Looking out over the innovation and policy funding landscape, Dr Ian McWalter sees a very different environment from 2010 when CMC Microsystems secured $128 million in funding to advance the state and commercialization of micro- and nano-electronics in Canada.
Three years ago, with major awards from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Kingston ON-based not-for-profit corporation was instrumental in keeping Canada at the forefront of the design and prototype development of embedded systems that underpin technological solutions for industry sectors from telecommunications and medicine to energy and mining (R$, February 19/10).
“The stars lined up very well … That time everything fell together,” says McWalter, CMC’s president and CEO and a microelectronics industry veteran. “This time there is no CFI competition so we’re looking for a broader range of funding. It’s a very different circumstance.”
CMC is working to raise its profile among policy makers as it seeks funding for its new corporate strategy (2015-2025). The plan features a strong focus on advanced manufacturing – an area that holds considerable promise as well as the potential for reversing the outflow of manufacturing companies and associated jobs to emerging nations.
Several countries, including the US, have been making significant investments in the research behind advanced manufacturing (AM), and McWalter asserts that Canada must keep pace and develop niches or risk losing industry sectors that depend on new AM technologies for future growth and competitiveness.
Last year Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters issued a report warning that reductions in the federal R&D tax credit program would hinder Canada’s ability to develop the necessary AM technologies required to prevent innovative firms from moving to more attractive jurisdictions (R$, November 9/12).
And in an interview with RE$EARCH MONEY, Dr William Bonvillian – who heads up the Washington DC office of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is a former senior policy advisor to the US Senate – said a comprehensive, whole-of-government effort is required to overcome the failure of the US innovation system to focus on next-generation manufacturing (R$, June 4/12).
“All of these industries – telecommunications, energy, aerospace, automotive, mining and medical – will pin much of their future value on the outputs of these technologies and the way that they’re put together, including software,” says McWalter. “It’s hardware-aware software and software-aware hardware. You can make much better products with better architecture if you know both the pieces.”
By training future industrial researchers to use advanced computer-aided design (CAD) tools, CMC also aims to assist not only large firms but small ones that form the supply chains that tend to cluster around factories and centres of knowledge. And as the fabrication of micro- and nano-electronic components evolve, major companies are starting to build their respective ecosystems differently. Many of the companies within the supply chain have 50% of the global market in their respective niches.
“Last year we had 6,000 users of our CAD tools and that’s all because of CFI funding That is an underpinning of innovation systems in Canada – training people who know how those tools work in every one of these sectors. You need to look at how they do things and tap into it,” says McWalter.
CMC is already engaged with many other R&D facilities in Canada, including the National Research Council (NRC) and its Canadian Photonics Fabrication Facility. With two collaborative programs already in place, McWalter says he sees the CMC-NRC relationship as synergistic and expects it will only grow over time as CMC contributes design expertise to prototype development and the use of gallium nitride.
With the ever-expanding influence of micro- and nano-electronics, CMC is hoping it can more funders to support its mission and activities while continuing to rely on NSERC for its foundational support.
“This is more than sustaining the current activities of CMC, it is a wider public policy issue. We’re trying to provide benefit to Canada through the development of the National Design Network (NDN), which is a pan-Canadian venture and everybody has access. You just have to have a good idea,” says McWalter. “It’s not just ICT anymore. You really need to see the whole picture.”
CMC has developed a comprehensive set of metrics to assist in the effective use of resources and to demonstrate value to existing and potential funders and partners. Led by CMC senior VP Dan Gale, the system of about a dozen metrics has evolved along with CMC’s progression from microelectronics to a small systems orientation, to gauge academic or research merit and commercialization merit.
“Our roots are in microelectronics and the ICT sector but we’ve become increasingly agnostic, including photonics and MEMS (microelectromechanical systems). We developed a formal structure that we have used successfully for a number of years to give us a base line and allow us to see patterns,” says Gale. “It’s about public accountability but also to give us as much contact as possible with the R&D community so we can do things that are important to them.”
CMC has 90 members and 500 R&D subscribers while its NDN engages 850 faculty to share their R&D interests with more than 500 companies.
CMC metrics detailing the number and value of interactions with Canadian and foreign entities show the industries and the number of start-ups that have been directly enabled by CMC’s NDN. They also show the number of graduate students, post doctorates and research staff that collaborate or have been hired by industry.
Typically CMC enables five or six start-ups annually, but last year there were 12 – an indication that the impact of CMC’s expertise may be growing.
“Start-up companies often require prototypes to put in front of potential investors to show they have a lead in the market,” says Gale. “We strengthen the R&D capacity for more companies and products, which is the R&D equivalent to marketing activity.. Then we put the data together that no one else have. Other organizations appreciate what we bring to the table … We’re a world leader in these metrics. I interact with CMC-like organizations globally and our metrics differentiate us,” says Gale.
Gale says the overriding driver for maintaining the metrics is benefit to Canada but they will also be helpful in formulating CMC’s next strategic plan which is currently in draft form and about to go out for consultation. A key question will be whether CMC’s proposed emphasis on advanced manufacturing resonates within the policy, academic and industry communities.
“We need to go out and discuss this vision fully and find out if there is that policy awareness … It’s an interesting trend around the world but it’s quite complex,” says Gale. “The supply chains that feed into it are global and for a company to be successful in Canada, it will require advanced micro technologies, whether it’s for assembly or basic manufacturing. We need people that understand the designs required to develop these products and systems.”