Where is Alberta Innovates today, and where is it trying to take the province tomorrow?
The publicly-funded investment group was created almost three years ago
by Nick Frost
On New Year’s Day 2010, four independently run organizations geared towards funding research and innovation projects were launched under a shared moniker: Alberta Innovates.
Illustration Gary Sawyer
Then-premier Ed Stelmach had approached his minister of advanced education, Doug Horner, the year before about the state of Alberta’s innovation system. At that time, dozens of groups across the province had overlapping roles in industry and it was determined that this complex network needed simplifying.
This led to the creation of Bill 27 – the Alberta Research and Innovation Act – which officially passed on June 4, 2009. It called for the restructuring of 10 pre-existing organizations into four with broader focuses on industry: Bio Solutions, Health Solutions, Energy and Environment Solutions, and Technology Futures.
Each organization has taken the lead on creating and funding projects within the province affecting everything from food production to safety in the oil sands. Several new projects are in the works, with completion dates ranging anywhere up to five years. Here’s where each organization stands today, and where it plans on going in the future.
Alberta Innovates: Bio Solutions
CEO: Stan Blade
Core provincial funding in 2012: $16,736,000
Calls for proposals are put out in priority areas, and scientists are asked to apply and go through an international peer review process. Once that is completed, projects are awarded funding, again based on priority. In some cases, however, Bio Solutions will actively seek out certain research groups if a specific problem needs addressing.
Bio Solutions invests in research in the fields of agriculture, food and forestry. CEO Stan Blade says he’s excited, for instance, by the organization’s recent investments in bean breeding in southern Alberta. He hopes the work will lead to an increase in the number of export markets for the crop and in the total volume available to be exported. “We’re diversifying our cropping systems, we’re diversifying our economy, and [our] farmers are really being able to supply crops to those growing markets,” Blade says, “whether they’re in India or Mexico or other parts of the world.”
Bio Solutions is also part of a team – the University of Alberta has provided support and a $2-million investment – working to advance the cause of cattle herds through the study of livestock genomics. Their objective is not only to supply consumers with a safe and healthy meat product but also to explore different methods of genetic improvement within herds and the means to apply similar science to other forms of meat production. “Alberta’s always been a leader in beef production, but now we have the capability of understanding some of the more basic controlling agents for feed efficiency, for quality of meat, for a whole array of traits that are important both to producer and to citizens who want to enjoy those products,” says Blade.
But better food production is just part of Bio Solutions’ focus going forward. The organization recently made what Blade calls a “big investment” into the Bioconversion Network, a collective based at the University of Alberta’s Agri-Food Discovery Place that has links extending across Canada. Given the potential uses for biomass in the province, this partnership will look to grow the bioeconomy over the next five to 10 years. “They’re working on the science of taking that biomass that we produce here in the province and … [turning] it into new kinds of biomaterials for insulation or biochemicals used for a whole array of purposes,” Blade says.
Alberta Innovates: Energy & Environment Solutions
CEO: Eddy Isaacs
Core provincial funding in 2012: $22,100,000
Energy and Environment Solutions is partnered mostly with industry, though it also does a lot of work with universities. The organization will seek out companies first and work with them before deciding if it wants them to apply for any actual funding, thus eliminating the need for formal application.
There might not be a more important area of scientific inquiry in Alberta than the relationship between the energy sector and the environment. At Energy and Environment Solutions, CEO Eddy Isaacs and his team are helping to find a balance between the two. They recently completed a project with the University of Alberta on wetland research, with the intention of producing a textbook. In early September, the organization announced an action plan for tailings ponds, working with, among others, Alberta Energy and the federal government. The focus was to recommend pathways for reclamation of tailings.
“We’re working with industry to identify some of the key innovations that are going to be needed for the tailings, and that’s going to require some significant new dollars to be able to do that,” Isaacs says. “But we’re looking forward to dissecting some of the technologies that have been identified that could make a big difference.”
EES continues to be heavily involved in developing technologies for the recovery of bitumen from oil sands. Isaacs says advanced technologies using electrical and electromagnetic heating, as well as the use of solvents, have shown a great deal of potential.
One such project currently in the works has partnered them with the Harris Corporation and several oil sands companies to test radio frequency technology that, as Isaacs says, “[puts] an electromagnetic wave plus solvent into the reservoir to produce the oil. If that starts to prove itself – and we’re still at an early stage – it will certainly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from projects by a very large margin.”
Alberta Innovates: Health Solutions
CEO: Jacques Magnan
Core provincial funding in 2012: $79,193,000
CEO Jacques Magnan says that, in addition to its share of the Alberta Innovates budget, Health Solutions receives between $5 million and $6 million from industry partners and $12.5 million from a contract with Alberta Health to support cancer research in the province.
“[It] is research that is not just interested in developing new understanding of phenomena, but research that’s interested in transferring that knowledge into the commercial side, whether it’s new drugs, new therapies or new diagnostics,” says CEO Jacques Magnan.
At its most fundamental level, the partnership should provide better equipment and treatment to health-care workers in the province, while, on a larger scale, Magnan hopes that it will be the catalyst for stronger entrepreneurship within Alberta’s medical community. According to Magnan, the new collaboration is a testament to the research already going on across the province. “The drug companies are obviously looking at people doing research in the universities in Alberta and recognizing the quality of these people, saying, ‘There’s something there we can encourage. Can we provide support to these researchers to develop products a little bit more along the line of the continuum to commercialization?’ ”
Over the next six months, Health Solutions hopes to invest between $10 million and $15 million in new projects, including helping Bio Solutions meet its objectives towards healthier food production and what Magnan calls a “catalyst opportunity” in challenging research teams to promote the development of new uses for products and devices in Alberta.
“In 2010, we had to redesign all of our programs,” he says. “We’re just at the point now of putting money out there, disseminating and allocating resources on the new programs we’ve put in place.”
Alberta Innovates: Technology Futures
CEO: Stephen Lougheed
Core provincial funding in 2012: $98,321,000
Technology Futures receives the largest share of the government funding pie but, says CEO Stephen Lougheed, a significant portion of its total budget comes from the private sector in order to fund jont projects. It also receives money from other government departments such as Alberta Agriculture and Alberta Sustainable Resource Development in order to fund its work on specific projects.
Technological advancements are critical for every industrial sector, so the work done at Technology Futures tends to cut across a variety of areas and interests. The Pipeline Integrity and Corrosion Management program, for example, looks at developing improvements in pipelines using everything from predictive models to monitoring systems, while the Welding Engineering Program studies productivity and skill-set development in the area of modernizing welding and automation techniques.
This fusion of private and public interests is an inescapable part of Technology Futures. For example, the organization has established a consortium with the Department of Enterprise and Advanced Education that will see the program partner with 23 industry leaders including Suncor Energy and Ledcor Industrial. “We see this leading to significant long-term improvements and also commercialization of technologies with some of the smaller and medium businesses that exist around Alberta in that area,” CEO Stephen Lougheed says. “It’s not part of the sexy side of things, but we’re dealing with robots, we’re dealing with new technologies and we’re dealing with the critical issue of productivity in the building of the infrastructure around the oil sands.”
It’s not all gadgets and gizmos at Technology Futures, though. One of its major initiatives – working with the other Alberta Innovates corporations, regional networks and government programs like the federal government’s Industrial Research Assistance Program – is the creation of a repository of all program information. “We’re trying to build this out so we can hand people off who walk in our door to the appropriate place in the system and vice-versa,” Lougheed says. “We can get much better at making it easier for companies and researchers and even government departments that are trying to solve problems to know where to go.”