Universities and colleges in Atlantic Canada have discovered the secret to winning huge research mandates and partnerships with major multinationals like IBM, Siemens, Cisco, Royal DSM and Lockheed Martin. Compete less and cooperate more.
Around the world, post-secondary institutions fiercely compete against each other for top students, esteemed scientists, research grants and industry partners. While that approach may still work for large institutions, schools in Atlantic Canada realized a different approach was needed to get noticed on the global stage.
“It took a lot of courage. Universities are very competitive by nature, not collaborative, but we now have major projects with universities working together in areas such as smart grids and renewable energy, network security, ocean technologies, aquaculture, natural products and more specific areas like biomedical engineering and geodesy and geomatics. It’s about leveraging our collective strengths to tackle complex problems and make our region a global centre of research excellence and entrepreneurship,” says Chris Mathis, President and CEO of Springboard Atlantic.
Launched in 2004, Springboard Atlantic works with its 19 university and college members to create one large “virtual” tech transfer office that pools and coordinates resources regionally to offer services not always available at small or mid-sized institutions, such as mentoring, proof of concepts, patents, marketing and links to investors. In January, it received $9.2 million in renewed funding from the federal government’s Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.
Mathis notes that about 15 years ago, not many academic institutions in the region were doing research, let alone exploiting opportunities to commercialize that research.
“There has been a sea change since then. Today, we have strong collaborations with large multinational companies and in helping those companies link to SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises) and researchers in the region,” says Mathis. “I credit this success to our ability to work cooperatively and our solid entrepreneurial culture, as well as the fact that Atlantic Canadians are pretty easy to deal with.”
More than 20% of all private sector R&D in Atlantic Canada is conducted in partnership with post-secondary institutions compared to five percent in the rest of Canada. Over the past decade, Springboard members have helped create 126 new companies with associated sales revenue of $240 million
The network represents more than $400 million in annual R&D activity from the institutions, with a large portion of that through industry and community collaborations. For example, the last few years have seen significant government and partner investments in large-scale research programs, including: the Ocean Frontier Institute ($244 million); two Canada Excellence Research Chairs ($40 million); Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response Network of Centre of Excellence (MEOPAR) ($30 million); and two national commercialization centres, Natural Products Canada ($23 million) and LOOKNorth ($18 million).
Springboard’s collaborative approach is catching on with governments as well. Last year, the federal government and Atlantic provinces teamed up to launch the Atlantic Growth Strategy—a pan-Atlantic approach to spur research, innovation, entrepreneurship and job creation.
Mathis says the strategy aligns with Springboard Atlantic’s mandate and goals. “Whether it’s the immigration pilot, the initiative around international student retention, start-up support, technology transfer, research commercialization, clean energy, or the Post-Secondary Education Strategic Infrastructure Fund, the Springboard network is positioned to assist government in driving this agenda forward.”