Innovation and superclusters

I recently read a great book called “How to Fly a Horse”, written by the inventor of the “Internet of Things”, Kevin Ashton. Opening with an anecdote about the Wright brothers trying to figure out how to essentially “fly a horse”, it debunks our common beliefs about creativity and innovation. When reviewing some of the world’s greatest innovative breakthroughs, the reality of what really happened differed immensely from the Hollywood moments that most of us think of – that instant the Wright brothers flew, Einstein came up with his theory of relativity, or when Thomas Edison had his “Aha!” eureka moment.

The long grind

What Kevin Ashton proved is exactly what my personal innovation experience has been: the reality is one that would never fit into a Hollywood movie, as there is never really one hero or one moment. The ugly, unglamorous reality is that innovation is a long grind, a string of failures, a hundred supporters and a million moments, with progress only being made when there are huge amounts of collaboration between many parties attempting to innovate in generally the same areas.

Another book I read when I was starting OMX and interested in innovation was “Start up Nation,” which is about Israel’s fast economic rise led by significant technological innovation concentrating in a few, very specific areas. The two themes I pulled out of the book were the connection to the defence technology requirements in a country constantly on edge – which drove immense innovation, and also, almost most importantly – the culture of collaborating around similar strengths, such as cybersecurity. They figured out the benefits of working together in a small, tight environment, essentially leveraging superclusters.

Innovation collaboration

There is a lot more out there about the benefits of collaboration on innovation, and I think we are all coming to the agreement that it is the critical component. The Canadian Federal Government stepped up this month and announced a $950 million initiative designed to jumpstart innovation in high-growth sectors. “By pulling in large firms, innovative small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and industry-relevant research institutions, business leaders will come together – with partners and in new ways – to build business-led innovation superclusters at scale,” was the announcement by the Federal Government. The plans must build on shared private sector commitments, requiring industry to match funding.

Since these are indeed matching funds that the Federal Government is committing to, the industry will need to really step up and make bold commitments to what could be significant R&D spending in the near future. For instance, I believe one of the biggest hurdles will be the change in industry’s mentality around collaboration in their R&D efforts – where IP is shared, where it is not clearly owned by one party. OMX’s Intellectual Property lawyer, Andrew Currier from PCKIP, believes that superclusters would likely have complicated IP agreements to really think about.

The second biggest question will be whether the superclusters will be able to stretch funding long enough to see through to commercialization and see real financial success. And then, of course, I think back to my IP lawyer’s comment and really hope these partners think through shared IP when it comes to commercialization. But these are all good problems to have.

At the time of writing this, the following superclusters have begun to form: Mining Innovation for a New Era (MINE) Resource Development, Mobility Systems and Technologies for the 21st Century (MOST21) focused on the Aerospace sector and an Ocean technology supercluster, OceansAdvance Inc. out of Atlantic Canada. There is also a possibility for a large infrastructure-focused one.

Building superclusters

Former Strategic Initiatives Manager at Bexar County Economic Development, Jennifer Martinez, led the Texas-Mexico Automotive SuperCluster initiative that included five states across a bi-national region. She explained, “Moving across functional/political silos and considering the entire industry system is critical to developing supercluster regions. For government, it’s a vastly different approach from the individual to the collective. Building strategies around a “tide lifts all boats” philosophy means aligning systemic elements that include political willpower, incentive guidelines, infrastructure investments, workforce development initiatives, and corporate recruitment efforts. A region exponentially increases its attractiveness for foreign investment and innovation if it can align.”

At OMX we are passionate about leveraging our capabilities to track the positive socio-economic impacts of superclusters once they exist. We believe that there will be tremendous downstream impacts to the economy as a result of inclusion of many parties from SMEs, academia and other involved subcontractors.

It has always been my belief that finding a place for a company in a supply chain is how you provide them a leg up in a society and economy, and this initiative could be a very effective way to achieve that. The supercluster materials from the Federal Government very clearly indicate in clause 5.11 titled “Reporting requirements,” that entities must “meet the reporting requirements on project expenditures and activities, the results/outcomes of the project, and achievement of performance indicators as identified in the Contribution Agreement.” I see this as absolutely critical to staying on top of the benefits to the country from this investment – using data to tell the story.

For this to work, the industry can’t be timid. We need to be bold. Now. We have a real chance to develop homegrown, global capabilities in highly innovative sectors. Canada has arguably never been a more attractive place to work to outside talent right now, so it is a good time to take advantage of global human capital to build more Canadian capacity and Canadian world leading companies. This is also a great way for smaller tech companies and academia to work directly with some of the largest companies in their field, and it is a huge potential for information-sharing between organizations, which we know will lift all boats.

My grandfather turned 90 a few months ago. He spent his entire career as an aircraft mechanic, mostly in Mississauga at the time of the Avro Arrow. He lived in Brampton surrounded by other aerospace workers, many of his neighbours working for deHavilland, Avro or Orenda. For his birthday, thanks to Magellan, he toured the old Orenda engine factory. For him and the men of his generation, the aviation industry was their life – everything revolved around it.

From my own personal experience, I have learned that most of the magic in innovation happens on the outskirts, in the casual discussions when people gather together around a common interest. One has to think what could have been if we made the bold move as a nation to keep at least a portion of that massive aviation supercluster we had. Although we did become a serious global player with the introduction of the Pratt and Whitney PT6 jet engine, we might have ended up a global leader in this space. I’m glad we are looking ahead now to what could be in the future.

Author: Nicole Verkindt

Nicole Verkindt is the technology editor of Vanguard Magazine and founder and president of OMX. She is a board member of the Canadian Commercial Corporation and was recently appointed to the board of the Peter Munk School of Global Affairs. Nicole graduated from The University of Western Ontario, Richard Ivey School of Business. She founded OMX in December 2011, with the intent to assist Canadian companies in leveraging government procurements and secure contracts, growing their businesses into high tech and international supply chains - with maximum benefit to the economy. She is passionate about reading, travel, international aid, skiing and running. She speaks English, French and Spanish.

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