The following commentary was submitted to the National Post by Rory Francis, Executive Director of the PEI BioAlliance and President of the Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce and was published on January 25, 2018.
Re: Silly grants won’t bring Silicon Valley north, Diane Francis, Jan. 23 While I agree with the title of Ms. Francis’ recent column, the content that follows risks undermining valid private and public- sector efforts at increasing the commercialization success of technology companies in Canada.
The irony is that she attacks an underfunded federal organization — the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program ( NRC- IRAP) — that is well-respected by large and small business, and active in the full range of technology sectors in Canada. IRAP grants to carefully screened recipients are critical to those companies establishing proof of concept for new technologies and moving closer to the holy grail of private-sector investment.
Then follows the fallacy that “Americans have created an innovation economy without handing out cash.” Have you checked recently on the budgets of the decades-old ( and well- funded) Small Business Innovation Research ( SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant programs in the U. S.? How about the National Institutes of Health (NIH)? The National Science Foundation (NSF)? The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Yes, IRAP also funds the Canadian Accelerator and Incubator Program (CAIP), set up by the late finance minister Jim Flaherty in the 2012 federal budget to ensure that early stage technology companies in Canada had access to the mentorship and guidance necessary to navigate the challenging road from technology to commercial success. The emphasis is on helping companies become “investor ready” and attracting private capital necessary to scale businesses. No company in Canada survives on federal or provincial grants for long, nor wishes to. But seed capital is a necessary stage.
The PEI BioAlliance’s Emergence Incubator is one of 15 private- for- profit, and business- led not- for- profits, funded under CAIP. With 70 bioscience businesses currently in our incubator program both from across Canada and from other countries bringing new investment to Canada, I would be happy to tour Ms. Francis around our bioscience cluster to demonstrate what return- on- investment of public funds looks like. Businesses developing and manufacturing pharmaceutical ingredients, natural health products, diagnostics, animal health and fish vaccines for global markets. She would see what committed private-public partnerships can do to transform economies, this one in Atlantic Canada, where there is damn little provincial money “being handed out like Halloween candy” in economic development circles.
I can’t speak for all incubators and accelerators in Canada, but I can speak for Emergence. There is no link between IRAP grants and a desk in a subsidized accelerator. There are no commissions, there are no “fat executives’ salaries.” There are no “fake companies.” Sure, there are startups — entrepreneurs with dreams and promising technologies, some of which will become our success stories of the future, many of which will fail. Fail early — fail cheap, and avoid putting public or private funds into losing business plans. That’s part of our job. Work with the ones that have a shot. Last time I looked, Silicon Valley had its share of businesses with technologies that never made it to market. That’s just business.