Nano ‘SWAT team’ on mission to warm Canada’s cold shoulder

April 4, 2003 — While geographically one of the world’s largest countries, Canada is dwarfed by much of the industrialized world in nanotech investment. 


That is a major concern among a group of Canadian business, government and technology leaders who call themselves Canada’s nanotech “SWAT team.” They’re pushing for a National Nanotechnology Initiative similar to the one adopted in the United States.

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The group is calling on the Canadian government to increase funding for nanotech research and commercialization. They’re asking for (U.S.) $68 million ($100 million Canadian) per year for five years. The money would come from a central federal agency such as Industry Canada. The funds would seed startup companies through nanotech incubators and university research departments. Seed money would also go to larger Canadian companies and venture capital firms in the nanotech field.


That amount would still leave Canada behind the United States in annual government nanotech funding. The U.S. NNI budget is about $700 million (U.S.) this year and $847 million is proposed for next year. Japan spends about $600 million per year. The Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance  estimates the Canadian government spends about (U.S.) $13 million a year on nanotech. On a per-capita basis, the group said, the U.S. government spends six times more a year on nanotech than does the Canadian government.


“Canada is one of the only industrialized countries without an NNI,” said Neil Gordon, president of the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance, a partner at Montreal-based Sygertech Consulting Group Inc. and the group’s chairman. “Until we have one, the window of opportunity in nanotech will get narrower and narrower.”


Canada, Gordon said, is already a world leader in areas such as minerals, energy and pulp and paper, an advantage it is letting slip away. “We have these raw materials that could be made into nanomaterials, but as it is now, they are being exported, manufactured into products and imported back into Canada,” he said.


The proposed NNI also calls for creation of five national nanotech hubs — major centers in Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal along with minor hubs in Ottawa and Vancouver. Canada’s National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT)  recently broke ground on a new nanotech research center in Edmonton, a $120 million facility being built by the National Research Council of Canada, the University of Alberta and the government of Alberta. “This is the first — but won’t be the last — national center for nanotech research,” promised Dan Wayner, NINT acting general director.


Wayner and Gordon are members of what Gordon refers to as “Canada’s nanotech SWAT team,” recruited from business, government and academia to promote the NNI idea. Other members include Tom Malis of Natural Resources Canada; Professor Peter Gutter of McGill University; Uri Sagman, executive director of the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance and president of Toronto nanotech firm C Sixty; and Tony Redpath, a partner at venture capital firm Primaxis Technology Ventures Inc. in Toronto. 

Redpath said federal funding is crucial. “Governments are the ones that can invest in fundamental research,” he said. “No venture capital firm has a 10-year horizon for return on investment. When they see that dollars are being poured in, that will lead to a lot of attractive opportunities.”  


The proposed Canadian NNI is modeled after the one Clinton established in the United States. “In the U.S., you had the luxury of having your president recognize nanotechnology as a critical technology,” Sagman said. “On the strategy side, that helped channel funding into the right federal government departments and resulted in competitive bids for nanotech business. Unfortunately, we don’t have the equivalent of a Canadian prime minister announcing nanotech as important. So we have to develop the national strategy first and then hope to compel the government to fund it.”


Gordon is optimistic that the NNI will find a receptive audience at the federal level. “Relative to other countries, we are in pretty good shape,” he said. “We have a budget surplus and we are investing in social programs, but you also need to invest in the future. We have a prime minister who is ending his term voluntarily a year from now, and one of the items on his agenda is innovation strategy.”


Gordon said that Canada needs not only research dollars, but also a few nanotech champions in the federal and provincial governments. “Look at the U.S., and whether it was Gingrich or Clinton or Lieberman or Pataki, they made sure the country or their state had a portfolio of investments in nanotech. That risk-taking attitude is not necessarily the Canadian way of doing things.”


The Canadian federal budget is released every March, and Gordon said the current one had no mention of nanotech. He said his group is undeterred, and would come out with a position paper later this spring or summer to press its case. Proponents hope to have money allocated to nanotech in Canada’s budget for 2004 and beyond.




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