Digital Technology Supercluster gearing up to deliver successes

Mark Lowey
September 12, 2018

The British Columbia-based Digital Technology Supercluster is on track to launch its initial collaborative public-private sector projects in October, says chief executive Sue Paish, who expects the initiative will change how the world sees Canada.

A first of its kind for Canada, the $950-million Innovation Superclusters Initiative “is one of the most courageous initiatives I’ve seen from a federal government in decades,” Paish told RE$EARCH MONEY. “This is truly a different approach to public-private partnerships.”

In February, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) selected five groups to share up to $950 million over five years in federal funding, in a high-tech strategy to grow a stronger, innovation-driven economy and create more than 50,0000 jobs. The supercluster concept is central to the Liberals’ “Innovation Agenda.” Each business-led supercluster (the other four are focused on protein industries, advanced manufacturing, intelligent supply chains, and ocean industries) will bring together small, medium-sized and large companies, post-secondary and research institutions, and not-for-profits to generate and commercialize innovative technologies.

“If this supercluster initiative is successful, it will change Canada from being a jurisdiction on a global stage whose economy is based almost exclusively on natural resources,” Paish says. “The world will now see us as a leader in technologies . . . More importantly, it will change the way we see ourselves.”

The Digital Technology Supercluster is one of two superclusters out of the five whose operating framework has secured federal Treasury Board approval. “We are now in the midst of negotiating the final contribution agreement with ISED,” Paish says. “I feel palpably the commitment of the federal negotiators to concluding an agreement that works.”

It has been more than six months since government announced the superclusters, yet none has signed a contribution agreement with ISED or received any funding. Paish, who practised law for 25 years before entering the health care sector, notes that the superclusters concept has never been tried before and “involves changing how we do business in Canada.” Rather than relying on funding arrangements used in the past, “we are developing a truly agile and resilient culture around the superclusters. This is a much more fluid model.”

Nine ‘extremely strong’ projects ready for launch

The Digital Technology Supercluster, which includes more than 350 organizations, will advance projects guided by industry needs to develop solutions using technology from virtual, mixed and augmented reality, data analytics and quantum computing.

Paish, who joined the supercluster in May, says she saw during her time in the health care sector that government-private sector partnerships and innovation can be “suffocated” by how long it takes to get things done. “So we’re actually going to deliver small, measurable successes to Canadians while we are moving forward with refining and defining this (supercluster).”

Her team is reviewing nine “extremely strong” pilot projects from the three industry sectors the supercluster focuses on: precision health, natural resources and manufacturing. Paish plans to present the projects to a board meeting at the end of September. “We want to launch our projects in October,” she says. “I’m extremely confident that this particular supercluster is coming out of the gate very positively.”

Innovative ‘collisions’ already happening

The Digital Technology Supercluster is already bringing small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with innovative technologies together with “big players that have the capital, the experience and the market reach to actually scale that innovation into something [commercial],” Paish says. Simultaneously, large companies such as Microsoft and Telus “are now colliding with each other.” They’re realizing some of their independently developed technologies could be combined into “something that can put Canada at the front of the line in our industry on a global stage.”

Paish, who was CEO at LifeLabs prior to joining the supercluster, says she’s aware of criticism that many federal programs measure success by the amount of money spent, number of request-for-proposal responses, number of projects financed and other input-based metrics. Her response: “I come from the private sector. My models of success are all based on output.” Those metrics will include impact on GDP, new markets accessed, new customers attracted and new companies created in specific sectors. For SMEs, success must mean both scale-up growth and longevity, Paish says. “You don’t build a better Canada if you have a big splash for a few years and then you disappear.”

The supercluster also will focus on closing a growing “significant talent gap” in Canada, Paish says. This includes ensuring that all Canadians who want to be trained in digital technologies “have the access to do so in a meaningful way that makes them job-ready.” Emphasis will be on under-represented groups in the technology sector: women, rural citizens, Indigenous communities and the physically disabled, as well as workers whose current jobs are expected to disappear as a result of the economy’s digital transformation.

The superclusters concept isn’t focused on “big cities and big companies,” Paish stresses. “This is an initiative, at least from the Digital Technology Supercluster’s point of view, which will touch Canadians in every corner . . . because in the digital economy it doesn’t actually matter where you live to have an impact, and to be fully employed while still living in the community of your choice.”


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