Belinda Heyne in the lab
Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Nov. 16, 2021

Innovation is the equivalent of art – it’s creation

Peak Scholar Belinda Heyne answers questions about how innovation shapes her research and teaching practice, and why commercialization isn’t a dirty word

For Faculty of Science professor Dr. Belinda Heyne, PhD, innovation is a key ingredient in all of the chemistry that happens in her lab. Whether it’s a student experiment or her own research, Heyne believes that getting creative about solving problems is how you find an idea that might change someone’s life for the better.

Heyne’s efforts were recognized with a Peak Scholars in COVID-19 Innovation Excellence award for her work on an international project using dye and light to decontaminate N95 medical face masks for re-use. Learn more about the project.

We caught up with Heyne to hear how innovation shapes her research and teaching practices, and to learn a simple tip that anyone can use to get started with innovation right now. 

Q. What did innovation mean to you at the beginning of your career and what does it mean to you now?

A. Innovation for me has always meant creativity. When I started my career, I was upset that the word innovation, for many people, meant commercialization. I think that innovation is the equivalent of art. It's creation.

I'm starting with a blank canvas and I have to build from nothing. I have ideas, like, “Maybe if I'm taking this with this and I'm mixing it with that, maybe I'm going to create something new.” And that's what innovation is for me, is that creation of something new. 

I think that if you really want to have what you're doing impact people, you need to bring it to the people. And the best way to bring it to the people is to commercialize it, but not necessarily commercialization to make money. You could create something for non-profits or create an app and release it for free. There are many ways to do innovation.

I know that for a lot of people, innovation is perceived as bad because you're going to have to build a company. But it's not that. You don't have to become a big CEO of a company to innovate. 

Q. What inspired you to innovate with a focus on COVID-19?  

A. What I'm seeing with COVID — and this is the creative part — is that we are using a lot of science that we’ve known for decades. But it had never been employed for this kind of mass infection. 

It was the creativity of saying, "I have that piece that I know, and I know it's working. I also I have this problem. Maybe I can take that piece to solve this problem." This is what we have done. I'm having a spark of joy as I’m of creating something which is not necessarily going to be commercialized, but I know will help people.

I don't want it to make money on this. Creating something that could impact the life of someone else, this is really what every single academic should strive for. You should be able to impact the people around you, and do good.
Q. What’s it like to be mentored by you?

A. People like to join my group because I have a really hard time saying no! They can have the craziest idea that another faculty member would refuse because it isn’t going to bring them a publication. For me, it's like, "When are you starting? Let's go."

I really wanted to have that atmosphere where people feel that they have the freedom to try whatever they wanted to try. The only thing is that it has to be safe, okay? (laughs) I don't want to have an explosion.

I know that it has impacted my research career because I don't necessarily publish more. But the people joining my group have a super cool experience, because they have tried things and they've tried things that failed horribly. But at least they did what they wanted to do, and that's something which is very important. This is how I'm mentoring them.

Q. How do you build innovation into your programs?

A. I'm trying to bring the entrepreneurial thinking aspect to my programs, and entrepreneurial thinking is in clash with the scientific approach. 

In academia, we are curiosity-driven people, so we do tons of things because we are curious. But our curiosity is bringing us to something, and I think that's a clash with innovation, because you’ve created something, and now you need to find an application for it. But this is not entrepreneurial thinking. This is not how we should be teaching science.

Instead, we should say, "Here is a problem. Can we find a solution?" So in my classes, students are spending a lot of time identifying a problem that they are passionate about. Like if you tell me that counterfeit money is a problem, you have to prove to me that counterfeit money is a problem. They have to spend a lot of time trying to find information to make sure that it's a problem. 

The students really like this approach. I have had a lot of students who told me that taking a course with me has opened their mind to innovation, and doing things differently than they have been taught.

Q. How can people get started innovating — in school, in work, or just in day-to-day life?

A. The first step — and I’ve heard this before, it’s not my idea — you should have a little black notebook, and you should take note of every single thing that irritates you during the day. Because those might be the next revolution. Chances are that if something is bothering you, it's going to bother everyone else. 

Often, when we talk about innovation, we're thinking about huge problems in society, like climate change, cancer, COVID, and so on. But in our little daily life, we have problems that we need to be solving. It might be not impactful for the entire society, but it might be impactful for the people around you. 

But let’s be honest — not everything that has been discovered and been impactful to society was necessarily to solve a big problem. If you think about the little paper umbrella that you put in your drink, that was not a problem. But it's a huge market, and it was just creativity. It's someone who was like, "Huh, maybe that will be funnier if I had an umbrella." It’s a different type of innovation.

I still have students who really love to be curious, and I'm letting them be curious, even though it doesn't bring anything. It's an innovation on its own. But I also want to show them that when we have a problem we need to ask ourselves, “How can we solve it?"

Since 2014, the Peak Scholars program has celebrated the accomplishments of over 200 scholars at the University of Calgary. These are scholars whose academic work in knowledge engagement, entrepreneurship, tech transfer, innovation or collaborative research has resulted in a positive social or economic impact in our communities. Learn more