Banding Together: Québec’s Innovation Ecosystem

September 05, 2017

It is apparent that beyond the driving force of the OEMs, Québec’s key to success lies in its high number of innovative SMEs and collaborative approach to innovation. Research organizations such as the Consortium for Research and Innovation in Aerospace in Québec (CRIAQ) and the national Consortium for Aerospace Research and Innovation in Canada (CARIC) support programs and bridge gaps between universities, SMEs and larger players. Associations such as Aéro Montréal and the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC) also seek to coordinate the industry and encourage collaboration to drive innovation. “Canada is first in civil flight simulation, first in small engine production, second in business and regional aircraft production and third in overall civil aviation production,” noted Jim Quick, AIAC’s president and CEO. “Globally, we are ranked number one in strategic importance to overall manufacturing for our country, number three in terms of R&D intensity, and number five in terms of GDP contribution… We are not like other aerospace nations, which often have supply chains that are very focused on their own national needs. We do not build aircraft for Canada; we build them for the globe.”

More than 70% of all Canadian aerospace R&D is carried out in the Greater Montréal area, representing an investment of approximately $700 million a year. A significant portion of this investment comes from financial support offered by a number of Québec’s associations and both the provincial and federal governments. For example, 2016 saw 21 new collaborative research projects supported by CRIAQ with a total value of C$26.9 million. More broadly, CRIAQ has also launched a Digital Aerospace project to fuel discussion on the convergence of aerospace and digital technology to determine R&D needs and translate them into development priorities over defined time frames. In addition to CRIAQ, other internationally-renowned research bodies include the Institut Nationale d’Optique (INO), the NRC Aerospace Manufacturing Technology Centre, Defence Research and Development Canada – Valcartier (DRDC) and the Centre technologique en aérospatiale (CTA).

Because our projects do not extend beyond TRL Technology Readiness Level) 6, we have been trying to create bridges between our program and ones that can further assist companies, without a gap in support if possible. We are also trying to be more strategic… We are trying to transform ourselves into something of an R&D brokerage service, offering more research programs than just our own. Even if the CRIAQ program does not fit a company’s needs, we want to be able to support them in their application to other programs. Additionally, we have become much more proactive in reaching out to companies in other clusters, such as TechnoMontréal and Prompt. This is important for the future to be able to inject technologies from other networks into aerospace products.

R&D consortiums are typically formed around a particular challenge or area of improvement; CRIAQ is also trying to approach program selection more strategically in this way. “Most of CRIAQ’s projects have been bottom-up programs creating technology according to companies’ needs,” explained Denis Faubert, president and CEO at CRIAQ. “However, we are starting to move towards incorporating new technology research into structured programs. We want to pursue projects in big fields such as advanced manufacturing, clean tech, and numerical technology, which includes artificial intelligence.”

If Québec wants to keep its place as the third-largest aerospace hub in the world, we need to look at what the industry is demanding today. It is pushing for more automation, innovation, R&D, additive manufacturing, composites and digitalization. This change does not put Québec in jeopardy, but we need to think about how we will survive and keep our place in the new environment. It is a question we need to ask ourselves every day.  Québec and Canada have a great R&D ecosystem. We have a strong university network and research centers, but the support needs to be industry-led. As the industry, we are in the best position to identify and address the need.

Also following this approach is Aéro Montréal, which launched the Coalition for Greener Aircraft program, SA2GE (Smart Affordable Green Aircraft), in 2011, for example. The program aims to address climate change and compliance with new environmental regulations. “Environmental impacts, including on climate change, are an opportunity for aviation to play a leadership role,” commented Suzanne M. Benoît, Aéro Montréal’s president. “We had great success with this initiative, with 27 SMEs, five universities and four R&D centers collaborating. The Québec government and private companies contributed C$150 million in five R&D projects. Héroux-Devtek, for example, worked on a project to launch more environmentally-friendly surface treatment technologies. Advancements of this sort will place them in a strong position on new generations of aircraft with the OEMs.”

Aéro Montréal launched phase two of the program in 2016, with five projects selected. As part of its Québec Aerospace Strategy, the Québec Government has allocated funding of up to C$65 million for this second phase of the project, which will total upwards of C$130 million in public and private funding by 2021.

In many instances, programs are led by large companies such as Québec’s OEMs and Tier 1s. In line with increasing tendencies to outsource non-core functions and looking outwards for specialized expertise, larger companies are more and more receptive to joining forces with external organizations. Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC), for example, has more than 23 ongoing university agreements in Canada and projects with CARIC, CRIAQ and GARDN. “With the support of the Canadian government, we are also working with the aerospace cluster to create a consortium with themes related to advanced manufacturing and digitization,” noted Maria Della Posta, senior vice president at P&WC. “Additionally, we work with more than 1,300 suppliers in Canada. In collaboration with the federal government, we have put in place a program to help suppliers gain aerospace accreditations. We derive a lot of value from these collaborations and we try to give as much back to the community as possible.”

There are of course exceptions to the leadership model, including phase two of the SA2GE program, which is in fact led by SME Teraxion. More generally, well established companies are increasingly looking to universities and startups as a source of breakthrough technologies and proprietary processes. A key challenge within the innovation ecosystem is therefore the commercialization of this research to capture value addition rather than passing the program on at a low technology readiness level (TRL). CRIAQ is very much focused on this evolution from applied research with a low TRL to mid-TRL demonstration programs. In conjunction with CARIC, CRIAQ now funds the work of companies as well as universities. “Although there has been some concern over losing university involvement because higher TRLs generally involve less applied research, we maintain our strong involvement with universities,” assured Faubert. “In terms of current funding dynamics, about 35% of the total project value goes to SMEs, about 30% to universities and about 20% to large companies.

One of the major trends in the aerospace industry is the democratization of innovation where all companies, including smaller ones, have access to technologies that will enable them to create innovative products… SMEs often face challenges in finding financing for their products. They also need to validate their products quickly so that their limited resources will not go fruitless. In addition, SMEs sometimes do not have the capacity to commercialize their products and need the support of companies like MAYA so that they can focus on product development.

 

Government support and financing

Whilst some companies have large R&D budgets and the available resources to launch large projects, others require external support such as that offered by CRIAQ and the government. On the subject of government support of innovation, Michel Farley, president and CEO of Varitron Technologies, commented: “They have done a lot to help industry, including through funding to spur innovation in manufacturing processes and to help companies export. Investissement Québec has a stake of approximately 28% in Varitron and funding from the government will help the company market itself in the United States and secure more business there. Other companies in Québec should also use this funding to jump start their innovation and export strategies, something which is especially important as some owners of SMEs are unwilling to invest their own resources as they are nearing retirement.”

Varitron is among the top five Electronics Manufacturing Services (EMS) corporations in Canada, focusing on printed circuit board assembly and electronic engineering services for a variety of industries. The company has recently started to investigate the potential of printable inks and is also working on a new cooling technology for electronics.

Towards the end of 2016, Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development for the federal government, announced an investment of up to C$54 million in a consortium of 15 Canadian companies and academic institutions for cutting-edge electrical systems and advanced aerodynamic systems. This funding will be delivered under the Technology Demonstration Program, which supports collaborative research and early stage projects. The consortium will be led by Bombardier with other Québec-based partners including Thales, Liebherr, OPAL-RT, McGill University and Polytechnique Montréal.

Québec’s aerospace industry is a prime example of the benefits of collaboration in driving innovation. By financially supporting the breakthrough innovation stemming from smaller companies and universities in particular, the government will ensure that the industry remains at the cutting-edge of technology into the future.

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