Tech leaders lobby government for $500 million

Industry representatives from Canada’s advanced technology sector called on the federal government last week to invest $500 million over the next five years to make Canada a magnet for the highly qualified people necessary to sustain the growth projected for their industry.

In a statement released last Thursday spokespersons from eMPOWR: Kirk Mandy, vice-chairman of the board of directors of Mitel Corporation; Terry Matthews, founder of Newbridge and chairman and CEO of March Networks; and Jim Roche, president of Tundra Semiconductor Corporation and chairman of eMPOWR said they were calling on the government to make a strategic choice about where to invest.

“Canada has a superb global reputation in fields like photonics and microelectronics. The industry has made a huge contribution to building that reputation. But we can’t sustain it on our own. We’re asking the government to meet us half way,” said Mitel’s Mandy.

eMPOR was launched late last year as a joint effort by industry and academia with the objective of increasing the targeted funding of research in Canadian universities so as to grow the number of university faculty in the eMPOWR sectors and also expand Canada’s capacity to generate highly qualified technology graduates.

According to eMPOWR the money would be used to invest in the professors, students, laboratory infrastructure and research and development initiatives to ensure Canada maintains its leadership in microelectronics, photonics, opto-electronics, wireless and radio-electronics.

eMPOWR said that these segments of their industry are currently accountable for 28 per cent of private sector research and development and they have a strong track record of commercializing research discoveries, using them to build new products and services and world-renowned enterprises such as Nortel, JDS Uniphase, Mitel Corporation, RIM, March Networks and Tundra Semiconductor Corporation. Yet, in spite of the Government’s express intent to focus on possible commercial research and development, these sectors are woefully under-represented in the current round of investments through the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Canada Research Chairs. Less than three per cent of the latter, for example, are going to professors teaching in these fields, eMPOWR added.

The industry association estimated that their investment in producing highly qualified people would amount to at least $500 million over the next five years. This investment will take the form of university endowments, the creation of labs and faculty positions, cash grants to support university research, scholarships and internships, contributions to provincial programs, staff secondments to learning institutions as well as diverse contributions of equipment, technology, service and staff.

“Our industry is facing a critical shortage of the highly qualified people with the brain power to innovate and create,” said Terry Matthews.

According to Matthews Canadian universities graduate less than a third of the people the industry needs and the situation is only going to get worse. There are currently only 350 professors teaching in these disciplines in Canada and 25 per cent of them are scheduled to retire by 2005.

“We have to turn this around,” Matthews said. “We have a chance to build a reputation for excellence as a world leaders in this industry. The government typically will make its investments across all disciplines without greater focus on critical areas of technology. This approach carries the risk of making us also-rans in everything and leaders in nothing.”

Mandy and Matthews spoke on behalf of eMPOWR, an initiative between the private sector and 20 universities to increase Canada’s resource of highly qualified people. eMPOWR seeks sufficient government investment to accomplish the following: