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.
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.
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.
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