Canada’s companies, particularly small and medium enterprises (SME), face daunting and new challenges—established markets are shrinking and strong international competitors are emerging. Against this context, many companies are looking for new markets, new products and new approaches for their business processes. Canada’s post-secondary research institutions have a wealth of technical capabilities that can assist companies to adjust and adapt products and processes—innovating to compete in new ways. New approaches are needed to connect these advanced capabilities to help Canadian companies innovate.
Technology Access Centres (TAC) are small centres, affiliated with a college or perhaps a university, focused on supporting innovation in an area important to local companies. The core management of the centre (manager, marketer and administrator) will be supported through the Technology Access Centre program, enabling the centre to draw on the technical capabilities (students, researchers, faculty and some equipment access) at their affiliated institution. Technology Access Centres will help companies innovate by providing technical services, including specialized technical analyzes or tests; technology development projects; advice on specific challenges; and linkage (referrals) to other capabilities. The Technology Access Centre approach is built on demonstrated success in Quebec.
Technology Access Centres will typically engage between 10 and 50 people, including core staff, contract staff, and students and faculty, depending on the level of company support. As separate organizations drawing on the capabilities of their host institution, Technology Access Centres are able to meet business imperatives: timely response, security of information and a focus on company problems. The centres will provide some students with valuable experience of company challenges and approaches, and provide faculty with practical experience to enrich their teaching and orient their future research.
A network of 200 Technology Access Centres is proposed. This network will provide local innovation assistance that is essential to helping Canada’s small and medium enterprises succeed with new products and new approaches. The budget required for the core funding of these 200 centres is $90 million per year (year 5).
NSERC has identified the need for these centres in its consultations for the Strategy for Partnerships and Innovation. Partnering levels of government and agencies can help define foci for the centres needed in their province or region, and could provide faculty release time and infrastructure.
Success in an innovating economy requires a strong fabric of innovation support. That fabric enables companies to realize value from ideas; in part, drawing on the talent, capabilities and expertise at public post-secondary research institutions (i.e., colleges and universities).
Canada has richly diverse regions and economies, and a consistent reliance on small and medium enterprises (SME). Our economy is strongly dependent on extracting and processing natural resources. The rise of international competitors supplying natural resources and manufactured goods to markets which Canada previously dominated is a key concern. This challenge is leading an increasing number of companies to seek new markets, products and processes to compete. Innovation through technology is one approach these companies are increasingly pursuing.
Canada ranks second in the world in the proportion of research and development (R&D) funding invested in higher education institutions (particularly universities).2 The majority of this funding is from government sources, with a concentration from the federal granting agencies. Correspondingly, Canada’s 50-odd universities are highly rated for their contributions to scientific and technical knowledge. Canadian colleges are excellent institutions for training practical graduates and are increasingly interested in conducting applied research with companies. These institutions have outstanding technical capabilities that are of interest to innovating companies. Higher education institutions in Canada and around the world are structured for training graduates with timescales measured in years; they are places where the open exchange of ideas is encouraged, and success for researchers usually required creating new (potentially disruptive) knowledge. Many years typically elapse before some of this knowledge (in combination with other research results) is applied for the benefit of society.
The larger companies in Canada, which conduct the vast majority of private-sector R&D, capitalize on these public sector capabilities—Canada’s universities capture among the world’s highest percentage of private-sector R&D funding. These companies have the resources and patience to establish relationships with various academic research groups, negotiate collaborative agreements and, more importantly, define and fund long-term, pre-competitive research projects that capitalize on post-secondary strengths. There are perhaps 3,000 companies that currently conduct collaborative R&D with universities and 3,500 that work with Canada’s colleges and polytechnics.
The clear majority of the 20,000 companies in Canada that conduct R&D do not directly work with universities and colleges. Most of these companies are small (less than 50 people) and, on average, invest less than $250,000 per year in research and development. These companies generally conduct innovation projects that aim at incremental improvements to existing products or processes; are executed in weeks, and are exploited commercially (rather than published). A significant proportion of these companies conduct research episodically; meaning they are unlikely to have full-time R&D staff (i.e., approximately 50 percent conduct research for one or two years out of every seven years, and only 10 percent conducted R&D on a continuous basis3). The SME’s focus on market responsiveness is not aligned with the effort to build long-term research relationships; they don’t have money or expertise to negotiate project collaborations and can rarely afford long-term research. Returns on investments from innovation projects are typically expected within 12 to 18 months. The innovation needs of this type of company are not well addressed by university structures and approaches. Addressing the innovation needs of these SMEs represents a significant opportunity to improve the innovation performance of Canada—the technical capabilities and expertise that resides in our post-secondary institutions can be a valuable complement to the capabilities available in the marketplace for an SME.
Innovation is a high risk use of a company’s resources, and collaborations to advance an innovation are an even higher-risk investment of time and resources. Companies must trust the organizations they collaborate with—they can more easily establish trust in local organizations that speak the language of the clients and are built to be responsive.
Companies developing a technology or pursuing an innovation need a variety of technical, managerial and financial capabilities during the innovation process. As innovation projects develop, they often reveal new technical requirements. Thus, companies must have fluid access to expertise, resources and capabilities that they lack.
