You may be surprised to learn that customers and companies aren’t chomping at the bit for new technologies. Instead, what they want are solutions.
Getting to that point has meant shedding some traditional approaches – like “pushing” technologies out of academia hoping there will be a receptive company willing to pay fat licensing fees. Unfortunately, many start-up and early-stage companies go bankrupt trying to commercialize a technology that isn’t fully proven, too expensive or has no customers.
Investors have also wised up. During the heady dot-com days in the 1990s, it seemed like venture capital grew on trees for any start-up with a cool name and a headline grabbing story to tell. Today, investors are more experienced and more cautious – they want proof that a technology has been tested, validated and meets a clear market need.
Government funders are catching on too, favouring projects that have a customer base and can scale up companies. Many new funding programs also come with other new criteria: Don’t bother applying unless you have serious partners willing to put up time, talent, resources – and for larger firms, money.
For example, the centrepiece of Canada’s innovation strategy is its Innovation Superclusters Initiative. This $950-million federal experiment aims to drive collaboration among large and small companies, academia, government and others. What makes the model promising is that it comes with big dollars from both companies and government, is industry-led and laser-focused on solutions.
“We’ve had great start-ups and great technology. But what’s often missing is the support to take them to the next stage, and that requires partnerships,” says Jayson Myers, CEO, Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen), one of five new innovation superclusters.
NGen is working with over 1,000 collaborators to develop, de-risk and scale-up new manufacturing capabilities for a broad range of industry sectors, including manufacturing, automotive, aerospace, steel, construction and biomedical. The goal is to make it easy for companies to adopt productivity-boosting technologies not traditionally used in manufacturing, such as digitization, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and additive manufacturing.
“A lot of companies shy away from investing in new technologies,” says Myers. “NGen can help by providing support and mentoring to help companies understand their processes and business objectives so they can see where new technologies add value.”
If it’s a challenge to DND, then it’s a challenge we will be proposing to Canadian innovators.
Eric Fournier, Director General (Science & Technology),
Defence Research and Development Canada
One NGen initiative, led by Toronto start-up iVexSol Canada, is developing an advanced manufacturing process for therapeutic lentiviral vectors – critical components in the manufacture of cell and gene therapies. Producing them has proven costly and inefficient.
“The project is about scaling up a unique manufacturing process that would radically reduce the cost and time to produce these lengthy viral vectors that are the raw material for developing stem cell-based therapeutic products, including cancer fighting drugs,” says Myers. The $4.25-million project is expected to create about 470 jobs.
MILITARY SEEKING IDEAS
Canada’s military is changing its approach to accessing innovation with an ambitious $1.6-billion, 20-year initiative called Innovation for Defence Excellence and Security (IDEaS). Rather than defining the solution, IDEaS presents challenges in need of solutions.
“We don’t want to limit ourselves to think of a problem through a solution. We want to say, ‘here is our problem and come with anything that can resolve it.’ We don’t have a bias or pre-conceived ideas on how we want to resolve it,” says Dr. Isabelle Desmartis, CEO and Assistant Deputy Minister, Science & Technology (S&T), at Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC).
Launched in 2018, IDEaS increases the Department of National Defence’s (DND) research budget by approximately 20%. The program has built a network of more than 3,000 innovators from across Canada, and signed more than 170 agreements with Canadian academics, companies and others. For competitive projects, successful applicants receive up to $200,000, with another $1 million in potential funding if the initial results show promise.
We’ve had great start-ups and great technology. But what’s often missing is the support to take them to the next stage, and that requires partnerships.
Jayson Myers, CEO, Next Generation Manufacturing Canada
“Our first call for applications had five challenges related to the human: one for PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder), one on recruitment and another on performance,” says Eric Fournier, Director General (S&T) at DRDC. “If it’s a challenge to DND then it’s a challenge we will be proposing to Canadian innovators.”
For example, companies were invited to DRDC’s facility in Suffield, AB in September to test technologies that could detect and defeat drones. Other companies are helping DRDC fight climate change by participating in a contest to develop solutions that reduce the environmental footprint of temporary base camps deployed in national and international operations.
Demonstration platforms fill a critical gap in Canada’s research ecosystem by allowing companies to co-develop and test new technologies in real-world conditions. They’re also a way to connect smaller companies with the purchasing power and global supply chains of multinationals.
That was the thinking behind a new fifth-generation (5G) cellular testbed connecting five cities in Ontario and Quebec. ENCQOR 5G (Evolution of Networked Services through a Corridor in Québec and Ontario for Research and Innovation) is a five-year, $400-million initiative funded by five multinationals (Ericsson, Ciena, Thales, IBM and CGI), and the Canadian, Quebec and Ontario governments. It is open to researchers, entrepreneurs and other innovators.
“This is an opportunity for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to access something that’s not commercially available yet, and that will provide them with a real competitive advantage,” in attracting investors, scaling up and tapping into global supply chains,” says Dr. Claudia Krywiak, President & CEO of Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE), which is coordinating the Ontario side of ENCQOR.
