Four Burning Questions for Professor Sylvain Coulombe

Sylvain Coulombe discusses his new role as McGill’s Associate Vice-Principal, Innovation and Partnerships
Sylvain Coulombe, McGill’s new as Associate Vice-Principal, Innovation and Partnerships

On September 1, Professor Sylvain Coulombe began his five-year mandate as McGill’s Associate Vice-Principal, Innovation and Partnerships. Prof. Coulombe will oversee the Office of Innovation and Partnerships (I+P) within the Office of the Vice-Principal of Research and Innovation.

Professor Coulombe brings extensive experience in technology development, as well as a strong background in supporting strategic academic-industry partnerships, to the role. A former senior research scientist and project leader for GE Global Research (1997-2001), Prof. Coulombe joined McGill in 2001, serving as Department Chair from 2012-2018. He was the Canada Research Chair in Non-Thermal Plasma Processing from 2002-2012 and is a Gerald Hatch Faculty Fellow since 2015. His contributions to research and development have resulted in numerous reports of invention and patent applications.

The former Chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering sat down with the Reporter to talk about his new role as Associate Vice-Principal, Innovation and Partnerships.

Innovation has become the buzzword of the decade in the worlds of education and industry. What does the word mean to you?

I have a complex physical model for innovation in my mind that reveals my physics background, which involves atoms, activation energy, simple interactions, and the emergence of complex behaviours. In a simple word, today’s innovation involves collisions. More specifically, innovation emerges when creative and open-minded people from various disciplines get together, by design or serendipity, with a common goal to work on a complex problem.

Here in my office, I keep a lightbulb made in a General Electric factory about a hundred years ago. It is an important symbol for me. A model from the past, the lightbulb symbolizes innovation — the eureka effect — from a time when a single researcher or a small group of researchers working in a bubble could come up with innovations.  We now live in a rapidly evolving, diverse and complex world in which innovation often emerges from unlikely encounters. Think about the now ubiquitous collaborative consumption tools such as Airbnb and Car2Go, both based on innovations involving cloud computing, real-time GPS localization, and new social and environmental trends. Supporting innovation means providing opportunities for connectivity, for collisions. This environment is something that I really want to help cultivate at McGill.

As the AVP of Innovation and Partnerships, what is at the top of your ‘to-do’ list?

I want to help build an online research and innovation community at McGill, which will open communication channels between stakeholders, including researchers, funders, policymakers and industry partners. The changing landscape of research and innovation, and the funding priorities of our federal and provincial governments, put more emphasis on multidisciplinary work and offer researchers an opportunity to expand McGill’s reach.

On campus, space is limited and at a priority, and it is not an easy undertaking to build meeting and co-working spaces; however, I believe that there are many creative ways to cultivate connections among researchers and research partners online. Once the connections are established, a lively innovation ecosystem will emerge through newly discovered joint interests and self-started gatherings. The Office of Innovation and Partnerships (I+P) will be there to help finding ways to support the ecosystem.

Why is multidisciplinary research the key to innovation?  

I will answer this question with a story from my career. About 20 years ago, my fellow researchers and I realized that the plasma, the fourth state of matter that happens to be extremely abundant in the Universe and quite well domesticated by scientists and engineers for high-temperature applications, could be cooled while maintaining its high reactivity and used to sterilize medical equipment and other temperature-sensitive surfaces. This realization inspired further research into the biomedical applications of plasma, including developing treatments for cancer and accelerating natural processes like wound healing. Today, Plasma Medicine is the fastest growing field in the realm of plasma processing.

As one of the founding members of this field, I remain involved with people in biology and medicine to develop selective treatments for cancer cells. My dual identity as a fundamental researcher and an applied scientist, as well as my collaborations with people outside of my areas of expertise, have defined my path in ways I could not have imagined. In my lab at McGill, the graduate students working on fundamental science can fuel those working on applied problems in very different fields. Multidisciplinary research is the way of the future.

What makes McGill a better partner for industry?

First, I believe there is a great diversity of expertise among our researchers and we can leverage the fact that for so many years we have excelled in fundamental research. Moreover, McGill has an abundance of connections, more than any other Canadian institution. McGill also has extremely good students, and the “extra” we give to our students is training in communication. When I started my first job as an engineer, I quickly learnt that it would not be only about calculations. I would need to pitch and I would need to be convincing. It is therefore the responsibility of the University to offer training to our students on how to succeed in industry and I believe that McGill does an excellent job at that.

Finally, we are a great partner because we are committed to providing the necessary internal support for research and innovation partnerships. We want to break down silos and barriers to communication and collaboration. Now, it is simply a question of communicating more widely that we are open for more collaborations leading to impactful innovations. We are open for business!

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