Ottawa shortlists nine 'superclusters' for $950 million federal funding

MONTREAL _ Ottawa has announced a short list of nine so-called supercluster proposals that could qualify for a piece of a $950-million federal fund the government hopes will boost the economy and job creation.

The finalists come from different regions of the country and Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said the proposals focus on fast-growing areas like artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing and clean technology.

“This is really about our government’s focus on building the economy of the future,” Bains said in an interview.

“The decision is going to be based on the best proposals _ this is about a full-blown competition.”

On Tuesday, Bains was in Halifax to announce that an “oceans supercluster” is among the contenders.

The proposal is an industry consortium that would expand digital technologies in aquaculture, fisheries, offshore oil and gas, and clean energy. It is led by Petroleum Research Newfoundland and Labrador, and includes Emera Inc., and Dalhousie University.

The announcement was the first in a cross-country tour to reveal the short list, following the submission of more than 50 proposals involving over 1,000 firms and 350 participants. Full applications from the nine finalists are due Nov. 24 and applicants are being encouraged to grow their ranks and, in some cases, partner with other applicants who weren’t shortlisted.

The winners will be announced in early 2018.

The proposed tech hubs are aimed at fostering public-private partnerships in industries across the country.

The contest, a cornerstone of Ottawa’s so-called innovation agenda, aims to lift the economy, promote research and create high-quality jobs. Bains has said he’s looking for ambitious bids that also feature intellectual property strategies designed to keep benefits for Canada.

According to Yoshua Bengio, an expert in artificial intelligence and head of the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, the supercluster approach will likely benefit large companies, but smaller firms and start-ups _ particularly in the AI sector _ may not see similar advantages.

“I think that the government needs to think about what they can do to help the startups and small business, and especially in AI, this is a really important aspect of the strategy to make Canada a leader in this field.”

Bains was also in Montreal Tuesday to announce another proposal on the short list that is designed to bolster Canadian leadership in artificial intelligence and data science. It is led by the Optel Group and includes proponents such as Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. (TSX:ATD.B), Bell Canada (TSX:BCE), CGI Group Inc. (TSX:GIB.A), AgroPur, Aldo, Cascades Inc. (TSX:CAS) and the University of Montreal’s Polytechnique.

Montreal-based flight training and simulator company CAE Inc. (TSX:CAE) leads the mobility systems and technologies supercluster proposal, which includes more than 170 firms.

In Ontario, a proposed clean, low-energy supercluster led by the Canada Mining Innovation Council wants to position Canada as a leader in clean resources, clean technology and responsible sourcing of metals. It would also tackle global challenges such as energy intensity, water use and environmental footprint.

An advanced manufacturing supercluster involving the MaRs Discovery District, Linamar Corp. (TSX:LNR), Maple Leaf Foods Inc. (TSX:MFI) and the University of Waterloo wants to drive collaboration between the technology and manufacturing sectors.

A protein innovations supercluster in the Prairies would position Canada as the global supplier of plant-based proteins and related products. Led by Ag-West Bio Inc. and including the University of Saskatchewan, it would focus on new technologies and value-added supply-chain infrastructure.

A smart agri-food supercluster led by Agrium Inc. (TSX:AGU) would work on building information technologies in the crop, livestock and agri-food processing sectors.

Stantec Inc. (TSX:STN) leads a proposed infrastructure supercluster that aims to use advanced digital communications and interconnected applications to improve design and construction.

A proposed digital technology supercluster led by Telus Corp. (TSX:T) and including Microsoft Canada Development Centre and six post-secondary institutions in B.C. wants to focus on inventing, developing and applying digital technologies.

_With files from Andy Blatchford