Good morning, and thank you for the invitation to testify as a witness.
My name is Marie D'Iorio, and I'm the executive director of the National Institute for Nanotechnology, NINT for short, based in Edmonton. It is a partnership between the National Research Council and the University of Alberta, and it is funded by both the federal and the provincial governments. It was established in 2002 as one of NRC's cluster initiatives. The state-of-the-art facility opened its door on the campus of the University of Alberta in 2006.
The NINT strategy is based on a collaboration that transforms discoveries made in a university setting into technologies that can be integrated into potential products for the market. This is done by combining the creativity of university researchers with the expertise and discipline of NRC researchers who focus on integration, manufacturing and the cost-to-performance ratios of the materials and the devices on which they are working
NINT works in an interdisciplinary way to develop materials and devices with the potential of leading to differential or disruptive technologies in electronics, energy and medicine.
As was observed by Dan Wayner, vice-president of emerging technologies at NRC, at the committee's May 7 meeting, the term “disruptive technology” refers to a profound or discontinuous change in capability or cost-performance ratio with significant economic and social impacts. Sometimes this happens through technology integration or technology remix. It is the deployment in the marketplace that is disruptive, rather than the technology itself.
In order for Canada to be competitive in the development and deployment of disruptive technologies, there must be collaboration across innovation systems. By that I mean the universities, the research technology organizations, government regulators, and industry. No single entity can do it all.
Collaboration is a necessary but insufficient condition for success. It also requires vision combined with deep subject expertise, a high tolerance for risk, patient investment, and acceptance, if not the embrace, of failure. These are tied of course to risk-taking fortitude and entrepreneurial spirit on the part of people doing that work.
I would like to provide a few examples of disruptive technologies, starting first of all with the work underway at NINT.
For more than 20 years, the NRC has been investing in nanoelectronics, because, with current computers, miniaturization and the cost-to-performance ratio have reached their limit.
How do we meet that challenge? One of our researchers, Professor Bob Wolkow, has developed the knowledge to build a computer that is extremely fast. It operates at room temperature and uses very little power. It is a revolutionary concept because no other architecture meets all of those criteria.
Have the conditions for the development of disruptive technology been met? If we look at collaboration, for example, the NRC, the University of Alberta, NSERC, the Government of Alberta, and Lockheed Martin support the research and the development of technologies to demonstrate this type of computer.
In terms of vision, universities, research technology organizations such as NRC, and industry have recognized that quantum computing is part of the world's future and can generate wealth for Canada.
In terms of risk tolerance, there are still many obstacles to overcome in order to get a manufacturable computer of that type, and others may win the race, but in so doing, we will be learning a lot, and that will help us with the next race.
As for patient investment, it has been more than 10 years in the making, so yes, we are patient, and we have to continue being patient so that we can get to the goal.
Professor Wolkow has spun off a company called Quantum Silicon Inc. He has attracted $2.5 million of seed funding to carry on with the technology demonstration. It is part of the story of Canada's leadership in the field of quantum computing worldwide.
Before joining NINT in Edmonton, I directed the Institute for Microstructural Sciences in Ottawa, which now comes under the NRC's information and communications technology portfolio.
One of the best examples of disruptive technologies in this area is in optic communications. In 1987, a researcher was able to convince the management team of the day that an emerging technology in the United States should be developed in Canada. He said that the technology would replace information-carrying cables in a network by light, the various wavelengths of which would carry the information. By dividing light into its different wavelengths, it would be possible to send more information in parallel and thereby increase the speed and the capacity of the networks.
While this seemed a wild idea in 1987, its realization would increase data transmission by more than 100 times and diminish issues of signal strength over long distances. Given that foresight, what convinced NRC to take the risk and invest in the optical communications race?
The management team had the breadth of knowledge and the scientific judgment to understand that Canada's excellence in material science and photonics was a competitive advantage in that race. They reduced the risk by forming a consortium to build the technology and bring the technology to market, ensuring that the members of the consortium would have full access to the intellectual property once the technology was developed. They also introduced the rigour of project management to focus the effort of the technical team on the delivery against milestones.
That consortium of Canadian companies, universities, NRC, and NSERC focused the efforts of part of the personnel of the institute at the time on developing what was called wavelength division multiplexing. While the nature of the work to be undertaken was clearly pre-competitive in nature, a technology demonstration outcome was chosen from the outset. It was to be the precursor to developing photonic integrated circuits for optical telecommunication.
The work of the consortium was funded for seven years. It led to the creation of many Canadian spinoffs—four from NRC—the rise of Nortel, and the capture of 40% of the optical communications market by Canadian companies by the year 2000. By 2010 the return on investment from this disruptive technology was 400:1 in Canada alone.
Another example of the role of government in the disruptive technology space is the support of companies when they are ready to demonstrate their technology and they need low-volume manufacturing and packaging capabilities in Canada. This story is actually a continuation of the previous one. After the success of the Solid State Optoelectronic Consortium, as it was known, the same visionaries reflected on what was required to help Canadian companies be competitive and generate wealth in Canada.
At the time, many Canadian spinoffs were failing because they could not afford to maintain state-of-the-art facilities to demonstrate their technologies. The concept supporting the potentially disruptive technologies was one of a photonic fabrication centre that could support companies with a design and low-volume manufacturing of photonic devices like lasers and so on. It was funded in 2002. The Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre was, at the time, one of very few worldwide. It attracted clients from around the world, and some of them actually established a presence in Canada in order to benefit from this fabrication centre. A few years later, the majority of the clients of the CPFC were Canadian. By 2010 the return on investment of the CPFC was 10:1, so it obviously addressed a need of the companies.
I would like to conclude by emphasizing that Canada is well placed to support the development and deployment of disruptive technologies if it encourages collaboration, vision, risk-taking, long-term investment and the acceptance of failure as an integral part of the innovation system. Failure is part of learning, but it also allows us to gauge whether there really are risks to be taken rather than relying on sure bets. A culture of entrepreneurship in an ecosystem formed around innovation must accept failure so that success can be so much more rewarding.