A group of business people and academics has started counting Canadian "acts of innovation" in the hopes that it will motivate creativity and change among businesses across the country.

"We're looking for … any type of change, any type of action that comes forward," said Ted Maulucci, chief information officer for the Tridel, who co-launched the "one million acts of innovation" project. "Anything where people are actively doing something to improve. And part of what we're trying to with that is make it a simple counting."

Maulucci said he Taimour Zaman, director at the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance, were inspired to launch the project by Canada's feeble innovation rankings. He cited the Conference Board of Canada's 2009 "How Canada Performs" report card, which gave Canada a "D" grade and ranked it 14 out of 17 nations on innovation. It based the grade and ranking on indicators such as its rate of patent filing and  the country's export market share in sectors such as electronics and pharmaceuticals.

"The Canadian standard of living is at risk unless we innovate," he said. "The rest of the world increasing how much it can do per person and Canada's not keeping up."

The project began counting acts of innovation this summer and had counted about a dozen by program's official launch this week, Maulucci said.

So far, about 40 companies and government departments are involved. Acts of innovation are being generated largely by a partnership between the group and the University of Toronto that is intended to bring engineering expertise to businesses such as Canadian Tire, Loblaws, Tridel or institutions such as hospitals that wouldn't normally hire an engineer.

The partnership involves a mandatory two-semester course for fourth-year engineering students, where students solve problems for industrial clients such as how to optimize their supply chain or the placement of nurses and doctors in an emergency room for maximum efficiency, said Jean Zu, chair of the University of Toronto's mechanical and industrial engineering department.

The students are not paid and take four other courses at the same time. They are co-supervised by a business mentor and an academic mentor from the university.

In the past, Zu and Maulucci said, some companies took on student interns as a public service, but weren't sure what they would get out of it.

"The business world is all about return on investment," Maulucci said. "And the professors aren't seeing our world."

Business sets expectations, grades

The new program is structured to increase business involvement in the hopes of boosting the chance that it will generate innovation useful to the business.

"There's subtle differences that make it extremely powerful .… There's a project charter now. The business sponsor's actually signing off fairly early on to say, 'This is what I expect to get,'" Maulucci said.

"They're opening up the opportunity to allow the business sponsor to partially provide grade as best as they can within the rules of the university so now the students are accountable to business the sponsor."

Zu said the program will help the younger generation become "business innovation oriented."

When asked if any concerns had been expressed about the level of corporate involvement in the course, Zu said so far the program has received nothing but encouragement.

The group is currently in discussions about intellectual property issues that could arise when innovation is generated through the partnerships that both the businesses and universities want to claim.

Maulucci said some solutions have already been proposed.

"We want people to understand that it [intellectual property issues] shouldn't hold them back."

The project hopes to add other programs in the future, including another targeting newcomers to Canada and figuring out how to incorporate them.