Feds names five 'superclusters' that will share $950M in government cash

Bains
Federal Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains

The federal government named the five winning bids Thursday of its high-tech "superclusters" sweepstakes that will divvy up $950 million of public funding in hope of stoking economic growth and job creation in return.

The Liberal's big bet on government-designated superclusters was designed to encourage academia, not-for-profit organizations and companies of all sizes to work together on strategies to boost high-growth sectors.

The winners, announced by Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains, closed out a nine-month competition that represents the centrepiece of the Liberals' so-called innovation agenda.

"What is a supercluster? It is a made-in-Canada Silicon Valley that will create tens of thousands of jobs – that's what a supercluster is," Bains said Thursday as he unveiled the winners in Ottawa.

"It's about collaboration as well. Look at this room – we have academia, business, you have small business and large business, and we have government – working together, promoting collaboration, supporting our supply chains and also developing and nurturing skills and knowledge and making sure that we pass that knowledge from one generation to another.

"Superclusters – it's a job magnet."

The winning bids, chosen from nine finalists, were spread evenly across the country. Bains insisted their selection was the result of a rigorous process that involved third-party experts.

The superclusters are:

  • The Protein Industries supercluster in the Prairies will work on making the country a leading source of plant proteins and counts Invest Ottawa among its supporters;
  • The Ocean supercluster based in Atlantic Canada will use innovation to improve competitiveness in ocean-based industries, including fisheries, oil and gas and clean energy;
  • The Scale AI supercluster in Quebec will work on building intelligent supply chains through artificial intelligence and robotics;
  • The Advanced Manufacturing supercluster in Ontario will connect technology strengths to the manufacturing industry to prepare for the economy of tomorrow;
  • The Digital Technology supercluster in British Columbia will use big data and digital technologies to unlock new potential in important sectors like health care, forestry, and manufacturing.

Even though the superclusters program was launched at one of Canada’s primary autonomous vehicles hubs – BlackBerry QNX’s Kanata facility – Ottawa threw its support behind the Prairies’ agri-food bid late in 2017.

According to the city, it was part of a vision to turn the NCC’s Greenbelt Research Farm – located across from a Canadian Food Inspection Agency lab and bordered by West Hunt Club Road, Woodroffe Avenue as well as Fallowfield and Greenbank roads – into an “innovation hub” that serves as a testbed for agriculture and rural broadband, autonomous and Smart City solutions as well as environmental monitoring.

“Our vision is to create a globally significant agricultural testbed for innovation in Ottawa at a prime urban location: the Greenbelt Research Farm,” Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said in a December statement.

The winners will receive between $150 million and $250 million each. The money will be distributed over five years to the superclusters, which are required to match the federal funding they receive, dollar for dollar.

Bains said the chosen consortia exceeded that goal by raising a total of $1.5 billion, which brings the overall investment, when combined with the government's $950-million commitment, close to $2.4 billion.

He insisted the superclusters will generate at least 50,000 jobs and will include efforts to help upgrade the skills of workers.

After his announcement, Bains was asked if the superclusters could help address concerns over competitiveness risks related to recent U.S. tax reforms and the uncertain future of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"This will unlock hundreds of millions of dollars off of balance sheets of companies to invest in research and development," Bains said in an interview.

"We think that improves our ability to compete, that improves our ability to attract investments and that really allows us, not only to develop great Canadian talent but also attract global talent as well."

The Liberals have faced criticism over the superclusters plan, including concerns over the government picking winners and losers.

In a tweet that followed the announcement, Conservative MP Maxime Bernier called the superclusters "just another big government scheme!"

"The superclusters are corporate welfare on steroids," Bernier wrote.

"A big-government scheme that will enrich well-connected and Liberal-friendly businesses at the expense of all Canadian taxpayers."

Bains has defended it by saying the superclusters will be led by industry.

Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of automotive parts maker Linamar Corp., is participating in the advanced manufacturing supercluster.

"I think manufacturing is just such an important part of our economy," Hasenfratz said Thursday.

"It supports so many other areas of the economy, so it's really critical that we have a thriving and growing manufacturing sector."

-With files from OBJ staff