Inquiring About Innovation with Matthias Ruth

An interview with Matthias Ruth, Vice-President (Research and Innovation).

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It’s not every day you change your name.

Matthias Ruth had already been at the University of Alberta for 18 months as Vice-President (Research) when the General Faculties Council approved the name change for the Research portfolio to Research and Innovation, effective October 1. The change is an important one.

We sat down with Matthias, now Vice-President (Research and Innovation), to talk about his move to the U of A, the importance of acknowledging innovation at the U of A, and what’s in store for the future of the portfolio.

How has your time been at the U of A so far?

I love it here. Every day there are new challenges and it keeps me on my toes. Every day I learn something new, whether it’s from the faculty, the students, or from people outside of the university. It’s all really exciting.

What have been some highlights of your work as Vice-President (Research), now Vice-President (Research and Innovation)?

It’s been a highlight to recognize how much excitement there is in the research community to elevate what we do at the U of A to the next level. Coming into an environment like this is an exciting challenge, because no one’s sitting back and thinking, “We’re doing as well as we could.” We’re thinking about how we can position ourselves in regards to our signature areas, commercialization, things that have been on people’s radar. We have the right ingredients: an appetite for this work, and pressure to change. I’ve seen institutions where there’s pressure to change but no ability to respond to it, and institutions that had all the ingredients to change but no real reason to do anything. We’re at a sweet spot. It’s a good environment to be in.

Can you tell us more the portfolio name change?

I see innovation as part of a much needed, more seamless integration of the research mission of the university with its education and engagement mission. How do we connect to the rest of the world? A considerable part of this is how we bring knowledge from the university into the marketplace to solve health problems, environmental problems, and whatever else. While I assume it was always implicit, the university has never really articulated it as much as we could have. We paid attention to it when we could. There was a lot happening at the faculty and departmental level, but now’s a good time to crystalize all of this, bring it together, elevate it, and become much more effective. That means letting our research drive changes in the public, private and non-profit sectors, and letting the experiences that come from that drive our research.

Can you give us an introduction to Deborah James and her new role in your portfolio as Associate Vice-President (Innovation)?

Deborah will help us get better connected on the innovation and commercialization front within the university. There’s a lot happening in the faculties, but the communication is somewhat ad hoc. I suspect that we duplicate some efforts, and in other cases we don’t dedicate the right resources to the things we could be doing. As a university, we can become more coordinated and deliver to faculty, staff, and students services that make them more effective in this enterprise space. Then we can work on our external connections to the city and to other universities and businesses here in Canada and around the globe. Part of Deborah’s mandate is to cultivate those relationships.

What opportunities do you see for the university?

We leave it somewhat to chance that the great ideas that students, faculty and staff have will make it out into the world. We need to get much better at harnessing their capabilities and their curiosities. We need to create an environment where we all feel like we can take risks. We need to be entrepreneurial — try things out, be willing to fail and then try again, all with an eye towards the contributions we can make for the public good.

Internationally, there are also opportunities and challenges. We are a global university. We want to be perceived as a global innovation space. I don’t think that we’ve gotten the attention we should have just yet from the investor communities and other universities globally, and we need to step up our game. Yet, together we can help solve some of the global challenges humanity faces here and around the world.

You have a varied background of academic and administrative experience — why do you find value in a multi-disciplinary approach?

As an academic, I’ve always been interested in solving real-world problems. I started as an economist but, like every discipline, it has a very particular view. So for a more multidisciplinary approach, I started studying physics and biology, and one thing led to another. I was a professor of economics, civil engineering, geography, public policy, and urban affairs. It’s always about solving problems. It is not about learning one tool to use; it is about thinking about big challenges that society faces, and all the possible approaches to that.

In my case, it was thinking about energy and the environment. I thought, if these are the challenges, what are the tools that I need? Economics tells me something, but that’s not the whole story. If I want to deal with urban response to climate change, I have to know something about urban infrastructure, so I should know about engineering. That shaped my view of interdisciplinary studies.

What intrigued you about Edmonton and the U of A?

The nerdy answer is the strategic plan. For the Public Good is what I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve done it at other institutions to various degrees, but now I have a different platform. It’s built into the DNA of the U of A. The broader answer is that the U of A has top-notch researchers, top-notch degree programs, and an environment to collaborate across campus and with others in the city, province, across Canada, and globally.