Battle to become one of 5 federal ‘superclusters’ attracts 50 competitors

OTTAWA — The competition to become one of up to five government-designated technology “superclusters” and draw from a federal funding purse of $950 million has attracted more than 50 proposals.

The contest, a cornerstone of Ottawa’s so-called innovation agenda, is designed to encourage academia and businesses to work together on strategies to boost fast-growing sectors — everything from advanced manufacturing to clean technology.

The number of bids generated during the competition’s first phase, which ended late last month, exceeded federal expectations, said a senior government official who spoke on condition on anonymity because the information was not yet public.

The 50 letters of intent came from consortia representing a total of more than 200 companies and 20 post-secondary institutions, the official said.

The contest, overseen by Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains, aims to lift the economy, promote research and create high-quality jobs. Bains has said he’s looking for ambitious bids that also feature intellectual property strategies designed to keep benefits for Canada.

The plan includes a federal funding commitment of up to $950 million over five years to support the development of between three and five superclusters.

As examples, the government listed six innovative industries in its spring budget that could anchor superclusters: advanced manufacturing, agri-food, clean technology, digital technology, health and bio-sciences and clean resources.

The submissions represent each of these sectors and more, said the official, who declined to elaborate on the other industries.

The government is also hoping the leverage from its $950-million commitment will lure even more private investment cash into the economy.

To qualify, supercluster bids must show private-sector investment commitments of at least a dollar for every government dollar requested.

Combined, the submitted proposals say they can bring in a total of $17 billion in private investment, even though they are asking for $10 billion in federal funding, the official added.

“The policy imperative for this program was trying to unlock business investment in (research and development), which has been this perpetual issue in Canada” said the official.

“This isn’t a silver bullet, but it’s a model to tackle that issue.”

A short list of about a dozen applicants will be released in the coming weeks based on assessments by experts from across different government departments and agencies.

Each submission will be evaluated on criteria such as job creation, how likely the new jobs will avoid becoming automated in the future and the proposal’s overall impact on the economy.

The winners will be announced by early 2018.

The program director for the Blockchain Research Institute, an organization that is participating in a supercluster proposal, said the bid received a total of $50 million in funding commitments from about 50 groups, including universities, private firms and non-governmental organizations.

The submission is focused on making Canada a world leader in the development of the emerging digital platform known as “blockchain.” Blockchain is the underlying technology behind digital currencies like bitcoin and it has the potential to change everything from how financial transactions are conducted to how democracies vote.

Jenna Pilgrim said Thursday that the goal of her group’s bid is to house the world’s best blockchain expertise in the Toronto-Waterloo region rather than watch it set up shop in Silicon Valley.

She noted that $50 million in commitments is likely lower than other submissions, but adds it makes sense because the technology is still young. She also argues blockchain has more potential to become self supporting.

There are also expectations that some groups jockeying for the limited number of supercluster spots might join forces as the process evolves and the list shortens.

“We have been approached by several other organizations creating bids as well,” said Pilgrim, who believes blockchain will help enable other new “transformational” technologies like quantum computing and artificial intelligence.

“We just want a seat at the table and then we are definitely open to collaborating with other groups.”

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