Ontario Centres of Excellence chairs recommending more commercialization and changes to program structure
February 27, 2002
The chairs of the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) are recommending a series of structural and strategic changes to the university-industry research program including a consolidated governance structure, more commercialization and an extension of the next funding period to 10 years. The recommendations were proposed to the government last fall through the Ministry of Energy Science and Technology (MEST), but the economic downturn and pending changes in leadership of the governing party have delayed a response until at least this summer.
The recommendations also include a strong endorsement of the program’s activities and urge the government to continue funding the Centres to at least the level they now receive. The current funding allocation is $32.2 million over five years, ending December 31/02. Economic and political uncertainty combined with the need to quickly resolve the renewal issue may result in an interim funding allocation for one year to allow for further study and discussion, particularly if there is a change of ministers at MEST.
“What we would like to see is renewal with additional funding over time, in terms of our activities, growth in the areas of commercialization and our collaborative research. There’s a good opportunity to get more funds over time because the OCE is such a vital component of the government’s science and technology strategy,” says Geoff Clark, president CEO of Materials and Manufacturing Ontario and chair of the OCE Council of Presidents. “The leadership decision isn’t until March 23rd and when that happens, then the wheels will start to turn again in terms of all government programs. I would expect there will be ministerial changes and a re-grouping of the Cabinet after this and then a look at the Budget.”
GREATER FLEXIBILITY AND COMMUNICATIONS FOCUS
The highly regarded OCE program includes four research Centres that stimulate and manage collaboration between academic and industry players in Ontario in strategic technology areas. It currently operates under four separate contracts between the various Centres and the government , but consolidation under a single administrative structure would reduce that to one.
Materials and Manufacturing Ontario
Communications and Information
Photonics Research Ontario
Centre for Research in Earth and Space Technology
“What we say is that this new governance structure would have the ability to allocate resources and provide a strong communications focus, all structured so that the Centres would have the ability and flexibility to do their job and be successful,” says Clark. “You would have a stronger single voice and critical mass within the structure…We’re looking at streamlining this program so you would have consolidation.”
Many expect that the most dramatic changes in the OCE program will be in the areas of commercialization and collaboration. Since the OCE failed to obtain funding for a commercialization program two years ago, the Centres have been allocating more resources in that direction.
The hope is that the government will recognize the potential of moving into what is widely considered to be a legitimate role for public research funding — bridging the gap between commercially promising research and the marketplace. That entails prototyping, pilot production, marketing and business plan writing, and other technology mentoring services.
Communications and Information Technology Ontario, for example, is attempting to establish a venture capital pool. Other Centres may follow, but lack of adequate funding and the commercial potential of the technology under development constrains the scope of such ventures.
A more modest approach to stimulating commercialization is the OCE market readiness program. At MMO, seven projects have been funded and more resources are being devoted to the program as it takes hold.
“There’s no question there’s still a gap out there so we looked at a market-readiness program specific to our areas of research and support,” says Clarke. “If you look at our three-year plan, you’ll see there there are increasing resources being put into commercialization including the market-readiness projects.”
Scarce resources have also prompted the OCEs to join forces with university technology transfer offices. MMO has assisted in the formation of Interface Biologics in conjunction with the Univ of Toronto’s Innovations Foundation. The new company, which is developing component surfaces for biomedical applications such as catheters, has already attracted $1.4 million in venture capital funding. Clarke says the project is an indication of a new spirit of cooperation between the OCE program and universities, and increased future collaboration is anticipated.
COLLABORATION WITH INDUSTRY ON THE RISE
Collaboration with industry is also experiencing a significant increase, requiring re-allocation of resources to support it. Clarke emphasizes that much of the research conducted through the Centres remains enabling and fundamental, but he acknowledges that collaborative, multidisciplinary research is the wave of the future.,
To that end, MMO has established the Emerging Materials Knowledge Network (EMK), a $20.7-million initiative involving universities, government and industry. It will bring together university and industry scientists to explore specific areas of emerging materials research. The EMK is applying for $7 million in funding from the Ontario R&D Challenge Fund, and in a first for the OCE program, MMO is the applicant.
“We spent a lot of time on this and I’m really keen on it and I don’t think this is going to be the last one either,” he says. “From the university perspective, it’s designed to help fund and bring new faculty into the network, and there’s a formula for that. We just had a call for proposals and they are put together and decided upon by a project selection committee. The industry players have have certain rights with respect to the proposals, depending on how much money is allocated to the specific project.”