The Canadian government’s deadline for its initial supercluster proposals has officially come and gone, but applicants aren’t clear on when they’ll hear back about the next steps.

The federal Innovation Superclusters Initiative (ISI) was revealed in the 2017 budget and aims to economically kickstart Canadian technological innovation in key economic sectors, with $950 million (CAD) earmarked for the project, and strengthen the relationships between Canadian businesses and academic and research institutions. The first round of applications, which need to be industry or private sector-led, began at the end of May and concluded on July 21, but the steps forward are less clear.

Jean-Pierre Martel, vice president of FPInnovations, a non-profit research organization in the Canadian forest industry, played a role in the supercluster application for the bio-economy sector, which is hoping to use technology to advance bio-sourced industrial sectors and create a low carbon economy in Canada with federal funding. He tells ITBusiness.ca that he currently has no idea how many applications the government received, and only limited secondhand knowledge of when the finalists for the supercluster funding will be chosen.

As of publication, the Ministry of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development (ISED) did not respond to requests for information. According to its online program guide, only applicants invited to proceed will be able to make more detailed applications in phase two of the process, but no timeline is given for that. All applicants to phase one will be notified by a formal letter from the Minister about the results when the decision for who makes the cut for phase two is complete. Funding related to the project is slated to begin before the end of 2017.

“I’ve heard from someone who heard from someone else that we should know which proposals were chosen to make the next phase of the initiative by the end of August, but I don’t know for sure,” Martel says.

The government’s initial due date for the final proposals is the end of October, meaning that if this timeline is adhered to, “that’s not many weeks to put the final draft together, and considering how much work it took to finish the first one, this will be a tough challenge,” he adds.

Time constraints have been a topic of discussion for many of the communities looking to submit applications. However, Pierre Boivin, CEO of Claridge and chair of the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA), believes the short time given to industries has actually been a good thing.

“I think the process was very well run and efficient, and gave people enough time to get their submissions in,” says Boivin, who co-led the submission for the Canadian Artificial Intelligence (AI) Consortium. “We first heard about this project in the 2016 budget, then it was officially announced in 2017, with the application dates made clear in May. I think the government wanted the short turnaround time to pressure people and groups to get their applications done quickly so the process wouldn’t be dragged out, and I think they did a good job considering how many people needed to mobilize and come together, and for a government ministry having to make a decision.”

He agrees with Martel’s speculation that the decision to move forward with selected finalists would be made public by the end of August, and is hopeful that deployment of the chosen supercluster areas could begin as early as the end of the calendar year, but more likely by the end of the current fiscal year, which is in February. The government says it will choose five superclusters to move forward with.

FPInnovation’s Martel expresses excitement at how quickly the cleantech industry came together for the initiative.

“I was surprised at how much commitment there was coming from the industry once we began to define our concept of the bio-economy. We’ve been working with 14 or 15 universities across Canada, plus one or two colleges, to create a national centre of excellence that would support our cluster, and have a few companies involved,” Martel says.

The bio-economy supercluster application is taking an entire value-chain approach, from material production to final users, in hopes of spurring clean transportation, infrastructure, and sustainable living through biomaterials, biofuels, and biochemical.

Boivin is confident his AI Consortium’s application is strong, especially given Canada’s already well-recognized forte in AI with three dedicated institutes in Toronto, Montreal, and Edmonton. Beyond these three institutes, the Consortium also has the support of almost 100 different organizations and private companies, from startups to large enterprises.

“Canada has a pretty well-established rep in AI already and has good research and researchers here. The challenge is for Canada to turn this into an economic force and a strength for industries like the healthcare or agriculture sectors, which have been around forever and obviously need to innovate to keep up,” he explains. “It’s a good move on the government’s part to increase our country’s global competitiveness by putting the focus back on innovation, and I think it’s the right approach to do it in a collaborative partnership between public and private.”

But with AI and machine learning technology permeating almost every industry, from aerospace to advanced manufacturing to banking, he foresees that many of the applications will need to be consolidated.

“I suspect there may be requests from the government for certain individual proposals to come together because many of them will contain AI portions. The government isn’t going to fund AI in two places because it’s focused on establishing a Canadian vision, so I could see them asking us to combine these individual sector-by-sector approaches into a compelling, comprehensive matrix approach where horizontal and vertical come together for AI,” Boivin adds.

He concludes by offering the government a few words of wisdom: “I hope the government understands that this isn’t a four or five-year journey. It’s a long-term strategy that needs continuity, guidance, and fiscal support across the country and across governments.”

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