As the Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Centre for Product Validation (CCPV) at Fanshawe College, Dr. Ben Cecil is responsible for virtually everything in his organization.

“I jokingly tell folks that CEO stands for ‘chief everything officer.’ As a lean organization, that means we all wear a dozen hats,” Dr. Cecil said. He went on to add that his hat spans the full spectrum from janitor and window washer to government liaison and strategic relationship development. He told Vanguard magazine that His approach to management is servant-based leadership. “I’m just as comfortable rolling up my sleeves on the shop floor as I am donning a tie in the boardroom.”

Dr. Ben Cecil

He finds his work “incredibly exciting and rewarding” by working side by side with members of the CCPV team in solving complex testing issues for products “that may still be years from use in the field.”

Due to his work and leadership within the field, Dr. Cecil was selected as a Vanguard Game Changer. Here is the full interview with him.

How did you start out in this industry and how has it brought you to where you are today?

The funny thing is I never thought I would be part of the security and defence industry because I started as an academic. I was Fanshawe College’s Associate Vice-President, Academic. Research and Innovation was part of my portfolio, and the Canadian Centre for Product Validation started as a research initiative at the college. Being intimately connected to the project since its inception, when it came to operating CCPV, the College President tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You know this place better than anyone, so I’d like you to run it and make it a success.” As a strategic priority for the college and our Board, I was honoured to take on this role. It’s a far cry from the classroom and working with academic programs, but when you get to play with cutting-edge technologies and innovations – that’s cool.

What was your most challenging moment?

CCPV had some pretty tight timelines to bring the project to life. With a target of getting the facility constructed, kitted, commissioned and fully operational in one year, working through not one, but two, labour strikes (one by the city, one from a trade union) during construction was a challenge. The construction advanced well due to a great team of contractors and project managers, and even with those disruptions, we managed to open the doors in just under one year.

What was your aha moment or epiphany that you think will resonate most with our reader, tell us that story?

Every day is an a-ha moment at CCPV. We are working with next-gen innovations that may be years before they become commercial products. Helping businesses, large and small, discover the performance limits of those innovations, helping businesses design, build and certify safer more robust products is a rush I look forward to every time I step into the office.

What is the one thing that has you most fired up today?

The ISO 17025 requirements changed this year. With a risk management focus to the new standard (the standard for test lab quality management and client support), it will completely change the way most facilities operate. As we have followed a risk-management framework since we opened, it is nothing new for us, but within the sector, this is a huge shift.

What is the best advice you received?

Norm Grierson was my first mentor, and he told me one thing that I will never forget. He said, “You will have ideas others may not yet be able to see. For that, you will get knocked down. Get up, dust off, keep going. It’s not important that you got knocked down – what’s important is that you got up again.”

What is a habit that contributes to your success?

Read. Voraciously. Read anything and everything you can get your hands on, everything from novels to poetry to technical manuals. If you keep learning, life will continue to amaze you.

What people or organizations do you believe best embody the innovation mindset?

Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Group UK. He lives and breathes innovation not just in his businesses, but in his approach to life. He has been quoted as saying, “If you are given a great opportunity – take it. Figure out how to do it later.” Between saying “yes” to that great opportunity and having to deliver on it, work like crazy, think creatively, build your solution because you never, ever, lose sight of the goal.

How is your organization changing the game within your industry sector?

Our business model is not only about profitability. Yes, we like profits as much as anyone else, but we are driven by a different metric – job creation. Not just for our organization, but for the firms we support through our testing and validation services. If they grow, that counts towards our success. Because we are not just focused on profits, we can spend more time with clients, serving them from a developmental perspective, helping them learn about the performance limits of their products under field conditions, and embedding product knowledge with the designers, engineers and end users – not just with the test facility. And our profits at the end of the year go back to the college to support student scholarships, awards and bursaries, so every student who wishes to attend Fanshawe College is not limited by any financial constraint.

What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation in your industry sector?

Innovative products are genuinely unique. Something so different likely does not have a test standard against which to test the product because such a product has never existed before. Many labs will simply not test something that doesn’t fit nicely into an existing test standard. That’s where we thrive. We help design new test standards to meet client needs while using the guidelines of the MIL-STDs as our foundation.

How has innovation become engrained in your organization’s culture and how is it being optimized?

Every idea to solve a testing challenge is fair game – it doesn’t matter where the idea comes from. Those ideas could come from your hobby, previous career or even a sci-fi movie. When faced with a challenge, we bring the entire team together, drop all rank in the room so all voices have equal weight, and we put everything on the table. When people have a safe, respectful place from which to share ideas without judgement, they unleash their creativity.

What technologies, business models, and trends will drive the biggest changes in your industry over the next two years?

The new ISO 17025 will be a huge shift in the industry. We all know that composites and machine learning will transform our mechanical superstructures and software systems (and the interfaces between them). But the biggest shift that is coming is hive-mind artificial intelligence (HiMAI) and how to test/validate not the nano-bot units, but the hive itself – because it knows it is being tested.

What is your parting piece of advice?

Innovation does not happen by accident. It is not just about being at the right place at the right time with the right idea to meet a market need. It is not just about inspiration, disruption or being ground-breaking. Innovation is deliberate. It is future-focused, open-ended, inquisitive and insightful. To build the business-supports for innovators and entrepreneurs to thrive in the 21st-century economy, we must pivot to the untried, the unique and the unconventional – because that is where innovation exists.