Oh Canada! Sing your praises for your nanotech successes

While I’ve never resorted to putting a Canadian flag on my luggage, I understand why Americans do it. People are nicer to Canadians than Americans. Canadians have a well-deserved reputation as being good, honest and nice. And nice doesn’t include pushy. Unfortunately.

Having just returned from a whirlwind tour of Montreal and Toronto, I have a better appreciation of the micro and nanotechnology landscape in Eastern Canada. There are interesting happenings in the white belt, though I doubt many people outside Canada know. At a national level, the Canadian government is not visibly promoting its capabilities to a broad audience.

My trip was sponsored by a Canadian embassy as a way to showcase their nanotechnology development efforts. But this was the initiative of a strategic-thinking investment development officer, not a coordinated push from above. It’s hard to be taken as a serious player when no one knows you are in the game.

Although the promotion isn’t there, the activity certainly is. NanoQuebec, a non-profit organization funded by the governments of Quebec and Canada, organized two days with startups, universities, venture capitalists and a MEMS manufacturer. There is support, including funding, for building a competitive nano cluster in Quebec.

During my trip I was given the good and bad of nano in Canada. However, what I am discovering is that regions are finding ways to leverage their strengths to make the most of limited resources. In Canada’s case, it appears that the university system is the key driver of the nanotechnology sector. Researchers are securing funding for infrastructure, focusing on technology application and are moving their research into the marketplace.

The Neurological Institute at McGill proves how researchers are crossing traditional academic departments to solve real-world problems with nanotechnology. In open discussion forums, researchers talk about the problems they are trying to solve. Unique angles, new approaches and a common language are being discovered through this dialog – creating excitement and initiative to work together driven by the bottom up, not the top down.

Although the universities in Quebec are competing against one another, the provincial government has instituted a process to encourage cooperation and to facilitate resource sharing. University researchers/grant developers go through two approving bodies before their infrastructure proposal is recommended to a federal funding organization. Quebec’s technology research fund assesses the project’s scientific value and partners with NanoQuebec to evaluate the industrial strategic value.

While I was there, NanoQuebec was facilitating discussions between the University of Montreal and McGill, two strong nano research institutions looking for support of double-digit million dollar projects. The goal is to eliminate duplication of funding requests and encourage research and equipment use across boundaries while prioritizing an industrial agenda.

The coordinated efforts in Quebec are paying off. According to the Canadian research funding database, Quebec’s nanotechnology related expenditures in 2004 – a little more than $47.5 million – were the size of all the other provinces put together, with the exclusion of Ontario at about $35.5 million.

More informally, the interconnection of academia and the industrial community in Quebec and Ontario was clear in almost all of my meetings. Industry relies heavily on the research community for technology development and facility sharing. While there seems to be a solid base for seed funding of new companies, the dollars available for significant equipment investment are hard to come by. Companies use relationships with the universities to meet their short-term research and development needs.

At the Ecole Polytechnique at the University of Montreal, an incubator system in a new nanotechnology building provides access to facilities for companies like Nanometrix, which is commercializing technology for monolayer assembly, and Nova Plasma, which is trying to solve degradation and quality issues in flexible organic electronics manufacturing.

Waterloo holds an entrepreneurial/commercial center and a vibrant university with a large undergraduate nanotechnology program. While I’ve heard arguments against undergrad nanotechnology degrees, I believe the industry demand for skilled labor (this program also requires 24 months of co-op experience) will create a strong pull for these graduates.

While considered by some to be a minor player, Canada has more potential than is commonly recognized. Strong research programs, high-quality workforce, solid research, and equipment will all assist Canada in playing an important global role in emerging technologies, albeit probably a niche one.

But take a lesson or two from one of Canadian’s rising nano stars, Ted Sargent. Learn the art of self-promotion.

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Patti Glaza is vice president and publisher at Small Times. She can be reached at [email protected].


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