National Post (Latest Edition)

Growing businesses

LETTERS

- Rory Francis, Executive Director, Prince Edward Island BioAllianc­e

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 wellrespec­ted 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.

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