Innovation Canada shifts “entire portfolio” to COVID-19 response

Mark Lowey
May 6, 2020

All of Innovation Canada’s workforce and programs are now focused on helping Canadian businesses provide innovative medical and non-medical products and services for the COVID-19 crisis.

“Our entire portfolio of activities has shifted. We’re all hands on deck in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Andrea Johnston, assistant deputy minister and head of Innovation Canada (a sector within Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada) told Research Money.

The shift started March 20, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the government’s plan to mobilize industry in the response to COVID-19. Johnston says Innovation Canada quickly created a new COVID-19 funding stream within its Strategic Innovation Fund program to support COVID-19-related vaccine candidates and clinical trials led by the private sector, as well as Canadian bio-manufacturing opportunities.

Just three days later, Trudeau announced $192 million under the new COVID-19 stream to deliver direct support to Canadian companies for large-scale projects. “That’s an indication of how quickly the Strategic Innovation Fund pivoted to create a new stream and was working closely with two companies,” Johnston says.

A second major pivot came from Canada’s five innovation superclusters, which are also within Innovation Canada’s portfolio. “The superclusters were created because they’re closer to business and can operate at the speed of business,” Johnston says. “They now have such an extensive network we thought it would make sense to involve them in the call to action.”

Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster quickly created a new COVID-19 program, committing $60 million of its original $150 million in federal funding over five years. The Next Generation Manufacturing Canada supercluster committed $50 million of its $230 million in funding to its new COVID-19 program. The Scale AI supercluster, from its $290 million in federal funding, will support 10 COVID-related projects.

“It’s heartening to see that the superclusters’ value in (collaborating with) industry consortiums is paying dividends now,” Johnston says.

“Huge response” from businesses to COVID-19 challenges

Innovation Canada’s third major pivot involved the Build in Canada Innovation Program (BCIP). On April 9, the former BCIP transformed into the new COVID-19 Testing Stream, under Innovation Canada’s Innovation Solutions program.

The Testing Stream offers innovators up to $550,000 for their prototype innovations, both medical and non-medical, and up to $5 million in funding if an innovation demonstrates significant potential in meeting the government’s efforts in combating COVID-19.

Also under the Innovative Solutions program, Innovation Canada – in partnership with the Public Health Agency of Canada, Health Canada, and National Research Council of Canada (NRC) – launched three new COVID-19 challenges and issued calls for proposals from Canadian companies.

“There was a huge response,” Johnston says. Of the three challenges, there were:

  • 119 applications to develop a low-cost (less than $25) sensor system for monitoring COVID-19 patients;
  • more than 100 proposals to develop made-in-Canada filtration materials for manufacturing N95 respirators and surgical masks; and
  • 62 applications to develop a point-of-care and home COVID-19 diagnostic kit.

Innovation Canada and its federal partners will fast track assessment of all the proposals, to rapidly select and fund those chosen, she says.

In addition to the three major pivots mentioned, the federal Service by Innovation Advisors program, which was moved to Innovation Canada from NRC, shifted its focus totally onto COVID-19. “They’re leveraging their extensive network to connect businesses with government support and unlock opportunities,” Johnston says.

Kingston, Ontario-based SnapCab, which makes flexible workplace products, was facing a shut down under the province’s non-essential business closure directive. But innovation advisors worked with the company, along with Queen’s University, to adapt SnapCab’s production to prototype medical pods for use by health care practitioners in working with patients while protecting themselves against COVID-19.

“Because of the medical element, the company was able to stay open and continue working,” Johnston notes.

Innovation Canada, in being able to quickly pivot its entire portfolio to the COVID-19 crisis, and doing so in a tele-working environment, “has seen the procurement process become agile as well,” Johnston says. “We always take the word ‘innovation’ to heart within the organization, so we find ways to make it happen.”

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