Governments across Canada are increasingly using voucher programs to stimulate private sector research and development, and the commercialization of academic findings.
The programs essentially give businesses credits that can be exchanged for expertise, resources and intellectual property from universities, colleges and other institutions. Ontario’s new voucher program, which began accepting applications on June 26, will allow businesses to apply for grants from Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the National Research Council's Industrial Research Assistance Program, and nation-wide internship program Connect Canada.
This is “the first time in Canada” organizations have worked together to create a “single application and single review process,” claims Tom Corr, president and CEO of Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE), the program administrator.
He says the program will also have a quick turnaround, expecting the first approvals to be finalized later this month.
How businesses connect with academics will vary depending on the specific voucher. For example, the voucher for innovation and productivity, the broadest of the three targeted at businesses, requires them to apply jointly with an academic partner that they identify on their own or with the support of OCE.
The voucher for commercialization is open to recent graduates who want to create a startup based on their research, companies that are spun-off from universities, and researchers who are looking to license their work to existing companies.
The voucher for e-business, which is intended to help small brick-and-mortar businesses build e-commerce solutions, is run in conjunction with college courses. Colleges apply to be providers of the program, while businesses apply separately and the two are connected by OCE. College students then act as "consultants" to the business.
A fourth voucher is available to industry associations to solve sector-wide challenges.
The collaboration is “unique, given the scope and the number of partners,” says Barbara Muir, acting vice-president of Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s Research Partnership Program. “The advantage is that the firm has one contact,” says David Lisk, executive director of the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program in Ontario.
Accessing government programs designed to help businesses can be a challenge, especially for small businesses, Ms. Muir says. “It’s a very complicated landscape.”
Teri Kirk, president and CEO of The Funding Portal, a Toronto-based company that helps businesses connect to public and private financing, says Canada has the most generous industrial support program in the world, in areas such as grants and tax credits, but “it’s also more complex than anywhere else.”
“One of the reasons industrial support is so hard to access is the lack of co-operation between government departments.”
Ms. Kirk says there are thousands of different programs, each with a different application process. That seems to be changing.
According to Mr. Lisk, until about three years ago, organizations like his tended to operated in silos. “People were working on their own business, not thinking about who was beside them,” he says.
But he says now “everyone” is talking about collaborations, both formally and informally.
For Mr. Corr, partnering with other organizations just makes sense “because of the financial constraints we’re under, there’s not enough for everyone in every province to do everything.”
The OCE has a continuing partnership with the Québec Consortium for Drug Discovery. That program, the Ontario-Quebec Life Sciences Corridor, funds joint projects between academic researchers and small businesses that have partners in both Quebec and Ontario. That program announced the approval of its first projects on July 4. Mr. Corr says another partnership is also in the works with Alberta.
Several provincial governments have already introduced voucher programs on their own. Alberta and Nova Scotia have had programs in place since 2008. New Brunswick introduced its own voucher program in May, while British Columbia wrapped up a pilot project in March.
The federal government also announced a voucher program in its last budget, and while it hasn’t gone into effect yet, it will be usable at academic institutions anywhere in the country.
Stacey Ohlmann, director of Industry Development at Alberta Innovates, says the voucher program there helps companies to not only develop a product but also to do feasibility studies and receive third-party assessment of a prototype. Companies “can investigate whether it’s worth it,” says Ms. Ohlman. “It allows them to make that go or no-go decision.”
While Nova Scotia’s and Ontario’s programs require businesses to use the vouchers at universities and colleges, companies in Alberta can also turn to private labs.
Ms. Ohlman says that in the early stages businesses participating in the program were often charged hefty administrative fees and that “universities were the worst offenders.” While those fees have since been banned, Ms. Ohlman says that most of the businesses participating in the program are still turning to the private sector for expertise.
For Blair Gotell, the owner of Arichat, N.S.-based Stack-a-Buoy, his province’s voucher program “was kind of a god-send.”
“It gave me a collaboration opportunity with experts in research and development in a field that I had very little experience in,” Mr. Gotell says. “It’s only the beginning when you invent an idea for a product. Then the reality kicks in.”
In Mr. Gotell’s case, the assembly process for the stackable plastic buoys he invented wasn’t strong enough to withstand the rough waters of the North Atlantic. Working with plastics experts at Dalhousie University’s mechanical engineering department he was able to develop a working solution.
He says that without the voucher, “putting it into practice would have been difficult.” As a one-man operation, with limited resources, he wouldn’t have been able to afford to hire the type of experts the voucher program put him in contact with.
It’s a problem across the country. “Canada is a world leader in early-stage ideas,” says Ms. Kirk, “but a world follower in commercializing those ideas.”
“The issue is that [small and medium-sized business] have limited internal capacity,” Ms. Muir says. “These projects allow them to expand their research.”
And according to Mr. Corr, that’s essential. “If we’re going to stay competitive in manufacturing we have to develop new technology.”
Collaborations don’t just benefit businesses, says Ms. Muir. University professors and students also stand to gain. “These research and development problems tend to be really interesting” for professors, she explains, adding it’s a “great opportunity for students to deal with real-world problems.”
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