When concentrations of successful, innovation-driven companies and their partners align efforts, they are proven to attract talent and investment dollars, and propel innovation and economic growth. That’s what Canada is betting a billion dollars on.
In the near future, the federal government is expected to announce nearly one billion dollars in public investments to support the accelerated development of select innovation-driven industrial agglomerations known as “superclusters.”
Proponents say the initiative is a smart way to build on Canada’s previous investments in research and development infrastructure and other strengths to attract talent, stimulate further investment and spur Canadian innovation and economic growth.
The enormous potential of clusters to energize economies is well documented. For example, in 2015 alone, Silicon Valley contributed $235-billion to California’s GDP (roughly equivalent to the GDP of Ireland). Similar clusters in cities such as London, New York, Sao Paulo and Tel Aviv have all demonstrated impressive gains in both job creation and economic value.
“All thriving advanced economies are anchored by concentrations of high-growth domestic innovative businesses,” explains Jim Balsillie, chair of the Council of Canadian Innovators. “
Canada’s superclusters are sources of high-margin exports and new revenue for our economy.”
Beyond learning from successful clusters like Silicon Valley, which is associated with global industrial titans like Apple, Google, Salesforce, Facebook and Intel, the federal government and others believe public investments can encourage Canada’s supercluster growth.
“Innovation – powered by industrially relevant R&D and the development of new business models built on the latest technological advances – is increasingly required in order for our companies and our country to remain competitive and grow,” states the office of the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED), which launched the Innovation Superclusters Initiative, pledging to invest up to $950-million in up to five business-led innovation superclusters.
“[The initiative] is a new opportunity to strengthen Canada’s most promising clusters to build superclusters at scale. This is a co-operative effort where the private sector, academic institutions, not for profits, SMEs and our government come together to build the economy of the future and create resilient, well-paying jobs.”
Roseann O’Reilly Runte, president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), an organization that invests in research infrastructure in Canada’s universities, colleges, research hospitals and non-profit research institutions, sees the federal government’s initiative as “a spark that brings together different partners.
“Collaborations are important if we want to move forward with a bold vision,” says Dr. Runte. “If you look at research funding in Canada, the contribution of industry has not been as great as in many other developed countries. I see the supercluster initiative as a way, in part, to inspire businesses and industry to invest in research and innovation.”
For more than two decades, the CFI has worked with government to strengthen the R&D capabilities of universities and institutions and encourage collaboration with industry and communities, says Dr. Runte. “Initially, our goal was to stop the brain drain – the talented people leaving Canada– and to create facilities where they could pursue their research. And with the right infrastructure in place, we were successful in attracting international talent.”
This research infrastructure provides a solid base and launch pad for the superclusters initiative, says Dr. Runte. She adds that all shortlisted applicants – which were selected from over 50 proposals backed by over 1,000 businesses and 350 other participants – include partners who received significant CFI funding in the proposed areas in the past.
Today, nine shortlisted superclusters representing industry-led consortia in sectors ranging from ocean technologies, artificial intelligence and advanced manufacturing to agri-food and others, are located in regions from coast to coast, according to ISED. “Successful superclusters will leverage the knowledge, expertise and assets that exist within their innovation ecosystems to bring the resources of post-secondary and research institutions, governments and other innovation intermediaries together with those of private enterprise. The collaborations and activities funded through this program will not only contribute to the success of participating firms, but also position clusters as world-leading innovation hotbeds and places to do business.”
Guy Breton, chair of the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities, and rector of Université de Montréal, sees the initiative as a means to scale up business partnerships by strategically leveraging research facilities and world-class talent. “In the initial stage of the supercluster competition, our research-intensive universities have worked closely with regional and sectoral leaders,” he says. “We look forward to continuing to build these ambitious partnerships through the supercluster program and beyond.”
A supercluster’s ability to scale up will be key to the initiative’s success, with partnerships expected to multiply opportunities for firms involved, both within and across industrial sectors, says a statement from ISED. “Building on shared private-sector commitment, demonstrated through matched industry funding, these superclusters will accelerate the commercialization of new products, processes and services that position firms to grow and become global market leaders, solve important industrial challenges to boost the productivity and competitiveness of Canada’s economically strong sectors, and build long-term advantages and global brand recognition for Canada that will draw investment, attract talent and lead to new opportunities for Canadians.”
Dr. Runte shares this vision. “By combining the capabilities of post-secondary education and research institutions to generate ideas and inventions, and the business community’s ability to market and scale them, we gain much bigger returns on investment,” she says. “[The superclusters initiative] is a great way to inspire Canadians to take their place among the world’s strongest players.”
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