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Innovative ways to innovate

The McGill Centre for the Convergence of Health and Economics is showing us how to build health, economic and environmental sustainability into new business models from the outset.

McGill Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Laurette Dubé
: Laurette Dubé, Director of McGill Centre for the Convergence of Health and Economics (MCCHE)

Philanthropy is particularly magical when the expertise and passion of a donor can be matched to a project focused on that very same passion.

The McGill Centre for the Convergence of Health and Economics (MCCHE) is a world leader in promoting integrative and interdisciplinary solutions to diet and lifestyle-related global health challenges, such as obesity and under-nutrition. Enter donor Leslie Jonas, BSc’56, a long-time supporter of the Centre, who enjoyed a successful career in the food industry that saw him build such brands as Delisle Yogourt (since sold to Danone) and Saladexpress.

“The goals of the Centre fit perfectly with my interests, as does their interdisciplinary approach,” he says. “I am happy to have been able to support their activities.”

“We are innovating in how we innovate,” is how Laurette Dubé, director of MCCHE, describes the model that shapes the Centre’s research.

The idea behind the Centre’s “convergent innovation” is simple but powerful: it seeks to embed health, economic and environmental sustainability into new business model designs from the start, rather than dealing with the consequences after the fact. In that way, it represents an innovation in the way we innovate.

Consider the work MCCHE has done with the humble pulse, the dried seed of a legume plant. While fairly marginal in Canadian diets, legumes, peas and beans are a staple of other diets globally and a source of many health benefits. MCCHE has been exploring the health, economic and social impacts of pulses since 2012, and worked with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to have 2016 declared the Year of the Pulse, an initiative that blended awareness-building with knowledge creation and food innovation competitions in over 60 countries.

“In addition to being very healthy, pulses are an agricultural commodity that also captures carbon dioxide, so they have a strong, positive environmental footprint,” says Dubé. “Replacing wheat with pulses in many breads would have a huge impact on our carbon footprint.”

“We took pulses as a test case, because this example lies at the nexus of the environment, health and industry,” says Dubé. “But the same model can apply to other foods, or other issues, like transportation.”

The convergence Dubé refers to takes place across the Centre’s three main research pillars. These include the “Brain to Society” pillar, which focuses on how a more comprehensive understanding of the neuroscience involved in decision-making and reward-processing can be integrated with fields like behavioural economics to support healthier choices. The “Whole-of-Society” pillar draws on digital technologies and big data to encompass and integrate the myriad factors whose impact must be considered in analyses of health and economics. For instance, there are a range of factors contributing to obesity in North America – not simply diet but also transportation and urban design, education, media and others. The “Complex Collaboration” component explores how businesses can work with partners across sectors to address issues impacting individual, social and environmental well-being.

Given the cross-disciplinary nature of the Centre’s research, it includes not only faculty members from Desautels but also from McGill’s Faculties of Science, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Medicine, and Law, as well as affiliates from other universities in

Canada, the United States and India. The Centre’s reach is furthered through its three popular webinar series: Convergence Innovation in the Pulse Innovation Program; Consumer Behaviours; and Big Data (co-hosted with the Johns Hopkins Global Obesity Prevention Center and Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center).

“We are at the start of a new industrial revolution, where the digital, the physical and the biological are blurred more than ever,” says Dubé. “So we are confronted with new challenges as well as new possibilities we can tap into.”

The Centre’s emphasis on innovative interdisciplinary research makes philanthropy all the more vital. “Often research grants are in silos, so gifts from donors allow us to fill gaps that we couldn’t if we relied solely on grants,” says Dora Koop, MBA’90, the Centre’s Managing Director.