Ottawa offers more for commercialization

tony1459Edit90X167.jpg By Tony Patterson
OTTAWA — The feds are bumping their bet that they know how to get Canadian science and technology off the shelf and into the market. Apart from those who benefit directly from the way things are, almost everyone thinks Canada spends too much public money on S&T and gets too little back. The government is going to fix that.
This month the red hot Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) launches its third competition to fund new Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research (CECR). Each of the new CECRs will get $15 million at the start of 2011, if funding precedents are followed, but first they’ll have to run a bureaucratic gauntlet starting Feb. 3, the deadline for letters of intent from hopefuls. LOIs go to a PSAB (private sector advisory board) for review. Those who pass are invited to prepare applications (on their own dime and it ain’t cheap). Apps go to Expert Review Panels and finally to the NCE Steering Committee.
That's the desk where the buck starts.
The NCE Steering Committee is two guys and a gal who head the agencies that provide most of the money for R&D in Canada, plus the deputy minister of Industry Canada, which provides most of the money for the agencies that provide most of the money for R&D in Canada. If you don’t know who they are, you’re not a Canadian researcher. This team will decide on up to four, but no more, baby CECRs.

Against any reasonable expectation, NCE has emerged from 20 years of obscurity, magically transformed into the Nepean Point of Ottawa’s Science and Technology Strategy. Stephen Harper launched the S&T Strategy personally two years and a bit ago from the nation’s high basilica of pure science, the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo.
NCE was founded in 1989 to fund university-based research initiatives that built networks of participants stretching across the country and involving the private sector as well as academia. It was a formula for cooperation that worked well, creating more than 150 spinoff tech companies, thousands of patents, licences and jobs. There are currently 20 of these in operation and 22 others have reached their sunset date for funding, generally fifteen years after startup.
For most of its existence that’s what NCE did. But when Conservatives crafted their S&T Strategy they wanted a collaborative model to initiate their tech commercialization program and they picked the NCE Secretariat to run it.
Dr. Suzanne Fortier is chair of the NCE Steering Committee and president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, which dispenses more than $1 billion a year for scholarships, fellowships, research chairs and research programs of various kinds (about $50 million annually reserved for NCEs). She says of the CECR program that it “addresses the growing commercialization gap between ideas and application. By bringing together researchers, industry and innovation, the program funds the establishment and operation of world-class centres which turn research into business opportunities.”
The winners will join a rapidly growing herd. From the gleam in the eye stage two years ago there are already 17 of the frisky hybrids prowling the global hunting grounds, fueled by $200 million from Ottawa. They operate in the priority areas of the S&T Strategy: health, information and communications technology, environment, and energy and natural resources, refined by the sub-priorities established in 2008 by the Science, Technology and Innovation Council.
Seven existing CECRs are based in Ontario, four in BC, three in Quebec and one each in Alberta and Saskatchewan. They were chosen by international peer review and with advice from the private sector. Proposals for the third competition will be evaluated on the potential benefits to Canada, strength of the business plan and the team track record. In addition, close attention will be paid to two criteria related to commercialization: (1) Ability to create, grow and retain Canadian companies that can capture new markets with breakthrough innovations; and (2) Evidence that the proposed Centre would accelerate the commercialization of leading edge technologies, goods, and services in priority areas.
Click here for more information on the current competition.

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