Canadian backers of CCSIP looking to Budget for sign of long term support

Guest Contributor
February 19, 2010

Fifteen bridge-building projects between Canadian and California researchers could lead the way to a new era of collaborative R&D with commercial applications between the two jurisdictions but major obstacles make success far from certain. The Canada-California Strategic Innovation Partnership (CCSIP) made the formal announcement of the project winners on February 3rd some six months after the winners were selected.

The projects — six for business plan development and nine for collaborative events such as workshops and symposia — received slightly more than $2 million from the Univ of California (UC) and a consortium of participating Canadian universities. Small amounts were provided by the Ontario Centres of Excellence's Centre for Commercialization of Research and ISTPCanada, the organization managing Canada's participation in CCSIP. They were selected following a rigorous competition which began in October/08 and attracted 108 letters of intent and 45 complete applications.

CCSIP scored an early success with the establishment of the Cancer Stem Cell Consortium (R$, November 23/09) and its backers are clearly hoping that the new projects will lead to similar initiatives in areas such as green IT, biofuels or infectious diseases. The projects will involve researchers from eight campuses of the Univ of California and 23 Canadian universities and nearly 50 companies, government laboratories and agencies.

But budget pressures in Canada and the full blown crisis in California's finances are raising concerns that the government funding required to move beyond workshops and business plans may not be forthcoming. In Canada, backers are anxiously waiting for the details of the forthcoming federal Budget for tangible support or signs that Ottawa still supports the CCSIP concept.

"This is a model of international research collaboration that's close to the heart of the federal government, its priorities and philosophy. But at some point it will need some support and I think that time is now," says Dr Denis Thérien, VP research and international relations at McGill Univ and a key CCSIP backer. "The success of what is going to happen in the next year will determine whether CCSIP has a future or not."

Uncertainty is also rife on the California side of CCSIP, with UC feeling the impact of the state's massive deficit and the cost-cutting measures of the Schwarzenegger administration. Of the four bilateral research relationships being pursued by UC, only the Canada venture remains active. Since the arrival of new UC president Dr Mark Yudof in 2008, those with India, China and Mexico have either been cancelled or postponed.

"We had three others that we let lapse for the moment ... We assess the maturity of each partner and there was no question that the Canadian collaboration was the highest priority. It's a very symmetric relationship," says Dr Steven Beckwith, UC's VP research and graduate studies. "In the long run we'd love it if every project wrote a business plan and secured outside funding. It won't happen in every case but stem cell's funding success could happen in other areas as companies make new products to cross the famous valley of death."

Beckwith says CCSIP scored an early impressive success in stem cell research that he hopes can be replicated in other identified areas.

"The stem cell collaboration was a huge success but if only one of five areas hits big I consider it a success," he says. "In other areas we think the potential is enormous. Alberta has made a big investment in carbon storage and sequestration and having California collaborate with Canada increases the pool of researchers."

Theriéin says the fact that collaboration with Canada remains a UC priority is testament to the strength of the CCSIP model and the potential for future collaboration.

"UC has decided to maintain its involvement and support including financial support," he says. "There is even a possibility of renewing that commitment for a second round."

Public funding uncertainty aside, another challenge facing CCSIP is to engage the private sector beyond its participation in the 15 preliminary projects. Private sector involvement is essential if CCSIP is to achieve the deployment element of its mandate, providing a conduit for moving the research out of the lab and into society and the marketplace.

"The private sector is involved in all the proposals that have been selected. Having a name on an application is positive but it's another thing to be thoroughly involved that will implicate them in the implementation."

"Companies are ready to invest in new technologies or are participating simply to get into the game with access to people and facilities," says Beckwith.

Federal support, industry engagement are priorities

According to Thérien, CCSIP has taken four years to get to this point primarily because it is not following any preconceived program structure. The concept was initially hatched with considerable enthusiasm but bogged down in discussions over how best to proceed and government unfamiliarity with such a novel bilateral arrangement. Repeated attempts to garner financial support from government have yet to bear fruit.

Once the current projects are completed within the next year, CCSIP backers are hopeful new funding will be available to launch collaborative research projects that engage the private sector. They also want projects that are comparable in scope and significance to the Cancer Stem Cell Consortium which has attracted $80 million to date.

"The question is, how deeply can we push the relationship with the private sector. The private sector is not deeply involved yet, even with stem cells," says Thérien. "The second 'D' (deployment) is crucial for projects and the current projects were selected very much for this second 'D' to happen."

Thérien says that in addition to funding provided by UC and Canadian universities, the current projects also received many hours of volunteer time from several individuals as well as in-kind support from government. The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade is supporting a one-person secretariat and ISTP Canada is managing the Canadian side of the process.

"We are trying an experiment. It's taking a long time but it's being done without the benefit of financial support," says Thérien. "We've put in a lot of volunteer time and we're doing it because we would like to succeed and we're having a good time. If not for that, it would not have survived. Many organizations say CCSIP needs support so we will see what happens after the Budget."

Federal involvement created the delay in announcing the projects as the government dithered in providing an appropriate minister to make the announcement or at least be quoted in the official press release.


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