High-tech veteran Alan Winter becomes BC’s first innovation commissioner

Mark Henderson
February 20, 2018

British Columbia has jumped into the science advice and advocacy arena by appointing a tech industry veteran in hopes of increasing the province’s share of federal innovation funding. Dr. Alan Winter becomes BC’s inaugural innovation commissioner 20 months after stepping down as president and CEO of Genome British Columbia – a position he held for nearly 15 years, capping a long career that includes senior positions in the private sector and government.

The one-year appointment (with the potential for extensions based on performance) was announced February 5 by Bruce Ralston, BC’s Minister of Jobs, Trade and Technology. The announcement coincides with the federal government’s efforts to elevate research and innovation as national priorities – the latest example being last week’s news of $950 million for five regionally disbursed, industry-led superclusters, including BC’s Digital Technology Supercluster.

“The timing is good because the federal government is putting significant emphasis on innovation, not only of research and universities but in many programs like smart cities and infrastructure of various kinds,” says Winter, who will be supported by a small secretariat. “It’s becoming much wider than federally funded university programs … My priority is advocating for the BC tech sector (and) letting people know the strengths and challenges BC faces. I’ll also be a champion and convenor for innovation. It brings a focal point.”

The new position was initially proposed in the election platform of the Green Party of BC and subsequently created through a Confidence and Supply Agreement developed by the NDP and Green parties when they forged a coalition to form the current government. The agreement also calls for the establishment of an Innovation Commission, which was officially unveiled in this month’s provincial Budget.

“The Innovation Commission is a piece of the puzzle. From my perspective, I will be working closely with the commission but I won’t be spending time managing programs. I understand who to hand stuff off to in the provincial government when something comes about,” says Winter, who sits on several boards and is an adjunct professor and guest lecturer in the Univ of Victoria’s business school.

The IC’s mandate calls for Winter to:

  • Seek and maintain strategic partnerships with federal government representatives;
  • Advocate for BC’s fair share of federal innovation-related program funding;
  • Champion BC’s technology sector in Ottawa and abroad;
  • Promote BC as a lucrative investment location;
  • Connect BC technology companies with national and international partners to expand market opportunities; and,
  • Support, where appropriate, the implementation of innovation and technology-related mandates and priorities of the provincial government.

Winter’s first priority will be to support BC’s winning bid for funding under the federal Innovation Superclusters Initiative (ISI), which was selected last week as one of five successful applicants for $950-million in federal funding. While the IC was created at the tail end of the ISI competitive process, Winter says the leveraging process of developing proposals and having a winning bid is significant.

“(ISI) is the first step. The program is one we can build around over a 10-year period, building on federal support,” he says. “Through ISI we identified more than 200 companies that wanted to be part of it, seeded by the federal government but taking on a life of its own. It shows the scale and scope of what will happen here.”

The three BC bids for ISI funding in which the province either led or participated in all have a digital focus, adds Winter, which helps to galvanize support and participation across sectors that represent huge economic drivers in the province.

The successful BC bid – Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster - aims to launch industry-guided projects initially in the areas of health, natural resources and industry by utilizing data analytics, quantum computing, and virtual, mixed and augmented reality. BC was also involved in two shortlisted but unsuccessful ISI proposals – mobility systems and technologies (Quebec, Ontario, BC and Atlantic Canada) and clean growth through mining (Ontario, Quebec and BC).

“For BC, ISI is really a digital focus whether it’s health, or industry or natural resources. Think of the mine of the future using data from sensors and virtual reality. It’s all digital,” says Winter, who holds a PhD in solid states physics from Queens Univ.

While the IC position differs from the mandates of the federal, Ontario or Quebec chief scientist positions, Winter says there are important areas of overlap.

“There are counterparts to the Innovation Commissioner position for part of my role,” he says. “Mona Nemer (national chief science advisor) and Rémi Quirion (Quebec chief scientist) also bring people together around government priorities.”

Prior to moving to British Columbia in the mid-1980s, Winter worked at the Communications Research Centre on the space program and Telesat Canada as director of engineering. In addition to Genome BC, his other roles include founding president and CEO of the New Media Innovation Centre in Vancouver, president of the ComDev Space Group in Cambridge ON, and president and CEO of MPR Teltech in Vancouver. He says that experience gained through his various roles in BC’s research and innovation sector and beyond afford him a perspective that will be useful in his new role as IC.

“All those positions had one thread: how do you look at investment in R&D to drive a prosperous economy? At Genome BC, we showed that good partnerships with the federal government can be very successful,” he says. “I plan to visit Ottawa about once a month.”

In addition to his regular career, Winter was also an active contributor to S&T policy, most notably as deputy chair of the Council of Science and Technology Advisors. He was also a member of a CSTA panel whose report, Building Excellence in Science and Technology, weighed in on the federal government’s deteriorating ability to fulfill its S&T mandate to support the health, safety and economic well-being of Canadians.


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