By Andrea McPhail
Last Thursday, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains introduced the five winners of the federal government’s Innovation Superclusters Initiative (ISI), officially bestowing five of Canada’s fastest-growing sectors with government support.
Yet as the five superclusters, which include projects designed to promote collaboration between academia and the private sector in artificial intelligence (AI), advanced manufacturing, and smart agriculture, take shape, a number of key questions around policy and business weigh heavily on the minds of the public.
These questions revolve around success metrics, talent acquisition within a global context, the strategic nature of some of the industries around which clusters are being built, and the ability of small players in the tech sector to operate on a level playing field with enterprises and contribute to the innovation ecosystem.
In many cases, unfortunately, the present answers are less than inspiring.
An intended outcome of this policy is to make Canadian superclusters compete effectively with innovation hubs in other parts of the world such as those in Silicon Valley, Washington’s Tech Hub, Beijing’s Zhongguancun, or Shenzhen Hi-Tech Industrial Park. However, Ottawa has yet to provide details on the specific performance indicators and metrics that will be used to measure the success of the newly announced superclusters.
How are the feds planning to measure success? The number of jobs created? The birth of new products and services emanating from superclusters? An increase in business R&D expenditures? Exports to foreign markets? Yes, Canada does have the ability to punch above its weight as evidenced in its ability to develop a vibrant ecosystem in fintech, but to replicate that success in other critical areas requires enormous resources, manpower, and scientific wherewithal, especially when faced with juggernauts in China that are known for their deep pockets and vast resources.
How is a plethora of players in the emerging Canadian superclusters going to effectively identify market needs, both domestic and international, for an array of products and services and subsequently prepare them for commercialization, a longstanding challenge in the Canadian innovation ecosystem. Taxpayers and the Canadian public have yet to see a set of success metrics put in place that will be used to monitor, evaluate and adjust the supercluster strategy.
Supercharging Canada’s innovation ecosystem requires a well-thought-out talent acquisition strategy in highly sought-after expertise. Newly graduated talent is not sufficient to feed superclusters that conduct complex R&D and work on new products that require decades-old experience and in-depth market knowledge.
Take AI, a cornerstone of both the initiative and Canada’s economic future. With data science permeating every industry, demand for talent in machine learning has reached exponential levels. According to a Bloomberg report that cites Montreal’s Element AI, about 22,000 Ph.D.-level computer scientists around the world are capable of building AI systems. Of those, the report goes on to say, only 3,000 are currently looking for a job. In contrast, at least 10,000 related positions are open in the U.S alone.
According to Amir Feizpour, a prominent Canadian data scientist based in Toronto, “Canadian superclusters present a great opportunity for the Canadian AI ecosystem with a lot of interest and demand for them from many AI and data-driven companies popping up everywhere. And I’m glad that the government is stepping in to support it.”
In addition to AI, the other Canadian superclusters all have a mandate to develop digital solutions and will surely also be looking at machine learning and data science applications. For Canada, this raises the question of how we will be able to source the required innovative talent to make our superclusters function effectively and deliver on their intended strategic objectives.
Yes, President Trump’s policies have led to a surge in migration of tech talent from the U.S to Canada, but relying on the flow of tech talent into Canada based on American geopolitics cannot be a viable workforce policy. Canadian superclusters will be in need of a constant supply of qualified talent in critical areas of machine learning and data sciences. Does Ottawa have a plan to address this critical issue, apart from considering the superclusters themselves a job magnet?
Small Tech Players
Many in the tech sector have wondered how this initiative can help small players in our innovation ecosystem. In fact, the vision of superclusters is to have geographic powerhouses throughout the country, with each cluster expected to innovate within its area of specialty. The expectation and hope are to get small players involved with large anchor firms, post-secondary institutions, and government partners within a specific supercluster to be exposed to a range of opportunities in the market to scale up, something that otherwise would not be available to them outside the cluster network.
If the government is serious about this goal, its objective should be to facilitate greater collaboration between a diverse set of players, which will contribute to the superclusters’ ability to introduce and deliver innovative products and services to the market. Players within a supercluster can build a global competitive advantage by attracting more research and talent pool from small players to scale up and position itself as a powerhouse to be reckoned with. Continued success here can draw small players that create value for the supercluster while accessing greater resources available to them in a larger ecosystem. The policy question here is how these superclusters are going to draw and engage small players in tech.
Canada’s superclusters hold great promises and potential for Canadians and the Canadian economy. The next critical step for us is to ensure that the programming rolled out by each of these groups effectively executes and realistically addresses the above policy and business challenges.
Andrea McPhail is vice-president of operations at business consulting firm RDP Associates, where she oversees consulting operations related to tax credit and government grants. She works directly with both startups and established companies to ensure their eligibility for R&D tax credit and other government funding schemes.