Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Nano knowledge going south? Blame Canada!

Canada's brilliant nanoscientists can grow brains on a microchip, but when it comes to making money, the brains all drain south. Neil Gordon, who heads the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance, can't seem to capture his government's attention span long enough to do something about it -- unlike his counterparts in slightly warming climes.

I talked to Gordon for an unrelated story a couple of days ago, but it reminded me to go through my notes from a previous interview with him on questions of Canada's nano brain drain. Here's an excerpt:

    Me: "I don't want to insult you as a Canadian, and I'm half Canadian, myself …

    Gordon: "Everyone insults the Cana …"

    Me: "My mother was born and raised in Toronto."

    Gordon: "In Toronto, OK. I don't know her, though. They assume we all know each other."

    Me: The way you're describing the way the system works in Canada is similar to what I hear in reference to developing countries and countries of the former Soviet Union – that there are all these brilliant scientists, but no way to use their knowhow to found companies in their own countries, so a lot of them go overseas. Maybe the analogy stops there, because obviously Canada is not a developing country, but it has a similar problem. After all these brilliant scientists and businesspeople graduate from these great universities, and are interested in nanotechnology, where do they go? Am I reflecting what you said?

    Gordon: There is a spirit of entrepreneurship in Canada, and we do have a proportional amount of nanotech companies. Problem is, many of them are facing a lot of severe financial problems. So, number one, there aren't a lot of precomercialization funding available in Canada, that's so critical for nanotech and Small Tech, like the NNI, DARPA, ATP, SBIRs, so if these precommercialization programs don't exist that will get the company two years of cashflow until they actually get the VC funding available, it's not helpful.

    Me: "That's interesting. That goes against what you think about when you think about Canada, that the government takes care of everything, but maybe that's more on the individual social welfare part of it and not corporate welfare as we call it here."

    Gordon: Well, call it corporate welfare, but governments have a vested interest in investing in strategic technologies. The Canadian government has invested in the mining industry and created a lot of tax laws for getting companies to set up and go explore the north for oil and other natural resources. They're not doing that with nanotech and small tech and unless they do to even the playing field, all of the knowhow and innovation is going to go to the governments, countries that make the investments."

    Me: "So, I’m assuming that one of the reasons for founding the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance was to try to address that problem."

    Gordon: Well, lobbying the Canadian government for an NNI. That's mission number one.

    Me: Is that what you've been actively doing for the last year, two years?"

    Gordon: Yeah

    Me: Sounds like you've come away from the experience a little frustrated?

    Gordon: Well, you see, just because you have something to say, there has to be someone to listen. So, we had a prime minister who has retired about a week ago [Blogger's note: This interview took place in December] and he had an innovation strategy, which is one of the legacies he wanted to leave for the country, and part of the innovation strategy would be to take a lot of money and double the amount of R&D being done in Canada that the government would spend on. So, there were 36 industries that were targeted for investments in innovation, of which nano fit in about two-thirds of them, nano and small tech. However, that project kind of fizzled out."

    Me: Why?

    (Gordon's tone is almost a deadpan now)

    Gordon: Why? Well, I guess his political will ran out of steam and this was one of the things that he needed more time to influence.

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