Such collaborative models are often managed by a neutral third party, like the OCE, which can bring together innovative companies, academic talent, government, commercialization experts, mentors and investors.
“When you have multiple stakeholders with both complementary and competing priorities, you need an honest broker like the OCE that can align a very diverse group of stakeholders around the shared goals of the initiative, which are economic growth and increased global competitiveness for Ontario companies,” says Krywiak. “Commercialization is a team sport and to ensure success you need strong collaborations between all players in the research ecosystem.”
WHEN COMPETITORS COOPERATE
Collaboration among competing companies has a long history in some sectors. In Quebec, the agri-food industry was able to come together when Cégep de Saint-Hyacinthe opened a new research centre 25 years ago.
“With Cintech Agroalimentaire, we’ve found a way for companies to work together on a specific technology and all share the benefits,” says Karine Mercier, Assistant Director, Research and Innovation at Cégep de Saint-Hyacinthe.
Located in the heart of Quebec’s agriculture and food processing sectors, Cintech houses experts in areas such as microbiology, industrial processes, engineering, nutrition and marketing to address industry needs.
One partnership is driven by a Quebec policy that will ban organic waste disposal by 2022. That’s a challenge for the province’s seafood processing industry which generates thousands of tons of by-product annually, mainly crab and lobster shells.
Cintech is working with Quebec’s Centre for Innovation in Aquaculture and Fisheries (Merinov), the Nutrition and Functional Foods Institute (INAF) at Laval University, and 10 industry partners on innovative ways to turn this waste into food powders, soups, broths, dietary supplements, animal feed, and even biodegradable plastic.
“Instead of trying to have all the research expertise within your college or research centre, you look for someone who’s working in this area and collaborate with them,” says Mercier. “That’s the way we approach research now.”
TRANSFORMING CANCER CARE
Another catalyst for collaboration is the federal government’s $2.41-billion Strategic Innovation Fund, which has supported over 60 projects to date, including the Digital Health and Discovery Platform. The DHDP is working with nearly 100 partners to develop a clinician-led network that will make it possible to access and share anonymized patient data from hospitals across the country. The goal is to accelerate research and innovation in precision medicine for cancer and other chronic diseases.
The University Health Network (UHN) is a major partner in the DHDP, which is co-led by the Terry Fox Research Institute of Vancouver and Montreal-based artificial intelligence (AI) company Imagia.
Partnership models are a means to bring people together to generate greater science.
Dr. Dion Neame, Head of Medical,
Sanofi Pasteur Canada
“This is more than a marriage of convenience. The DHDP is being built on top of a pan-Canadian collaboration that is already working – the Terry Fox Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres,” says Dr. Luke Brzozowski, Senior Director, TECHNA and Diagnostics Innovation at UHN.
The DHDP platform overcomes one of the biggest hurdles to medical research collaborations: the privacy of patient data.
“One of the unique characteristics of the model is that the data can be accessed without leaving the hospital,” explains Brzozowski. “That addresses issues such as privacy, data ownership and not having any exposure to patient health information.”
Having access to such a rich pool of patient data will make Canada a magnet for clinical trials. Researchers will be able to enter their study criteria into the DHDP platform to find out how many patients in which hospitals are candidates for a trial. They can also find out which treatments work best for individual patients.
“It’s combining clinical trial evidence with real-world evidence, and then giving this information to a clinician at the point of care as fast as possible,” says Brzozowski. “It could transform how we treat cancer and other diseases.”
THE MATHEMATICS OF DISEASE
Sanofi Pasteur knew exactly where to go when it needed a long-term collaborator to help combat the spread of infectious diseases – Dr. Jianhong Wu, one of the world’s top mathematicians and the founding Director of the Laboratory for Industrial and Applied Mathematics at York University.
In 2018, the vaccine manufacturer committed $1.5 million over five years, topped up with another $1 million from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), to sponsor Wu as an Industrial Research Chair. Wu and his team of professors, post-doctoral fellows and graduate students work with Sanofi Pasteur scientists and public health professionals to develop mathematical techniques that identify populations most susceptible to infectious diseases, and help manufacturers produce cost-effective vaccines that can be deployed quickly.
The research is expected to better position Canada to rapidly respond to emerging public health issues and improve our understanding of the spread of the flu and other diseases.
“You have Sanofi with my team’s expertise on clinical disease and vaccine efficacy. You’ve got York University with their abilities in mathematical modeling and modeling techniques, and then you have the government with its collaborative (Industrial Research Chairs) platform … partnership models are a means to bring people together to generate greater science,” says Dr. Dion Neame, Head of Medical, Sanofi Pasteur Canada, which was born in a university setting over a hundred years ago in Toronto.
One finding so far from the research is a link between influenza and other health complications, including heart attacks, stroke and renal disease.
“Among other things, this investment helps the community understand how complicated influenza can be and how much damage the disease can cause,” says Neame. “It’s the evidence that helps people understand that getting an influenza vaccine is a very good idea, particularly if you’re in certain risk groups.”