In a well-developed economic cluster, a wide variety of technical and managerial services are available from companies in the cluster (e.g., from contract development through to specialized personnel support). For clusters that are advancing disruptive ideas for which cash flow or bank financing is not available, local sources of venture financing are essential. Canada’s diverse regions often contain nascent clusters that lack sufficient infrastructure, resources or the scope of capabilities to effectively support private sector innovation.
There are a variety of public sources of innovation support for Canadian SMEs. Provincial governments often take a leading role in creating and supporting policies to stimulate their economic regions. Regional Economic Development Agencies (REDA) such as Western Economic Development (WED), and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) are often sources of partial financial support for innovation projects. National Research Council Canada – Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC/IRAP)4 and its Industrial Technology Advisors (ITA) provide advice, referral and financial investments for R&D projects. The Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) tax credit programs are a vital financial lifeline for many small research-intensive companies.
Canada’s post-secondary research institutions have very interesting technical capabilities that complement the financial and managerial linkages offered by REDAs, SR&ED and IRAP, to local companies. However, the defining characteristics of universities (long training cycles, an information-sharing culture and a knowledge creation drive) limit the ability of those companies to access these specialized and high-value technical capabilities. Canada needs organizations that can draw on post-secondary capabilities, including expertise and other resources, to support the innovation needs of companies. Increasingly, nations are focusing on their research and innovation infrastructure to help their companies compete globally.
Based on this important gap in innovation support for SMEs, NSERC envisions the creation of a network of Technology Access Centres. Technology Access Centres are small centres with a core staff funded by the Technology Access Centre program; physical facilities associated with, and generally located, on the campus of their parent post-secondary institution; and participation from the students and faculty of the parent institution.
These centres will:
The Technology Access Centres will also link to other innovation support capabilities (IRAP, economic development actors, other post-secondary institutions, NRC institutes, and CECRs). Technology Access Centres can be excellent host sites for IRAP Industrial Technology Advisors. While NSERC has a role in realizing Technology Access Centres, other government agencies have essential roles (see A Collaborative Partnership below).
Technology Access Centres provide benefits to both the target business sector and the host academic institution(s).
For a region’s companies, Technology Access Centres offer:
Successful experiences with Technology Access Centres will encourage companies to further pursue success through innovation.
Typical benefits to the academic hosts of the Technology Access Centres include:
Technology Access Centres capitalize on and emphasize the excellent capabilities available in our post-secondary institutions.
Benefits to governments from investing in Technology Access Centres include:
A typical Technology Access Centre will have:
Technology Access Centres can be an excellent host site for NRC/IRAP ITAs and/or regional economic development agents.
The Technology Access Centre grant will provide up to $350,000 per year (covering core administrative personnel and perhaps one or two technical experts). Other resources required to enable the success of Technology Access Centres includes support for the participation of faculty and staff from the college or university in the centre (faculty release) and funding for infrastructure and equipment where appropriate.
With more than 150 college campuses and fifty universities, at least two hundred centres are likely needed to provide effective access to their capabilities for the 20,000 companies that do R&D in Canada.5 Two hundred Technology Access Centre grants will require approximately $90 million per year (funds for TAC grants, and related project and scholarship support).6
Technology Access Centres help their host institutions have a role supporting economic development in their region. The foci for the centres in a province or region can be defined by/with collaborating provincial and federal agencies, and funded on a competitive basis. In addition to NSERC’s support for the centres’ core administration, some centres will need infrastructure (equipment, renovations and perhaps facilities). The involvement of faculty in these centres will be enhanced if teaching relief is provided (particularly for colleges where research is generally not a mandated element of faculty responsibilities). Canada Foundation for Innovation’s regional development agencies can provide equipment support, while provincial agencies can provide teaching relief for faculty.
Technology Access Centres could be (not-for-profit) corporations owned by a post secondary institution. The board of such a centre would be composed of representatives of the local companies, the host institution and the economic development actors important in the region (REDAs, IRAP and chambers of commerce). The centres provide reports regarding their interactions, outputs and financial activity to their funders each year and are re-evaluated every five years. Alternatively, Technology Access Centres can be specialized departments of colleges with Advisory Boards that represent internal and external stakeholders.
The objective of Technology Access Centres is to enhance the ability of companies, particularly SMEs, to solve problems and become more productive and innovative through access to technology, expertise and equipment.
In achieving this objective, Technology Access Centres will realize private sector cash in excess of their operating support from public sources. It is anticipated that the average private sector cash amount per centre will be at least three times the core operating support for centres with at least five years experience. Similarly, by the fifth year, the average centre will have a staff of ten full-time equivalents, including faculty and staff on (partial) release from their institutional responsibilities.
Immediate outcomes that signal that Technology Access Centres are realizing this objective include:
While the performance expectations for Technology Access Centres will vary with factors that include the private sector focus, the number of years a centre has been active and the regional opportunities, the following measures signal the overall level of impact anticipated from these centres:
|The number of clients using services||55 per centre per year|
|The number of jobs created by companies||3 per centre per year|
|The return rate of clients||40 percent of clients have used a TAC before|
It is expected that the performance of a Technology Access Centre will typically take up to five years to realize a significant impact.
Quebec has established a network of 41 Centres collégiaux de transfert de technologie (CCTT), with plans for a total of 45. The network was built over 25 years. The Quebec CCTT network is a strong performer in Quebec’s system of innovation. A recent evaluation (2008)7 provides compelling evidence of their impact. Twenty-eight of the CCTTs participated in the evaluation and their clients were surveyed. The evaluation reports the following: