Innovation superclusters proving their worth during COVID-19 crisis, CEOs say

Mark Lowey
May 6, 2020

Canada’s innovation superclusters are showing their value during the COVID-19 crisis and have learned “lessons” to help lead the post-COVID economic recovery, the five superclusters’ CEOs told a Research Money webinar held April 29.

The superclusters, collaborating with industry, government, post-secondary and research institutions in their cross-country networks, have within seven weeks approved nearly 30 new projects focused on responding to COVID-19.

That’s on top of more than 80 industry-led, non-COVID projects, with a total project value of more than $500 million, that the superclusters and network partners had co-funded prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and on which work continues, the CEOs said.

“While the superclusters were set up to encourage economic growth and provide a real impetus to innovation, what we’ve all shown is that at the end of the day that carries huge benefits,” said Jayson Myers, CEO of the Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen) supercluster. “The COVID crisis only underlines the importance of what we’re all doing in providing those benefits to Canadians.”

“Agility, speed, collaboration, resilience, outcomes – that’s what we’ve learned during the last seven weeks,” said Sue Paish, CEO of Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster. “We can move fast, we’re really agile, we deliver outcomes and we do it collaboratively. And we are an incredibly resilient economy.”

The Digital Technology Supercluster’s $60-million COVID-19 program received more than 350 proposals and so far has provided $13.5 million to support an initial eight projects. They include a COVID-19 Supply Hub digital platform, built within 72 hours in partnership with the Business Council of B.C. In British Columbia alone, the Supply Hub has provided four billion units of personal protective equipment by connecting suppliers with customers, Paish said. The hub is scheduled to be launched this week in Alberta, and there are discussions to roll it out across the country, she said.

The NGen supercluster on May 4 announced a $21-million investment in an initial eight COVID projects, from more than 900 proposals. With more projects to come, those approved so far include development and manufacturing of ventilators and components, test kits, face shields, and a coating material that kills bacteria and viruses on contact.

“These are transformative projects. We’re funding the production startup of very new, innovative types of devices and technologies, and of capabilities of manufacturing,” Myers said.

The Scale AI supercluster has committed more than $3.4 million for an initial eight COVID-related projects, out of 150 proposals. Funded projects range from optimizing the distribution and delivery of medical resources and essential cargo, to $500,000 to support the Toronto-based Creative Destruction Lab’s “CDL Recovery” project, to rapidly transform technological innovations into useful products and services for public health and economic recovery.

Scale AI also was able in early April to start paying salaries for artificial intelligence specialists working for hard-hit aerospace companies, including Air Canada, Bombardier and CAE Inc., said CEO Julien Billot. “They know they need to keep that competence alive in their industry.”

The superclusters, because of their due diligence processes and independent expert evaluation of proposed projects and in working closely with Innovation, Science and Economic Development on flexible funding arrangements, were able to provide urgently needed funding to businesses faster during the COVID crisis than any other organization, the CEOs said.

“Collaboration has been key in fighting COVID-19, and it will remain important as we prepare to open up the economy once again,” Myers said.

Lessons learned from the crisis

Myers said a big lesson learned during the COVID-19 crisis is how dependent Canada is, because of lack of domestic manufacturing capability, on extended supply chains and “imports from countries that don’t seem too adverse to restricting exports, even of critical products.”

“We’ve also learned the really important role that advanced manufacturing plays, the flexibility that companies have to pivot to different types of manufacturing to come up with different solutions to fight the COVID crisis,” he added.

Discussions have already started with policy makers to ensure the country will have sufficient manufacturing and a secure supply of critical products and materials in the future, Myers said.

Bill Greuel, CEO of the Protein Industries Canada supercluster, said another post-COVID issue will be increasing protectionism and domestication of global food supply chains. “There’s no reason to believe that Canada will suffer large-scale food shortages as a result of COVID-19.” However, the country will need to be strategic in its international alliances and export markets, Greuel said.

Kendra MacDonald, CEO of Canada’s Ocean Supercluster, said the supercluster and its network representing 13 sectors of the ocean economy were developing a new “Blue Economy Strategy” for Canada prior to COVID-19. She urged that work continue to quickly define and implement that strategy.

Paish said the Digital Technology Supercluster’s projects “are all focused on the future economy. They’re focused on digitizing every element of our economy and capturing the incredible data we have across this country in every industry.” In the economic recovery, governments, industry and educational institutions need to support this digital transformation with the rapid re-skilling of the workforce, she said.

Another lesson learned from the COVID-19 crisis, Paish noted, is “we don’t need to be buried in process. Process isn’t a substitute for good governance. Agility and good governance work hand-in-hand.”

Research Money publisher Jeffrey Crelinsten, who hosted the webinar, told the CEOs: “The one thing this crisis has taught us is that when you have a clear goal, everyone can come together . . . You’ve shown that there are other goals we have to hold out. And once we have them and everyone is aligned, then we (Canada) are going to really run.”

Canada’s Innovation Superclusters: Projects and Networks


Supercluster # of projects approved Funding contributed by supercluster Funded contributed by industry and other network members # of members in supercluster network
Digital Technology 39

$49.6 M

(includes $13.5M for 8 COVID projects)

$66.8M 565
Protein Industries 11 $60.5M $67M 185
NGen Manufacturing 26


(includes $21M for 8 COVID projects)

$46M 2,500
Scale AI 28


(includes $3.4M for 8 COVID projects)

approx. $65M*

*To be officially confirmed by the end of June; some projects still in contracting stage.


over 100
Ocean Supercluster

2 announced*

*Several others approved but still in contracting stage.

$30M $60M over 160
TOTAL 106 $236.1M $304.8M 3,510



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