Collaborations can happen globally, nationally or regionally. But sometimes it’s just easier to walk across the street.
That’s the case in Kingston, ON where it’s a short walk between Queen’s University and its affiliated hospitals at Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC): Kingston General, Hotel Dieu, and Providence Care.
“The doctors and researchers who come here love it,” says Mary Anne Beaudette, Research Knowledge Mobilization Officer, Kingston General Health Research Institute (KGHRI). “You’ll see clinicians working in university labs and scientists working in hospital labs. It’s a tightly integrated environment so collaboration happens quite organically.”
Queen’s also has research labs embedded in hospitals. The Human Mobility Research Centre, with labs at both Kingston General and Hotel Dieu sites, for example, brings together mechanical engineers, computer scientists and surgeons.
Creating a critical mass of researchers makes us more attractive to external partners.
Dr. Jean-Pierre Perreault, VP Research and Graduate Studies,
Université de Sherbrooke
One of those surgeons, Dr. John Rudan, worked with computer scientists on the NaviKnife, a novel surgical tool with electromagnetic navigation. Now in research trials, the device could transform the way cancer is surgically removed in the future. The project involves Queen’s University, KHSC, the U.K.’s Imperial College, and an international partner with a base in Mississauga, ON.
The NaviKnife provides a real-time ‘contour map’ of tumour margins as it heats and cauterizes tissue. It then uses mass spectrometry to chemically analyze the smoke that is produced from each cut and can ‘smell’ if the tissue is cancerous.
“Right now the goal is to build an encyclopedia of these chemical fingerprints and use that information to teach the knife so it can tell the surgeon where to cut,” says Beaudette.
Once the NaviKnife moves into clinical practice, Beaudette says it will “help surgeons to more precisely remove diseased tissue, while leaving healthy tissue behind”.
A ONE-STOP COLLABORATIVE SPACE
Of course, not every potential partner can be right across the street. That’s why many regions across Canada have established innovation centres or “accelerators” where companies of all sizes can come to access experts, specialized equipment and business development services.
In April, Humber College opened the Barrett Centre for Technology Innovation in Toronto, an 8,640 square-metre facility that embeds industry experts with students, faculty and technicians to address real-world challenges in advanced manufacturing. Funding for the centre came from the Barrett Family Foundation ($10 million), and the Canadian and Ontario governments ($15.5 million and $1.55 million respectively), industry partners and Humber.
Key features include interactive technology zones, digital media studios, advanced prototyping and makerspaces, open concept gathering spaces and demonstration areas for new products and technologies.
Humber also created the Advanced Manufacturing Skills Consortium to ensure research is industry-driven and that student and employee training delivers what companies need. Consortium members include global leaders Festo Didactic, SEW Eurodrive, Sick Sensors, Cisco, Rockwell Automation, DMG Mori, Kuka Robotics, and Javelin (Cimetrix). They not only support SMEs but showcase world-class technologies such as the first living autonomous guided vehicle laboratory in North America – a strategic advantage for Ontario manufacturing companies.
“Countries like Germany and Singapore, Taiwan, China are going big into automation which will drive down their cost of goods, which requires us to be more competitive,” says Dr. Darren Lawless, Dean, Applied Research and Innovation at Humber, Canada’s largest polytechnic. “We need to passionately train both students and our existing workforce on these new technologies to ensure future manufacturing jobs are created in Canada.”
Adds Lawless: “We’re a one-stop shop where SMEs not only learn about technology adoption, but also develop technology awareness.”
WORKING ACROSS DISCIPLINES
Breaking down barriers between industry and academia starts with breaking down barriers between university faculties, says Dr. Jean-Pierre Perreault, VP Research and Graduate Studies at Université de Sherbrooke.
The university recently revised its research strategy to focus on solving complex problems that require a multidisciplinary response – issues such as big data analytics, smart transport, renewable energy, public health and population aging. The goal is to triple its private sector research funding by 2026, double the number of inventions that get commercialized, and double the number of start-up companies launched at its technology accelerator (ACET).
“Creating a critical mass of researchers makes us more attractive to external partners – all the while focusing on research that is important to society,” says Perreault.
For example, Perreault wanted to know how many Sherbrooke researchers worked under the broad category of “climate change”. To his surprise, he identified more than 60 research groups from different faculties, including law, medicine, engineering and social sciences.
Some of those researchers took the lead in launching a new scientific advisory journal on climate change, called Climatoscope. Targeted at a non-academic community, the French-language journal features research from health, management, politics, philosophy, biology, engineering and geomatics to show how multiple disciplines are coming together to address such a complex challenge.
“When I put those people in the same room most did not know each other. Now they are all working together,” says Perreault. “It shows how researchers across disciplines are collaborating on a very important issue for society.”
Debbie Lawes, Debbie@dovercourteditorial.ca, is an Ottawa-based writer specializing in science, technology and innovation.