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Something from nothing

You meet the nicest people at the Manning Innovation Awards, at the classiest venues. Why, then, are the awards not better known? At Manning events I met two Nobel laureates in physics and heard talks by renewable energy wizard Danielle Fong and Annette Verschuren, CEO of energy storage company NRStor and former president of The Home Depot Canada. All four are from Nova Scotia.

The first Nobelist was Willard Boyle, co-inventor of the charge coupling device used in digital cameras. Years ago I sat opposite him at the old Halifax Club where the first regional trustee Allan Shaw was introducing the concept of these national awards.

Boyle joked that he only had his Grade 12 (as in years of formal schooling), but this included a Phd. The second was Dr. Arthur McDonald, who runs the neutrino detection project SNOLAB. He spoke at the national awards ceremony when it was held at Pier 21 in Halifax a couple of years ago.

Created by the Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation and modeled on the Nobel Prize, the awards are designed to create a culture of innovation in Canada by discovering, encouraging and rewarding innovators of all ages.

Each year the regional chapters nominate innovators — individuals, not organizations. The principal winner gets $100,000. Prizes are awarded in other categories as well.

The regional reception this past spring was held at the new Emera building, next to the Discovery Centre, overlooking the Halifax waterfront. Chris Huskilson, retiring CEO of Emera, spoke about the inherent challenge of innovation.

“Engineers are terrible at dealing with ambiguity and they are not good at problem creation, which is what innovators do,” he said. “One key is to add the entrepreneurial piece to technical education. If an idea has merit, it needs to be developed and supported in the early stages.”

Chris Cowper-Smith is founder and CEO of Spring Loaded Technology, one of three 2018 regional nominees. Their carbon-fibre leg brace can treat sports injuries as well as weak joints. His company is based in Burnside. This includes manufacturing.

Creating a successful start-up is an art that goes well beyond producing a new technology. In 2012 the three founders came together at a program at Dalhousie’s Norman Newman Centre for Entrepreneurship, an interdisciplinary program that blends engineering and business.

Cowper-Smith was in the neuroscience doctoral program, working with stroke patients who had mobility issues.

Local talent

Manning Laureates from Atlantic Canada include Dr. Nancy Mathis, from Fredericton (Executive Director, Wallace McCain Institute), the 2003 Principal Award winner. Of the 300 innovators the Foundation has celebrated in the past 35 years, 25 are from Atlantic Canada. Also:

Robert Niven of CarbonCure Technologies, which allows concrete producers to reuse CO2 during the manufacturing of concrete; Glenn Cox, for The Rupture Seal™ that reduces significant harm to the environment and improves safety; Dr. Patricia Lingley-Pottie and Dr. Patrick McGrath of The Strongest Families Institute, a not-for-profit that provides technology services to families to overcome children’s mental health problems; and William Adams, for SmartSample, a more efficient way to distribute drug samples.

“To get a product to market we specialized in the osteoarthritis patients, but we do see broader applications,” he said. “The reality of businesses is you need to focus on a specific need. You can only do one thing at a time and marketing dollars are limited. Science was a good launch-pad as it is process oriented and a start-up is a series of experiments. Unlike science, in business you need to move ahead with limited data, otherwise you get caught in paralysis by analysis.”

Scott Everett of Eigen Innovations in Fredericton was nominated for its software for the Industrial Internet. Eigen’s patented algorithm leverages big data from industrial equipment to help control devices in manufacturing.

“We built a business case to validate ideas,” he said. “Now we get on airplanes to sell and service clients.”

Mark Woods’ company, Ocean Sonics, based in the rural community of Great Village, N.S., was nominated for underwater hydrophones.

“They measure the health of the sea, extracting knowledge from underwater sources,” he said.

I met David Regan, the Atlantic Canada chapter chair for the awards, at the Pavia café at the top floor of the Halifax Library, an inspiring place to talk about innovation. A senior executive at DHX Media, Regan gets a charge out of his volunteer role. So does John McLennan, chairman of Emera, the trustee for Atlantic Canada.

The criteria are to do something different, have commercial traction and be good for Canada, Regan told me.

“This is more interesting than just starting another business.”

We have a “high hit rate” from Atlantic Canada, he said. “We are over-represented by basement inventors who show that you really can create something from nothing. It’s the Atlantic Canadian ethos, what we need to do.”

Regan is surprised that the Mannings don’t have a higher profile. The regional receptions help. Folks appreciate the reception — the speaker is worthwhile and it’s a great networking event.

“It helps to celebrate our nominees, to spread the word,” he said. “We showcase successful innovators, so people will think, ‘I can do that!’ We need more people to try new things.”

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