Happy Innovation Birthday, Canada!

Canada’s innovations have included high-tech IMAX, but also the snow plough, Canada Dry ginger ale and Pablum

THIS MONTH, January 2017, marks the start of Canada’s 150th year as a nation. During this sesquicentennial year you will see many celebrations of the anniversary — in print, digital media and otherwise — of some aspect of our heritage.

My own contribution to this noble and useful effort of self- congratulation is to remind us of how innovative a people we are when we put our minds to it. This is important, because the success of Canada over the next 150 years will depend even more on our capacity to innovate. Remembering our past successes isn’t just for feeling good; it’s also for inspiring us to step up our innovation activities.

IMAX ‘Edutains’ the World

Speaking of birthdays, right around my tenth my mother took my older brother and me to Expo ’67 in Montréal. I well remember standing in the Canadian pavilion, wowed by a multiscreen, split-image audiovisual presentation. I thought it was very cool. Little did I know that it was a precursor to an equally nifty new filmmaking and presentation system, to be unveiled soon afterwards as IMAX.

Invented by Canadians, the IMAX technology has morphed and evolved over the past 50 years. Today there are several versions of IMAX, including a 3-D variation. And what a great international success it is, with some 1,100 IMAX theatres now in about 70 countries. Who says Canadian technology can’t be exported around the world at scale?

From Ski-Doo to Sea-Doo

One lesson to be learned by tech entrepreneur wannabes from the IMAX case study is that you can never stand still in the innovation business; almost by definition, you have to keep innovating once you start, or you’ll be left behind.

Bombardier Ski-Doos are a good example. They are also a Canadian invention, and again, like IMAX, they have a global market (though if you don’t have snow in your region, you are probably more familiar with the water craft version of the Ski-Doo, namely the Sea-Doo, which also originated in Québec).

Interestingly, though, our winters (replete with ice and snow) have always been good drivers of innovation. In 1869 a Canadian invented the rotary snow plough, a precursor of the snow blower we see today on Canadian streets in winter.

A year later another Canadian adapted this automated snow plough for the front of a train, which would otherwise be impeded by a great snow wall that had buried the tracks. The resulting patent was called the Railway Screw Snow Excavator.

And yet another Canadian invented the modern snow blower in 1925. (While Canadians appreciate snow, we also love inventing useful gadgets that help us move the stuff in high volumes soon after it falls from the sky.)

Products like snow blowers and the Ski-Doo and Sea-Doo must constantly be updated and upgraded, if they hope to remain relevant and competitive. And so I was delighted to hear recently that a group of young entrepreneurs in Québec is working on a new model of Ski-Doo with a drive system that will be entirely electronically powered.

Beyond the positive impact on GHG emissions, there will be the not insignificant benefit of a quiet vehicle. Hikers, cross-country skiers, and others who walk rather than ride through the great Canadian forests will really appreciate this innovative breakthrough in “Made in Canada” electronic drivetrain technology.

Hockey and its Progeny

This phenomenon of constant continuing innovation is nothing new (and the initial invention is just the first step, followed closely by the second, third and fourth, etc., innovation). A good example of this theme in action is our favourite national sport, hockey.

Hockey was “invented” in Canada sometime in the 1800s, apparently on the frozen St. Lawrence River. But we did not stand still on our hockey-invention laurels. No siree! Instead, we  invented various hockey “product extensions” that we now know as numerous products and services.

Examples from the hockey world, you ask? Well, no snickering, please, but in 1927 a Canadian filed a patent application for the jockstrap hard cup (there’s another emblematic Canadian trait: safety in all things). Then, in the 1930s, yet another breakthrough: this time the invention of the table hockey game.

Meanwhile, back on the real ice, in the late 1950s Jacques Plante invents the goalie mask for hockey players. Net-minders in the world’s fastest game — especially when the small, hard disk comes hurtling at the goalie — all owe Plante a huge debt of gratitude. Very often innovation is a boon to human health and to wellbeing in a very direct sense.

