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry at Dalhousie University. Mark, welcome to Disruptors.

Speaker 4: Thanks for having me.

Speaker 1: You and your team at Dal, created the active ingredient in medicine, and here I am, way out of my comfort zone called Delphos, which stands for Dalhousie Phosphine. I wonder if you can just explain it to all of us non-chemists listening what that is and why it’s important.

Speaker 4: Sure. When you take a medicine, it has an active pharmaceutical ingredient and it has filler and binder and other things. What we’ve developed are catalysts that allow the pharmaceutical industry to assemble those active pharmaceutical ingredients. So if you like, we provide them with a tool that they use to build their drug molecules faster, cleaner, more efficiently. So where the hammer were, not the house itself. There’s no house without a hammer. Thank you for that explanation. Your work was seen, as I understand it, as a bit of an unconventional approach. We’re talking on this episode about innovation, and innovators tend to follow unconventional approaches. How did you navigate this course, which maybe some of your peers were questioning in the early days? It’s a complex interplay, to be fair of a variety of factors. We come from a different sort of branch of chemistry than is conventionally applied in this area. So we bring just a different vantage point altogether. Also, one of the big innovations that you’re referring to and thank you for your kind words, was the idea of going from palladium based catalysts to nickel based catalysts. And the assumptions that many made is that to do that you would have to sort of trick nickel into doing this work properly. And we thought, well, no, we we’re not going to take that approach. We’re going to take a different approach where we design what are called ligands that connect to the metals. I know I’m skipping over a lot of chemistry here, but having a ligand approach allowed us to approach the challenging problem in an innovative way that from our perspective looked obvious but from other perspectives looked that it wouldn’t be feasible. And I guess we’re just lucky that we stuck to our guns.

Speaker 1: One of the questions I like to ask innovators is Did you see the end state? Did you have that goal in your mind’s eye and you just had to forge a path to get there? Or did you find the end state by forging a path that got you eventually into that discovery?

Speaker 4: That’s a perfectly framed question, in fact, because science often is a collection of both of those things. And so we had done a lot of successful work in other areas that had sort of prepared us for what solutions were going to be needed for these other larger problems. And so you definitely need some preparation, a bit of luck, a bit of timing. But we certainly did see how our approach, if successful, would deliver on solutions to those problems. I suspect one of the critical ingredients in that, it’s nice to say preparation plus luck plus timing, but there’s also the ecosystem that you’re in and particularly a large public research university.

Speaker 1: I’m wondering, Mark, what it is about the atmosphere of a university that makes it ripe for innovation?

Speaker 4: You’re exactly right. This is not done in isolation. The colleagues that I have the privilege of working with, both in the university and around the world, in the pharmaceutical industry, them sharing their problems with me helps me understand how we can make impactful solutions. And then the key factor is attracting the best and the brightest people to join my team. I’m not even the quarterback. I’m the coach. So I would say the people I work with have made this entirely possible, even though I might be the one who had the big sort of top down vision of how it might work.

Speaker 1: Tell us a bit about how you’ve evolved as an innovator and leader. I suspect you’re a player, coach. You’re as busy in the lab as you are sort of building the lab and building the team.

Speaker 4: So I’m in my 22nd year at Dalhousie University as a professor. And when I started, you’re absolutely right, I was the player coach, I was the quarterback, I was the waterboy, I was everybody. And as you grow, it’s like a small company. You grow and then eventually you get to the size where you’re no longer benefiting the group. By being in the lab, you’re better to be working with industrial collaborators, you know, forging new areas, seeking funding, seeking investment. The truth is the people who work with me in the lab are better scientists experimentally than I am, so I’d rather leave them to do the work at the high level that they do in terms of the. Direction in the focus evolution. It was about ten or 15 years ago. We developed some catalysts for a different reaction. To make a very long story short, it resulted in some interesting academic publications and some interesting chemistry. But in the end we realized it lacked practicality to then be translated into the real world. And so that evolution might be the most important evolution that’s happened to me going from sort of academically interesting, but in practical to academically interesting. But with the requirement that we’re only going to go down roads that we know we can deliver big impact within, if that makes sense.

