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What are superclusters and how can they help small businesses?

(Photo credit: Drazen_/iStock.com)

What can a supercluster do for your business?

Experts suggest that business clusters — when related companies, organizations and talent pools are located in close proximity to each other, sometimes competing and sometimes collaborating — can improve competitiveness. We see the effects in  places like Silicon Valley with high tech and Hollywood with entertainment. But can you engineer “innovation superclusters” to supersize that effect?

The federal government is betting on it, announcing February 15 that they’ll fund five superclusters across the country to the tune of $950 million over the next five years, with the aim of helping Canadian entrepreneurs, academics and not-for-profits work together to grow their sectors.

The winners are: digital technology in B.C., protein industries in the Prairies, advanced manufacturing in Ontario, artificial intelligence and robotics in Quebec, and oceans in Atlantic Canada. The feds have set an ambition goal: 50,000 new jobs and increasing Canada’s GDP by more than $50 billion over 10 years.

Detailed budgets have not yet been released, and each of the five superclusters will have its own approach, so entrepreneurs on the verge of the next big thing will have to be patient. But at least some of the money will be dedicated to start-up incubators and accelerators to help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) scale up.

St John's Harbour in Newfoundland Canada

(Photo credit: Kyle Bedell/iStock.com)

The superclusters will also fund what they’re calling Technical Leadership Projects (TLPs). “That’s when you tell a group of SMEs and potentially even post-secondary applied researchers, ‘Go work on a project together,’” said Jim Hanlon, CEO at the Halifax-based Institute for Ocean Research Enterprise and the Centre for Ocean Ventures & Entrepreneurship. TLPs will get help with market research, getting meetings with potential customers and bringing products to market. Building prototypes that will work in harsh ocean conditions, for example, is not a cheap endeavour.

Hanlon helped spearhead the bid for the Ocean supercluster, which will nurture industries like marine renewable energy, fisheries, aquaculture, oil and gas, defence, shipbuilding and transportation. He said many of the companies already in these Ocean sectors (about 600 SMEs across the country) are successful in their niche areas, but have problems scaling up. Many sell small amounts of specialized tech to universities that could, with help, be repositioned to be enticing to big ocean resource customers. New underwater sensors that collect data on marine life DNA, for example, may hold as much interest for oil and gas companies as for academics. “They’re looking for things that are primed already to be world-leading, and with a little bit of additional investment can move into the lead,” said Hanlon.


Paul Gallant is a Toronto-based journalist and editor who writes about Canadian small and medium-sized enterprises, international business, urban development, travel, technology and social change. His work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Canadian Business, The Walrus and many other publications. He is executive editor at BOLD, an international travel magazine for Canadians.