Special Report: Creative City

Hamilton's Role in Southern Ontario's Innovation Ecosystem

Hamilton should focus on its existing strengths while at the same time increasing its integration with Waterloo-Guelph-London.

By Abdallah Al-Hakim
Published June 10, 2011

Over the past year, I have paid close attention to the commercialization efforts ongoing in Hamilton. The process of commercialization, which involves taking an invention or discovery from the university to the market place, is both socially responsible and economically beneficial. Hamilton is an important piece in the puzzle that includes Waterloo-Guelph-London in transforming the Canadian economy from resource-based to knowledge-based.

Countless articles have been written about the potential of Hamilton and the fact that it holds many of the key ingredients to become another Waterloo. While I agree with the main premise regarding Hamilton's untapped potential, I do not agree that Hamilton could or should be another IT or mobile technology centre such as Waterloo.

Instead, Hamilton should focus on its existing strengths while at the same time increasing its integration with Waterloo-Guelph-London.

Existing Strengths

Through McMaster University, the city possesses key strength in the areas of life science/medical research and engineering science. The University hosts the Centre for Probe Development and Commercialization (CPDC), runs the excellent Xerox Centre for Engineering Entrepreneurship and Innovation (XCEEI) program, has excellent research institutes such as Thrombosis & Atherosclerosis Research Institute (TaARI).

Moreover, the city recently scored a major coup by getting the Ottawa-based Materials Technology Laboratory (CANMET-MTL) to move its research facility to McMaster Innovation Park (MIP).

Another important tenant of MIP is the Innovation factory, which is a catalyst for building a viable entrepreneurship ecosystem in the city. This, combined with Hamilton's considerable population size (>500,000 people), geographical location and strong historical ties to the industry, gives it a number of advantages over other cities in the region.

The point here is that Hamilton should capitalize on these strengths and where it lacks key resources then it should venture and setup collaboration with other major centres in Ontario. In my opinion, successful startups coming out of the Hamilton region will likely need to integrate life science, engineering and IT components to offer a competitive global product.

The recent awarding by the Ministry of Research and Innovation of close to $3 million to Dr. Herb Shellhorn, a microbiologist at McMaster University, to commercialize water testing products represents an example of this integration of science, engineering and IT.

According the press release, the objective of the funding "is developing and commercializing inexpensive, next generation sensing systems to monitor water quality. These systems, which will be able to detect virtually any known contaminant, will test water quality on-site and use wireless networks to alert public officials of any problems".

This funding announcement caught my interest not only because of its significant monetary commitment but more importantly the outlined parameters to achieve success will require a synergy of microbiology, engineering and IT technologies. It is my hope that this represents a model for future projects coming out of Hamilton.

Demonstrate Benefits

For the general public to support building a vibrant entrepreneurship ecosystem, the city needs to demonstrate the economic benefits of a knowledge-based economy. The classic biomedical focus on driving drug discovery in academia could be lucrative, if successful, for the universities in the terms of licensing fees, however, the chances of growing successful biomedical startups in Canada are low.

To actually grow the tax base, the city should promote technologies that address problems in the agriculture, energy and water sectors. A startup built on these types of technologies will have a better supporting ecosystem and with the proper Go-To-Market strategy could become a successful story.

One recent example is McMaster's Automotive Research centre at MIP, which brings together private and public sector groups to develop new technologies such as hybrid engines, batteries and lightweight materials. Also, I heard from university sources that talks are ongoing to setup a wastewater research facility as a public-private partnership.

The interesting part about these two deals is that the University is leveraging Hamilton's ties to the industry to connect them with the university's leading edge research. These types of initiatives, in my opinion, increase the likelihood of success for startups and could perhaps one day produce a RIM like company in the agriculture, energy or water sector.

Bringing it Together

It is an uphill battle for Hamilton to become a commercial innovation hub. One woe that is common to many other hubs is the lack of capital. Obviously this is an important issue and the city can do more to attract investments and venture capital to Hamilton.

The industry-university partnership model is also an important cornerstone and should be expanded and supported by the city.

