Happy fifth! Innovation York marks a milestone birthday

Innovation York turns five this year. To mark the birthday, Sarah Howe, director of York’s innovation office, reflects on the advances made during its formative years.

birthday cake with a 5 candle

Innovation York celebrates its fifth birthday this year

Q. Happy fifth birthday to Innovation York. You were there at the start. Tell us about a pivotal moment at the very beginning.

Sarah Howe, director of Innovation York

Sarah Howe, director of Innovation York

A. When I first began working at York University, in my role as associate director, Intellectual Property & Research Agreements, I recognized that there were service gaps at the University relating to innovation – industry liaison, commercialization and entrepreneurship. And what services there were, weren’t easy to access.

The turning point for Innovation York, when it effectively transformed into the innovation office, was when Dr. Robert Haché came on board as vice-president research and innovation. He gave me the impetus and support that I needed to create the vision for Innovation York. I began to work with him to build something new.

Q. What would you say was the biggest challenge that Innovation York has faced in five years?

A. Resources are always a challenge. In a time when no university is flush with cash, it’s difficult to build a new unit. However, I’ve been able to leverage external funding opportunities and make some key business decisions that have allowed me to increase resources.

I must say, the key is patience. I’ve worked very hard to slowly grow the unit.

The focus on providing high-quality services has led to success stories that, through word of mouth and marketing, go a long way to promoting Innovation York. And with success, we’ve been able to grow the team. It’s like a snowball, gathering momentum and building on its own success.

Q. In what ways has the innovation environment changed since 2012?  

A. The environment has changed significantly since 2012. Where the emphasis used to be on commercialization, it’s grown to include entrepreneurship and industry partnerships. Today, almost every university and college campus has entrepreneurship programs. It’s imperative that Innovation York maintain a very strong entrepreneurship program in order for York to remain competitive.

“The turning point was when Dr. Robert Haché came on board as vice-president research and innovation. He gave me the impetus and support that I needed to create the vision for Innovation York.” – Sarah Howe

A second major change in the environment is that funders are increasingly asking the University to partner with industry. Our industry liaison unit has been extremely active in supporting the development of academic research partnerships at York with all sizes of companies.

A great example is the Advanced Disaster, Emergency & Rapid-Response Simulation project – a $3 million research project under the Ontario Research Fund. Innovation York played a key role in developing the industry partnerships for this project, with IBM and 15 others.

“I feel great pride that I’ve played a key role in building something that has become part of the fabric of York. It’s my passion for Innovation York that drives me to work hard, to dream big and to keep pushing.” – Sarah Howe

Q. What is one success that stands out for you personally?

A. The creation of LaunchYU, the University’s entrepreneurship program. This has driven much of the entrepreneurship culture at York University and has worked with more than 1,000 entrepreneurs.

In creating LaunchYU, I had the chance to lead colleagues from the Faculty of Health, the Lassonde School of Engineering and the Faculty of Science in developing a program and obtaining more than half a million dollars to support that program over two years.

To see that program come to life and become one of the most successful programs funded by the Ontario Centres of Excellence is incredibly rewarding.

Q. How has your role at Innovation York changed over time?

A. My role has certainly become more strategic. Here, I am referring to issues like the branding, strategic marketing, sustainability, industrial and international partnerships.

An overall strategy that integrates services between units is essential in providing high-quality services. The office is striving to integrate these services so that faculty members who approach Innovation York for assistance with an agreement are also introduced to supports to create effective industry and community partnerships or commercialize their intellectual property.

I’ve also been able to shift from providing services to managing the team.

Sarah Howe stands at a podium and speaks to a gathering of startup delegates at the LaunchYU event

Sarah Howe addresses the LaunchYU participants at a recent event hosted by Innovation York

Q. What does Innovation York mean to you personally?

A. I am personally invested in Innovation York. I feel great pride that I’ve played a key role in building something that has become part of the fabric of York University.

It’s my passion for Innovation York that drives me to work hard, to dream big and to keep pushing. York University is a great place to work and has so many exciting stories to tell – I love that Innovation York has a role to play in telling and supporting those stories.

Q. Tell us a never-before-heard story: What is the best thing anyone has ever said about Innovation York, and how did it make you feel?

A. One of the best emails I received came from an entrepreneur who graduated from the LaunchYU program where he received support to grow his company that has developed a technology that acts like a bed sheet and monitors a baby’s vital signs through a fabric sensor.

When asked by an independent party to comment on their experience with Innovation York, he said: “We would gladly speak about the amazing experience we had and have with Innovation York and LaunchYU, and the support we are receiving from the whole organization. It all started from first meeting Innovation York’s Industry Liaison Manager, Cheryl Giblon, [who] guided us the whole way in reaching our goal for an academic/industry collaboration.” He summed up his experience: “There are plenty of opportunities that have opened up and we are looking forward to building a long-term relationship!”

“Innovation York is like a snowball, gathering momentum and building on its own successes.” – Sarah Howe

This makes me very happy and so proud − not only of the work that each team member is undertaking, but of Innovation York as a whole. We have a great team. I am excited to see what the future holds.

To learn more, visit the Innovation York website: www.innovationyork.ca/

By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca