Three new research centres launched

New%20NCEs09-347X132.jpgThree new networks are awarded at the 20th anniversary and annual meeting of the Networks of Centres of Excellence. From left to right: Dr. Alain Beaudet, Canadian Institute for Health Research president; Dr. Kellogg Booth, scientific director of GRAND; Dr. Daniel Goldowitz, scientific director of NeuroDevNet; Dr. Stephen Larter, scientific director of CMC Network; Dr. Gary Goodyear, minister of state for science and technology); Dr. Suzanne Fortier, president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council; and Dr. Chad Gaffield, president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

tony1459Edit90X167.jpg By Tony Patterson

The west led the rest this month when Ottawa announced funding for three new Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCEs). Two of the networks will be run from UBC and one from the University of Calgary. Their activities, though, will spread to universities and companies across Canada in accord with the governing principles of NCEs, a Canadian wrinkle in the innovation process.
The basic idea of the NCEs is to create virtual tech clusters where none exist geographically. It’s a notion that arises naturally in Canada, with its thinly dispersed population. NCEs bring together Canadian scientists and researchers in the natural, social, health and engineering sciences, as well as others in Canada's academic, corporate, public and non-profit sectors, “to focus on issues critical to Canadian industry, society and economy.” Now 20 years old, their genesis can be traced to the original OCRI, the Ottawa-Carleton Research Institute, which was technocentric and actually initiated some collaborative research. (The current OCRI clings to the acronym that built its reputation but has morphed into the economic development agency for the City of Ottawa.)
“The NCE program is a valuable asset to Canada's society, encouraging discovery, innovation and application in a wide variety of science and technology sectors,” says Dr. Suzanne Fortier, chair of the NCE Steering Committee and president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
The three new NCEs will research effective treatments for children with developmental brain disorders (NeuroDevNet at UBC, led by Dr. Daniel Goldowitz), find ways to lessen the impact of fossil fuels on the environment (CMC Network at uCalgary, led by Dr. Stephen Larter), and use social media to improve education and skills development (GRAND Network at UBC, led by Dr. Kellogg Booth). Each will get about $20 million over five years and then will have the opportunity to go for an extension. NCEs see their sunset after fifteen years or so. Some are wound up earlier if they don’t perform as expected. There are currently 20 in operation, including the latest three. Twenty-two have already gone to S&T heaven.
Typical of NCEs, NeuroDevNet casts a wide net, enclosing researchers at five universities in Ontario, three in Alberta, two each in BC and Quebec and one in each of Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia. The network, which will be looking for ways to prevent and treat conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy and fetal alcohol syndrome, includes 16 Canada Research Chair holders.
Knowledge transfer and training of highly qualified personnel will be two main objectives. But more than ever, under the current Conservative régime, NCEs are being tasked with finding ways to wring financial gain from their work.

Even acknowledging that “commercially viable IP will take several years to develop,” NeuroDevNet says that “our market analysis revealed enormous potential for growth in treatments for pediatric neurologic disorders.” For example in autism, new computerized guidance devices are being developed to assist autistic children with the tasks of daily living; for CP there are opportunities to develop novel muscle relaxants. For FASD there are currently no pharmacological products on the market, but several are in preclinical trials including one made by Allon Therapeutics, a NeuroDevNet partner. The network is already embarked on what it calls an “industry engagement” strategy. Rather than packaging and pushing IP up the value chain towards receptors and the market, it “will start a dialogue with industry in our sectors . . . as stakeholders.”
And it has identified two NCE cousins, Centres of Excellence in Commercialization and Research (CECRs), with which “our network will seek to partner in the development of technologies.” The CECRs that NeuroDevNet would like to accompany to market are the Centre of Excellence in Personalized Medicine in Montreal and the Centre for Drug Research & Development in BC.
CECRs get their money from the same pot as NCEs, but their outlook, as the name suggests, is more business oriented. They were conceived, to put it roughly, as a way to get publicly-funded R&D off the shelf and into the market so some return on investment might be had. There are 17 of them currently active but none are much more than a year old so there’s no track record so far. Up to four more will be launched in the next year.

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