Finally, encouraging Hamilton's Diasporas to become more involved and excited about Hamilton's future would surely help in the transformation of the city.


a version of this essay was published on Abdallah's personal website

Abdallah Al-Hakim has a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Dundee, Scotland. Currently he is a research fellow at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto where his research focuses on understanding how cells respond to the damage caused to DNA by radiation, chemicals and other factors. He maintains a personal website.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted June 10, 2011 at 17:24:46

As much as I am a cheerleader for MIP and would like to work there, the first thing I would like to see is some practical innovation, such as:

How about a route between Mac and MIP that feels and is safe to walk and cycle?

Obviously this task is beyond the brains at Mac and the city to figure out. Cause if you can't do this, what can you do?

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted June 13, 2011 at 10:40:38 in reply to Comment 64809

MIP is very pedestrian friendly. Don't you see how the city put that nice traffic light to connect their parking lot to their front door? See, they care about pedestrians after they get out of their cars.

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By route (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2011 at 19:01:13

Once rail trail extension is done this would make a nice 5km loop. ie., shows two routes between MAC and MIP

http://www.gmap-pedometer.com/?r=4568937

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By nrg (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2011 at 19:03:30

McMaster has expertise in energy research too. Lots of potential links to renewables, nuclear engineering, biomass, climate change, and spin off green industries.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted June 11, 2011 at 07:58:34

To actually grow the tax base, the city should promote technologies that address problems in the agriculture, energy and water sectors. A startup built on these types of technologies will have a better supporting ecosystem and with the proper Go-To-Market strategy could become a successful story.

To actually grow my own income, I am developing an Innovation Ecosystem that incorporates agriculture, energy and water contained in an all-in-one condition, and this unique product will remain as a Made in Hamilton rendition.

Now if I can only muster the Go-To-Market strategy for next spring, by this time next year I'll have a success story to sing and all I need is venture capital, a prayer and a wing.

It is an uphill battle for Hamilton to become a commercial innovation hub. One woe that is common to many other hubs is the lack of capital. Obviously this is an important issue and the city can do more to attract investments and venture capital to Hamilton.

Wishful thinking Mr. Al-Hakim, but I doubt the city will be linking investors to me. Alas, I will have to venture out all on my own if there's any hope I may bring this phenomenon home.

Thanks for sharing.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted June 13, 2011 at 08:37:11

Let's try that again...

The process of commercialization, which involves taking an invention or discovery from the university to the market place, is both socially responsible and economically beneficial.

So if I make a discovery and invent a product that helps prevent disease by improving health through the use of said product and I am not associated with a University, am I being socially irresponsible by commercializing the product for economic benefit?

My new product's main components are derived from recycled materials of all things and if proved successful this summer, could be made available for commercial consumption next spring. But realistically, there is a great deal of work to be done before that can happen and I am just one working man. I actually quit my day job to develop the product along with catching up on past-due maintenance around the home front.

I can see the advantage of having a billion dollar corporation like the city of Hamilton or a Trillium level University like MacMaster as a sponsor for an Innovation Ecosystem product, but, I'm confident I will assemble a team of bright, eager and adventurous individuals who wish to make money before this year is behind us.

I'd like to be part of a team of die-hard Hamiltonians who make good things happen in the city of Hamilton, such as turning a profit, unlike some other teams who claim to be playing for Hamilton and then have their love-in in Burlington, a long long way from our yet to be gilded and dearly rebuilded old Ivor Wynne.

Golden Opportunity? Hmmm....

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted March 20, 2013 at 19:10:21

Showing how quickly an esoteric technology can become mainstream, Mike Lazaridis and Doug Fregin, who together founded BlackBerry, are establishing a $100 million venture fund for technologies that employ practical applications of quantum physics....

Mr. Lazaridis said the fund would initially focus on building things like sensors and actuators (a type of small motor), as well as new algorithms that could be used by others. Applications are likely in both health care and energy, among other fields, he said.

Noting that there is a big prize being offered to build a medical tricorder like the one in “Star Trek,” he said, “It’s not possible to do this without the sensitivity that a quantum sensor would have.”

Mr. Lazaridis did not announce any investments, but indicated that such announcements would soon come. Investment in a quantum computer, which he called “the holy grail” of applied quantum research, is not planned soon, but he did not rule out other breakthroughs.

“This is happening much faster than we thought,” he said. “The buzz is here.”


http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/19/creating-canadas-quantum-valley/

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