Fostering Canada’s Innovation Ecosystem

The rules have changed as Canada shifts to an ideas economy. How can we lay the groundwork for even bigger and better steps forward?

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Bilal Khan, Founding CEO of OneEleven Innovation Hub, spends a lot of time thinking about Canada’s move from a resource-based economy to an ideas economy: how the rules have changed and the actions needed to foster innovation.

“I believe innovation economies are rooted specifically in innovation ecosystems,” says Khan. “If you don’t build those ecosystems effectively with the right ingredients, the right people, the right stakeholders, then none of it works.”

To get there, Khan believes there is a need to push past lofty ideas and interesting thought experiments when discussing public policy. It’s not enough to talk about where to go, because an actual action plan is needed.

“What I became passionate about was around taking public policy and this idea of, how do we transition to the new economy, and predicate that in the physical?” says Khan. “How do we specifically build an institution or an organization? A set of networks and relationships that actually help our economy evolve?”

One ingredient that is critical is basic science and research. The freedom to chase ideas and knowledge without any particular commercial interest in mind, sometimes over decades, is what drives the big innovations that can transform industries and create jobs.

“Research and basic sciences is the infrastructure to commercialization, without which there’s no chance and there’s no opportunity for us to be able to build commercial opportunities or businesses on top of that science,” says Khan.

When an entrepreneur finds a way to build on that work with a commercial product and a strong business model, that creates jobs and wealth, all while taking homegrown ideas and making a global impact.

“When we think of artificial intelligence, for example, we’re talking about decades of investments that we’ve made as a region that really never paid off, until now! And geez, wow, we’ve now become a world player in one of the most disruptive, most meaningful economic opportunities of our generation,” says Khan.

Indeed, the Canadian government poured three decades of resources into artificial intelligence with marginal returns for much of that time. But Canada is now a leader because it’s where much of the pioneering work was done.

Laying down that theoretical groundwork finally paid off once computing power finally caught up.

“We made decades of investments in our academic institutions and our researchers and our scientists, and gave them the freedom to be able to go after basic research and basic science at its core. Without which, I don’t believe you can even have the opportunity that we’re sitting at today,” says Khan.

That opportunity for wealth and growth have emerged from decades of work, but by nurturing the seeds of innovation, Canada is now harvesting the rewards as a hub for development and commercialization in artificial intelligence. The hope is that the legacy of investment in this type of innovation ecosystem continues to keep our economy growing.

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Bilal Khan is the founding Chief Executive Officer of OneEleven, a scaleup innovation hub focused on helping Canada’s most promising, high-growth startups build their businesses and scale their operations. OneEleven is a unique partnership between industry, venture capital, government and academia with the objective of making Canada a global leader in the innovation economy. 

Prior to joining OneEleven, Khan was the Director of Policy and Senior Advisor to three consecutive Minister’s of Economic Development, Trade and Innovation for the Province of Ontario where he was responsible for establishing and implementing policies to help advance Ontario’s economy. A lawyer, Khan spent his early career practicing corporate and securities law as Legal Counsel to Russell Investments, a U.S. based multi-asset manager (acquired by the London Stock Exchange Group). Bilal has also worked at the United Nations at the Centre for Business and Human Rights. 

Khan is a Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto where he both teaches and advises on innovation policy and is also a Fellow at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Ryerson University. 

Khan sits on the Board of Directors of Toronto Global, TVO, and the Canadian Club of Toronto, the Advisory Boards of IBM’s I^3 Project (an IBM Watson initiative), the Canadian Innovation Exchange (CIX), and formerly on the Business Advisory Group of the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan (ORPP). 

Khan is an alumnus of Singularity University at the NASA Ames Research Centre in the area of exponential technologies and holds a JD from the University of Windsor, Faculty of Law. Khan was recently named one of Canada’s Top 40 Under 40. 

Research2Reality is a groundbreaking initiative that shines a spotlight on world-class scientists engaged in innovative and leading edge research in Canada. Our video series is continually updated to celebrate the success of researchers who are establishing the new frontiers of science and to share the impact of their discoveries with the public.