World-leading Clusters and Partnerships Roundtable

September 8, 2016—Boston, USA
World-Leading Clusters and Partnerships
Hosted by Tyler Wish

Area of Focus

Boston has built a very powerful innovation hub. The life-science cluster is a particularly compelling example of how people, partnerships and vision resulted in a successful economic & innovation cluster.

  • What were the factors that contributed to the growth and success of the Boston innovation cluster?
  • What policies at the municipal, state and federal level can be tied to this growth and success?
  • What policies at academic institutions can be tied to this growth and success?
  • What is the right model for made-in-Canada innovation clusters led by businesses and how can policy-makers support this model?


Need for greater integration of business and entrepreneurship skills; the significance of converging technologies in industry and how academic programs could be adapted to develop new skills; the need to attract and retain highly skilled talent; challenges around existing government programs; the need for greater access to capital with linkages into other markets; the role that critical mass activity plays in developing a cluster; how clusters are developed from the bottom up; and the need to focus on strengths.

Summary of Discussion

Lessons learned from the Boston experience include: leveraging medical research strength; working with the education system to improve science and technology programs to increase the number of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates; investing in many ideas to create critical mass; work actively to raise awareness of policy makers on the importance of innovation; as well as making sure that unnecessary barriers to innovation are removed.

Some Government policies/programs have unintended consequences that create barriers to growth. The Canadian Controlled Private Corporation (CCPC) criteria of the Science, Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) tax incentive program, and the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) benefit to Canada, were cited as examples of programming elements that could be improved. It was also noted that opportunities exist for government departments to improve their collaboration efforts.

Government's role in fostering innovation should be to remove barriers and reduce risk by providing predictability and access to capital for entrepreneurs. A predictable regulatory framework was also cited as something that could stimulate innovation, particularly, if Canada's regime is more competitive than other jurisdictions.

Canada is seen as having a large amount of high quality (and affordable) PHDs that are not leveraged to develop commercially applicable ideas. STEM programs should include business and entrepreneurship training as a way to develop a critical mass of start ups.

Key Implementation Considerations/Challenges

Tech Transfer: Challenges around technology transfer offices and management of IP were raised, in particular, the inconsistency of IP licensing approaches between academic institutions.  The University of Waterloo was cited as an example of an institution that is successfully incenting entrepreneurship by allowing inventors to retain IP. Participants also noted the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) approach of sharing risk in innovation with private sector firms , has spurred significant collaboration between MIT and industry.

Talent: Canada is competing globally for talent and lacks the incentives—personal income tax incentives were cited as a possible example to attract and retain top talent. It was also noted that there is a significant brain drain to the south. If Canada were to develop a critical a mass, it will build credibility and naturally attract top talent.

International connections: The lack of affordable direct flights between key innovation hubs such as Boston and some of our major cities was cited as a barrier to innovation, in addition to the road/train infrastructure into Canada from the US North East is being less than adequate.

Innovation Funding: Government investments in basic research were seen as necessary to foster a foundation for innovation. There was a recognition, however, that the Government should not decide in which specific innovations to invest, and instead, focus its efforts on reducing regulatory impediments; improving infrastructure ; increasing access to capital and providing tax incentives that are tied to IP being commercialized in Canada and job creation. It was suggested that Government should consider the innovation supply chain/life cycle and strategically decide where to play.

Top Ideas/Outcomes

Commercialization of Academic Innovation: Create greater incentives for researchers to pursue ideas that have commercial applications. Equip researchers with entrepreneurship skills by building business training/literacy into STEM programs. Facilitate technology transfer processes in academic institutions by simplifying process.

Education: Develop new types of inter-disciplinary STEM programs to foster stronger linkages amongst disciplines to stimulate and accelerate innovation. Multi disciplinary STEM programs were seen as a tool to develop the varied skills necessary to respond to the increasing convergence in industry.

Skills/Talent: Better promote opportunities in Canada to Canadian expats and foreign students. Include tax incentives for them to come back and/or stay and build their companies in Canada.  Canada Excellence Research Chairs is successful at recruiting academic talent; it could be used to recruit business talent.

Incubators: Incubators were seen as a good tool to foster innovation by convening innovators, expediting development and or commercialization of ideas while reducing cost by providing a space to do it in. Tech 2 Venture Policy was cited as an example to test the commercial viability of ideas quickly and effectively. A manufacturing focused incubator was suggested.

Consortia: Pre-competitive consortia of players with common interests, as a smaller version of a cluster, was presented as a model that can be highly successful in fostering innovation when it has a clear vision and mission.

Access to Capital: Improve VCAP program to grow access to capital by building stronger linkages to US based VCs.

Advisory Boards: Canada should consider a model of using research advisory boards that are comprised of major industrial stakeholders, academia and government, to strategically guide publically funded research projects. This model facilitates the buy-in from big business to support and collaborate with academia for research and development activities that will lead to commercially viable outcomes—as is commonly done in the US.

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