Inventors Matter

While our universities, corporations and other organizations play an important role in our innovation strategies and tactics, individual inventors and entrepreneurs matter even more. Consider the prolific technological output of Reginald Fessenden (1866-1932). Born in Canada, he received his education at Bishop’s College School in Lennoxville, Québec. In his day the technology for telephony, radio, television and related products was undergoing rapid and profound transformation, and Fassenden was in the middle of it all.

The final tally of patents filed in Fessenden’s name (solely or with collaborators) numbered about 500. And talk about wide-ranging, eclectic interests; these patents covered an incredibly diverse potpourri of products such as radio, sonar, television, oscillators, incandescent lamps and wireless telegraphy. Over the next 150 years, Canada must produce — or attract from abroad — hundreds, and indeed thousands, of future Fessendens. If we want to maintain a world-class economy and a comfortable life style, innovation must become second nature to many more Canadians. 

Food for Thought ... and Innovation

It is key for Canadians to understand, as we embark on our 150th year of nationhood, that innovation is not restricted to technical products or processes alone. Certainly the technology sector has a huge role to play. For example, Sweden and the UK already earn 33 per cent and 24 per cent, respectively, of their GDP from e-commerce and all other e-oriented activities, while Canada sits at a paltry 10 per cent. We would do a world of good for our country if we could raise our e-economic growth percentage to the British level, let alone the Swedish.

The innovation game, however, will not be played solely on the tech field. Frankly, what the last 150 years has shown us is that innovation can and should be everyone’s business.

Consider peanut butter. One hundred and fifty years ago there was peanut flour, which was produced by a basic milling process much like that for wheat flour. Then, in 1884, Canadian inventor Marcellus Gilmore Edson discovered that if the surface of the peanut-milling blades was heated they would grind peanuts into a paste with a consistency not unlike that of butter (and hence the term “peanut butter”).

Then, in another stroke of genius, Edmore added icing sugar to the peanut paste. And voila, he now had a creamy food product that he could serve to people who couldn’t chew very well, or at all. As a pharmacist (in those days called a chemist), this was Edson’s goal all along.

As for constant innovation, we see that phenomenon play out in the peanut butter sphere par excellence. If you visit peanutbutterlovers.com you will find an American-skewed chart of peanut butter inventions and breakthroughs. It starts in 1890 (after Edson, the Canadian, files his important patent) with Kellogg patenting a process for making peanut butter from steamed peanuts (oh, will innovation never cease!). Later, another key milestone is the introduction of the first crunchy-style peanut butter under the Skippy brand. Later still, in 1955, the predecessor of the Jiffy brand, Jif, is brought to market. All that innovation, all for the glory of peanut butter.

Canada Dry — for a Dry U.S.

Examples of innovation in agri-food abound in Canada, and have so for a long time. After the American revolution, John McIntosh comes to southeastern Ontario from New York state as a United Empire Loyalist. He is a farmer, and one day discovers a new strain of apple in one of his fields — and so begins the glorious history of the McIntosh apple.

In the early 1930s, physicians at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children invented Pablum, a soft cereal for very young children. It was developed as a means by which to get vitamin D into children’s diets, and was a great success. For 25 years the hospital earned a royalty from sales: money that was ploughed back into medical research and yet more innovation.

Then there is the role of luck and fortuitous timing in innovation. In 1890, John McLaughlin created a variation on ginger ale that was less sweet than its competitors and calls it Canada Dry (“dry” denoting less sugar content). (Incidentally, the innovation gene often is hereditary; John McLaughlin was the son of Robert McLaughlin, the founder of the McLaughlin Motor Car firm of Oshawa, a predecessor of General Motors.)

Canada Dry was simply one of a number of ginger ale alternatives. Later, when prohibition came to America, sales of Canada Dry skyrocketed there. Why? Well, given its lower sugar content, when used as a mixer it was more effective at masking the taste of homemade liquor. Such is the role of luck in innovation, though we should all remember, as we begin our country’s 150th year, the old saying, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”

So good luck, Canada, on your next 150 years! Next month I’ll look at fields of technology in which innovation is likely to be most enthralling over the next few decades.

George Takach is a senior partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP and the author of Computer Law.