Speaker 4: That’s such an interesting challenge that so many innovators are up against in terms of letting their team just go off on those exploratory journeys. Literally this morning I had a meeting with an industrial partner and we were trying to strike that balance because they too want the student or postdoctoral scientist to be excited and explore. But they also want them to solve the problems they’re looking for. So I proactively frame their time to protect both. That certainly is not the right set up to either have them only doing the dreamy work or having them just solve a company problem without excitement. Both end up being typically merged in the best projects.

Speaker 1: Mark, you’ve got such a great story and good on Dalhousie for being part of that. I wonder as we move towards close, if you can share some insights on what Canada has and what we need to be the nation of innovators that we know we are, but that we can truly be for the world. This is Innovation Week in Canada. Part of Innovation Week is the Governor General’s Innovation Awards, and you’re being recognized for that. So congratulations to you and your team. But just as we wrap up, Mark, what should Canadians be thinking about in terms of what we have and what we need to come to grips with?

Speaker 4: Well, thank you for this opportunity. I mean, the most precious resource that I think we have is the outstanding trainees that we generate in our not just university system, but in our entire sort of research ecosystem as an evolution from the university into the private sector, etc.. My personal story started in a very basic research setting, funded by basic research programing from the government. Things like the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Discovery Grants. These are very, very important funding sources. That’s the money where you can just dream, create, be risky, try to come up with weird ideas. And it’s those ideas that ended up germinating into this multitude of industrially connected projects that are also funded in many cases by search through other programing. So we need fundamental science research, applied science research, and then the tools to do that work. I really couldn’t envision that the Delphi system would have evolved had I not been supported from a fundamental research point at the start of my career.

Speaker 1: We need the whole country to get behind innovators like you. And that’s a great point maybe to wrap up on. Mark, this has been a great conversation. Thanks so much for your time today. Oh, thank you very much. It’s been fun. My guests today have been Garry Agnew, Paulette Senior and Dr. Mark Straley, OTO. I’d like to thank them each for spending the time with us. Those were incredible conversations I’ve learned so much. Among the points I’ve jotted down. Don’t just think of ideas as being innovation. You’ve got to test and retest, aim for impact. We all want to have impact in the work that we’re doing. That’s how you attract great people, that make great teams. But it’s also what drives innovation. And then finally, I loved what Mark had to say about being part of a bigger ecosystem. Every innovator needs to see themselves as part of something bigger, whether it’s a corporate value chain, as we heard from the mining sector or a coalition of NGOs, as we heard from Paul that we’re a university, or you’re the community that you work in, Innovation doesn’t take place in a lab. Sure, it needs labs, it needs offices, it needs garages. But all those garages and labs and offices are part of bigger communities, physical and virtual. And Canada, as we’ve heard for decades, is a community of communities. So let’s keep that going because that’s what’s going to drive innovation right through the 2020s and beyond. I’m John Stackhouse. This is Disruptors, an RBC podcast. Join us next time as we dig into another topic. How can Canada’s building sector, whether it’s homes or shopping malls, office towers or industrial buildings, forge a better path to net zero? Talk to you soon.

Speaker 3 [00:28:26] Disruptors, an RBC Podcast is created by the RBC Thought Leadership Group and does not constitute a recommendation for any organization, product or service. For more Disruptors content, visit RBC dot com slash disruptors and leave us a five star rating if you like our show.

Jennifer Marron produces "Disruptors, an RBC podcast". Prior to joining RBC, Jennifer spent five years as Community Manager at MaRS Discovery District and cultivated a large network of industry leaders, entrepreneurs and partners to support the Canadian startup ecosystem. Her writing has appeared in The National Post, Financial Post, Techvibes, IT Business, CWTA Magazine and Procter & Gamble’s magazine, Rouge. Follow her on Twitter @J_Marron.

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