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Collaboration has valuable lessons


No province was harder hit by the Great Recession of 2008 and the escalation in the exchange rate of the Canadian dollar than Ontario.

But now there are signs of new innovation initiatives in leading edge technologies that could generate good jobs and new opportunities in high-tech industries.

Much of this potential is based on a new focus on collaboration, between companies and between companies and academia.

The all-Canadian connected car, a project led by the Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association (APMA), is a prime example.

It could be a model as well of how Canada’s burgeoning tech community — especially smaller tech companies — can through collaboration get the attention of the world’s multinationals, in this case the handful of major corporations that manufacture automobiles.

Steve Rodgers, a former Magna International executive and now APMA president, says the auto parts industry recognized back in 2011 that it needed to look at the many small companies and start-ups with great technologies but no ability on their own to get recognized by the major auto companies.

It was also a time when Canada’s declining auto parts industry needed to link up with the high-tech changes taking place in the auto industry, or get left behind.

Using a donated Toyota Lexus LX350, the APMA found 13 Ontario-based tech companies along with Waterloo University’s WatCAR automotive R&D centre, to collaborate on the project.

The Lexus car was delivered to QNX, the Ottawa-based Blackberry subsidiary, in January of this year and QNX took the lead in engineering, development and design, delivering the competed connected vehicle on May 5.

Waterloo University is now responsible for maintaining and upgrading the connected car.

What is unique about Canada’s connected car, says Rodgers, is that so many different technologies have been integrated into a single platform, with 500-600 sensors on board, 40 processors and 100 million lines of computer code.

The vehicle is linked, by Rogers Communications, to the new ultra-high-speed and much increased bandwidth technology for wireless systems known as 4G-LTE.

But the Canadian connected car is also a good example of how collaboration can succeed, with potential lessons for other industries.

Another example of collaborative innovation is the Cisco Canada to plan to open a $100 million innovation hub in Toronto, one of four announced by its U.S. parent (the others are in Germany, Brazil and South Korea) to advance what Cisco calls the Internet of Everything.

This, the next stage of the Internet revolution, will transform our world in radical ways, much of it based on huge advances in wireless technology.

This will permit the connection of billions of sensors and other devices to everything from our homes and driverless cars to commercial buildings, education, healthcare systems, factories, water and other environmental systems, and traffic control to monitor, control and generate data for decision-making.

The goal is to create in downtown Toronto ‘a sandbox’ where companies and governments seeking new applications of the Internet of Everything, IT experts, university researchers and entrepreneurs can collaborate, trading ideas and identifying opportunities.

At the same time, Cisco Canada president Nitin Kiwale told a recent Conference Board of Canada summit on innovation in Toronto, Cisco plans to launch its own venture capital fund to help new companies. It also plans to add 1,700 jobs at its Ottawa R&D centre.

Another example: IBM Canada and 7 Ontario universities in 2012 launched the Southern Ontario Smart Computing Innovation Platform, with $175 million from IBM Canada, $20 million from the federal government’s FedDev Ontario and $15 million from Ontario’s Ministry of Research and Innovation. It includes Canada’s fastest supercomputer.

The goal is to boost collaboration between university researchers and small and midsize companies to develop new technologies that meet big challenges in energy distribution and management, smarter urban infrastructure, transportation and communications, water conservation, management and delivery, and health projects in brain science, healthcare applications and drug discovery.

Some 32 companies have already been formed and IBM is working with Ontario Centres of Excellence for funding support for new companies, Pat Horgan, IBM Canada’s vice president of Manufacturing, Development and Operations told the Conference Board summit.

The focus on collaboration between different firms and between firms and academia is not a compete cure-all for Ontario’s economic recovery.

But it would appear to offer one way in which Ontario and Canada can better realize the benefits from the large investments in university and college education and academic research and development.

Economist David Crane is a syndicated Toronto Star columnist. He can be reached at crane@interlog.com.

 
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