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Canadian face-off

Neil Gordon

By MOON-HEE ANDERSSON
Sweden and Canada have a lot in common, to mention but a few; both countries are highly industrialized, are pretty thinly populated with a cold climate and with a strong love for ice-hockey. Being something of an ice hockey buff myself it was with great pleasure I talked to Mr Neil Gordon in Canada.

Neil is a firm believer in nanotechnology and also a proud Canadian. He is a firm a believer in the enabling technology as well as Canadian know-how. Last year, in April he and Uri Sagman founded the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance (CNBA). They recruited entrepreneurs and business people to create something that they call “the SWAT team” to call upon the Canadian government to establish a national nanotechnology initiative, much like the one in the US. Presently without funding, the Alliance is driven by the likes of Neil, dedicating spare-time and souls in the promotion of nanotech.

Business AND play
When Neil isn’t busy promoting nanotechnology he spends his days working as a nano-tech business consultant at Sygertech in Montreal. His first encounter with nanotechnology was some 3,5 years ago as he got a due diligence assignment for a venture capitalist. The more research he did and the more he learned about nanotechnology, the more he realized that this was the future, not only in general but very much for himself in particular. And he was right indeed; today Neil’s assignments are all nanotech. What set off Neil’s quest for a national nanotech initiative in Canada was that he discovered that most of his clients came from outside Canada, so almost out of the necessity to create industry development, Neil decided to establish the NanoBusiness Alliance in Canada.

NHL vs. Farmers League
There are some 25 universities in Canada conducting nanotechnology research and a majority of research is funded by the government. “However,” Neil says, “considering that Canada is the second biggest country in the world, we only spend, per capita, 1/6th of what the US is spending on nanotech research, and this gap is widening.” I mention that one figure that has been used in the media is that the Canadian government spends roughly only around $13 million per year on nanotech. Being so greatly dependant on the USA for trading making up for 86% of Canada’s foreign market is something that Neil deeply worries about. He says; “There is a fear that Canada will, just like some other western countries, end up being just a farm-system. Our best and brightest are just going to move to the major US nanotech hubs, because that’s where the jobs are going to be. It’s just like hockey; you can see that the best Canadian and the best Swedish hockey-players are all going after the better paid jobs in the US. You have to be competitive because it is a global market.” Neil continues; “This is what I fear have will happen as nanotechnology evolves from science into commercial applications.” A real example of this fear is the co-founder of the CNBA, Mr Sagman, who last year moved his company C Sixty from Toronto, Canada to Houston, US due to access to key people at Rice University and getting closer to capital. Neil says; “This is a shame, Mr Sagman really wanted his company to stay in Canada, but being a businessman he had to go where his organisation can evolve.”

NHL vs. Farmers league

Poke Check
The scientific backbone of Canada is carried out by Canada’s National Research Council which has 4 000 researchers throughout the country. The main campus is in Ottawa but the NRC has regional institutes throughout Canada. Right now Neil is working together with the NRC to develop a nano-material cluster in Montreal where the Industrial Material Institute is already situated. Neil tells me Canada is very strong in industrial nano-materials. He qualifies; “We have all the basic science and academia, but what we lack is the industrial thrust to capitalize and leverage the strengths of Canada.” In order to remedy, Neil says that he believes that the Canadian government should give incentives to companies to get into nanotech. He says; “Like when the US government says, if you do this research, we will give you the grants.” This is the role of government,” Neil says and continues, “There’s so much high-risk research that has to be carried out, that you need the government to remove some of that risk to justify the research. We can already see countries like Switzerland, Israel, Australia and Japan making some very aggressive efforts to stimulate companies to go into nanotech. This is something we need to do too because without the industry, we only have the basic research left.”

Line-up
Watching what appears like a build up for a global nanotech race and seeing countries like the US investing heavily to be able to emerge victorious, I ask Neil what he thinks has to be done by small market countries, like Canada and Sweden, to qualify for that race. He believes that his firm opinion is that in order for Canada to be able to compete on a global nanotech market, they have to coordinate the national laboratories, the academia and the industry and come up with national challenges that could position Canada and other countries as world-leaders in some niches. He says;” If we do so, Canada has a great chance to be a leader within those niches. The game is still open, and there is still room for first-movers.”

Breakthrough with Breakout
Though Neil may appear somewhat pessimistic, he certainly isn’t. Making calls for action is after all his task. The outlook for the Canadian nanotech scene isn’t pitch-black. The Prime Minister Jean Chretien, has laid out an innovation strategy that’s planned to be implemented before his retirement in February 2004. Neil comments; “Since significant funding will be spent on innovation, it’s our expectation that some of it will go into nanotechnology”. As of today no one knows how much will actually be dedicated to nanotech. Neil sounds hopeful as he says: “One thing that I do know is the Deputy Prime Minister John Manley is personally aware of the benefits of nanotechnology, and Paul Martin, the person who is most likely to succeed our current prime minister was a strong supporter to build National Institute of Nanotechnology in Edmonton, Alberta”. So while it seems that the best Canadian hockey-players will keep going to the NHL, the Canadian Government is making a sincere effort to maintain the best scientists.


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