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This article was published 4/3/2016 (1672 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
WINNIPEG’S economic makeup is most famous for being diversified.
Unfortunately, to some that means it’s not famous for anything.
It may be the undisputed North American centre for bus manufacturing, but that is hardly the sexiest sector in the digital era.
It is certainly an agricultural-industries hub with significant grain, food and agricultural equipment production. But on Bay Street and Wall Street that’s an amorphous designation that likely includes, in their collective minds, the entirety of the Prairies and Great Plains.
Winnipeg is the headquarters of a couple of the largest financial-services companies in the country that employ thousands of people and manage hundreds of billions of dollars. But Winnipeg can hardly lay claim to being in the same category as financial-services hubs such as New York, London or Toronto.
But with a little luck and stalwart commitment to the project, in time Winnipeg could become known as the global centre for biomaterials technology development.
'We have the core capabilities now established'
And in light of climate change and the need to limit greenhouse gas emissions, it could become crucial technology for the global economy.
But that will only become a reality if the Composites Innovation Centre continues to get the support it needs.
The 13-year-old research organization has grown steadily over the years and has become an important partner with some of the leading manufacturers in Western Canada, including Boeing, Magellan and New Flyer.
Since it was formed in 2003, it’s received more than $50 million in investments, including about $13 million from each of the federal and provincial governments.
It has now built up its infrastructure so it can provide all sorts of support for industry including design, testing, prototyping, training, feasibility assessment and project management around the development of composite-material deployment.
At its annual meeting Wednesday, the CIC’s chief executive officer, Sean McKay, made it clear the plans for the next five years for the organization are substantially more ambitious compared to its accomplishments over the previous 13 years.
Whereas it’s estimated the CIC has helped create about 800 jobs in the previous 13 years, it expects to help create about 700 jobs in the next five years.
In the first 13 years, it’s assisted its partners in adding about $42 million in industry revenue. Over the next five years, it plans to get that number up to $600 million.
"We have the core capabilities now established," McKay said. "So now we can most effectively utilize it."
For instance, it has built a biofibre grading and testing operation, FibreCity, that is the only of its kind in the world.
The idea is to be able to classify the properties of particular biofibres, noting precisely where they were grown, under what sort of weather conditions, and the exact genomic details of the seed to determine what sort of properties manufacturers can expect from the fibre in the biofibre composites that will be made.
The idea is, if biomaterials are to replace petroleum-based ones in industrial manufacturing, their properties need to be consistent and accurately predictable.
The CIC is starting on a $2.7-million project over the next two years to fully commercialize the process.
That will include solving some major technical challenges including how to get resins to properly stick to the fibres, obviously a key factor in allowing them to even be called composites.
"We do not have durable composites at the moment," McKay said. "We need to be able to develop a better resin-to-fibre interface and more durable composite."
There is already about $700,000 worth of contributions from research partners in China and Australia.
Despite the potential global impact of the work the CIC is doing — more and more manufacturers are interested in biomaterials to replace petroleum-based composites and fibreglass — it continues to grow at a modest pace.
Unlike other technology research centres in the world where substantial capital outlays occur before there is even a demonstrated demand for the technology, the CIC figures out what the demand is before spending the capital.
And while it does derive some of its $5-million annual budget from fee-for-service work, it wants to remain a not-for-profit organization. McKay said that is the best way it can contribute to economic development in Western Canada.
But in order for the CIC to be sustainable and grow, it will need continued support.
"Lots of funding agencies like to fund new things, not the existing successful ones," he said.
"That is going to be one of the major challenges, how to continue to develop that funding so we can support economic growth with the critical mass we have created."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.
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