Superclusters’ focus on collaboration is reaping benefits for Canadian SMEs

Mark Lowey
November 4, 2020

The national superclusters’ efforts to increase collaboration among different industrial sectors, large and small companies, and academic research institutions are paying off for some Canadian small- and medium-sized enterprises.

More than 430 SMEs across Canada are now participating in the five superclusters’ 219 projects, representing 53% of organizations' project participation, say the superclusters’ CEOs.

They are partners on projects to develop new technologies, grow jobs, attract investment and reach international markets, senior executives of those companies told the inaugural “Superclusters Showcase” event, held online on October 28.

“The supercluster initiative has allowed us to connect with more partners across the country, not just Atlantic Canada,” said Bill Donovan, senior program manager at Kraken Robotics, a marine technology company headquartered near St. John’s in Mount Pearl, NL.

Kraken, a member of the Atlantic Canada-based Ocean Supercluster, is leading the $20-million OceanVision project, which brought together the oil and gas, fisheries, seafood and energy infrastructure sectors. The project is developing new marine technologies and products to enable underwater robotics data acquisition and data analytics as a service business. Kraken, founded eight years ago with six staff, has added 45 new employees within the last 15 months, Donovan said. The company now has 129 employees worldwide, including more than a dozen PhDs, and offices in Dartmouth, N.S., Toronto, Boston and Germany.

Donovan said the company is competing against multinationals with much greater size and revenue in a global market. In September, Kraken bested those big players in landing a $36-million contract to supply mine-hunting solar equipment to the Royal Danish Navy.

Another Ocean Supercluster collaboration, the $29-million Ocean Aware project led by Halifax-based Innovasea, brought together the aquaculture, ocean technology, shipping and fisheries sectors. Participants include two tech startups, along with Dalhousie University, Memorial University, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The project will develop and commercialize aquaculture technology to monitor fish health and movement and the environment.

In Ontario, as part of the Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen) supercluster’s response to COVID-19, Molded Precision Components (MPC) near Barrie partnered with medical devices manufacturer Sterling Industries in Toronto on a project to rapidly design and produce high-quality face shields for health care workers.

MPC has grown from a pre-COVID pandemic staff size of 55 to 160 workers, including 65 students, said MPC president and CEO David Yeaman. The company now produces more than 450,000 face shields a day and, with Sterling, has sold more than 27 million face shields to the federal and provincial governments.

Working with the NGen supercluster,  it took MPC just eight days to go from an idea for a face shield to a patent-pending to supercluster funding for the project, he said. “That [typically] never happens . . . NGen adapted and innovated the process to make it such that they could move as fast as industry.”

SMEs expanding, competing in global marketplace

MPC is leveraging its participation in three NGen projects to compete in the global medical products market, Yeaman said. The company is developing a 33.6-hectare medical innovation park with more than one million square feet of businesses that will all collaborate to reduce Canada’s health security risk in future pandemics and other emergencies, he noted. “It’s going to change the world and put Canada on the map.”

The superclusters’ focus on leveraging folks from different sectors and bringing us together has been huge,” said Dr. Alina Turner, PhD, president and co-founder of HelpSeeker, based in Calgary.

HelpSeeker, a member of the Digital Technology Supercluster in B.C., was able to link up and partner with AltaML, an artificial intelligence (AI) company in Calgary, on a project that uses a predictive algorithm to anticipate and mitigate cases of homelessness, suicide and domestic violence.

“The supercluster investment has given us an opportunity to compete in a space where there isn’t that much innovation happening from a social perspective,” Turner said. “It’s giving Canada an edge.”

An August survey of half of the Digital Supercluster projects found that:

  • 68% of project teams have forged new partnerships through being involved in a supercluster project;
  • 44% have raised additional funding; and
  • 40% are exploring international opportunities.

Naomi Goldapple, head of AlayaLabs, the R&D arm of AlayaCare which produces software for the home health care industry, said Alaya is involved in three projects with the Quebec-based Scale AI supercluster and other partners, including the University of Victoria.

They are using machine learning and algorithms in a digital toolkit to optimize health care workers’ schedules and alert care supervisors in real-time about employees or patients showing COVID symptoms.

“It has been a great collaboration between us, academia and our partners,” Goldapple said. AlayaCare has offices in Toronto, Peterborough, Montreal, Victoria, New York and Australia.

Daniel McCann, CEO of Precision AI in Regina, said his company is collaborating with the Prairies-based Protein Industries Canada supercluster and other partners, including the University of Saskatchewan, on a project using AI and robotics to target crop pests in the field, reducing pesticide usage and costs.

The project will create more than 120 new jobs, McCann said. “These types of investments are really great in the strategic sense for positioning us, not just as innovators domestically but as innovators around the world.”

Navdeep Bains, minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, told the Superclusters Showcase that the five superclusters have now engaged more than 4,600 companies and approved 219 projects worth more than $800 million. Every dollar of supercluster funding has leveraged an average $1.50 of industry investment, he noted.

The superclusters have created more than 6,100 jobs since their first projects were launched 18 months ago and are on track to exceed the target of creating 50,000 new jobs over 10 years, Bains said.


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