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Q & A | The legacy of an innovation architect in Atlantic Canada

7 December 2016
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Dr. John McLaughlin is at the forefront of building Atlantic Canada into an entrepreneurial and innovative region. Through his work at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) as President Emeritus, and currently as the Scholar in Residence at UNB’s Centre for Technology, Management and Entrepreneurship, he mentors and inspires the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders and innovators. Read our conversation with the Atlantic Region winner of the 2016 Adam Chowaniec Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by Wolf Blass Wines, below.

Q: John, what’s the driving factor for all the work you do?

I’m from New Brunswick, I have deep roots here… I guess it’s just a pretty deep commitment to try and see my province do better, go further, and to strengthen the quality of life for my people. It’s always been at the heart of my agenda to contribute where I came from. It’s a purposeful life; believing in a cause and constantly striving to make a difference.

Q: What do you believe has been your greatest legacy?

My children and my grandchildren. (But) in the context of this award, it’s contributing to trying to strengthen the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in our province.

Q: You’ve played a big role in advancing innovation in Atlantic Canada. How can we ensure that Canadians have the right skills to contribute to an innovative, creative and entrepreneurial Canada?

We’re on the path; we’re doing a lot of things right these days. We’re learning a lot more about what the Innovation Agenda is all about. We’re learning about how these ecosystems evolve and change. I would say that as a country, we are beginning to figure out how to do this.

Q: What about getting youth involved in innovation?

The young people want to be a part of it… On one end we started a company called 21 INC., a really neat program bringing young entrepreneurs together to go around and engage, and building a platform for young leadership. On the other end, some friends of ours started a business agenda in New Brunswick to see if senior CEOs would serve as mentors for the young people.

Q: For any young entrepreneur reading, what advice would you give to your younger self?

I was driven. I was probably fairly arrogant as a young man. I got off to a fast start. I had terrific mentors, and I probably got ahead of myself. I’m sure I was one of those guys that had lots of answers but didn’t necessarily know what the questions were and I think, like most pontificating professors, I know I talked more than I listened. It took a while to begin to be more attuned to the broader community around me, and other voices and other perspectives.

Q: How can we make innovation and entrepreneurship more inclusive to all Canadians?

Couple of ideas: first, we still tend to be in our silos. The high tech and engineering communities are still removed from social entrepreneurship and the arts community…. We need to think about the fact that these are all deeply inter-related. The rhetoric of change can be blase at times, but the reality is that the level of change is really at the same level as it was after WW2.

Another dimension is that we’re in a country that has a lot of islands of really neat stuff going on. We’re a country between narratives. Somehow we’ve ended up where the discourse is between some big cities, and the implication that whatever happens is going to happen in these big, core communities. The industrial revolution didn’t begin in London, it happened in places like Birmingham… and our change is in Kelowna and it is in Saskatoon. Now we need to knit these communities together and enhance a new narrative for this country.

Q:  How can Canada better support its entrepreneurs to go global?

Its has to be deep in your DNA… You’ve have to get out there. It’s a rich world with a lot of different views.

Q: How can Canada’s Startup Communities be strengthened to support creative and social entrepreneurs from the start-up right through to the scale-up stage?

First, I do think it’s time for us to take stock of what we’ve learned over the last 20 years. It’s hard to put a hard start date on all of this, but 20 years ago  in the dot com era there was a sense that the post-war era and commodity-based era was over and we needed to move on.

The federal government had probably too much focus on academic research. Incubators came along, and networks like yours [Startup Canada]. Twenty years later, it’s time to take stock of what’s working and what is moving and what isn’t. It’s time for a re-validation. The time isn’t bad to think about what’s taken root and what’s being modified.

I was on the board of a company that failed last year. Everything about it was just spectacular. You have a whole slough of problems with scaling up. It didn’t get to the finish line, but ideas came out of it.