Diversifying our Understanding of Diversification

A University of Calgary research team led by Dr. George Shimizu has developed a new material that could increase the efficiency and reduce the cost of capturing carbon emissions. With support from Calgary Innovates, this breakthrough is moving toward commercialization.

During the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill clean-up, tactics included deploying tiny microbes that eat oil. With support from Genome Alberta, University of Calgary scientist Dr. Casey Hubert’s team is proving that those miracle microbes thrive equally well in cold Canadian environments. This research will have enormous commercial benefit for the energy industry.

Need to be persuaded to drink milk? With funding from Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions, University of Calgary physiology researcher Dr. Prasanth Chelikani has spent three years investigating how milk protein helps weight loss and inhibits diabetes and cardiovascular problems.

Alberta diversified years ago

Last week, the Government of British Columbia chastised Alberta in its Throne Speech for failing to diversify. Many Albertans believe that to be true. Whenever Alberta’s oil economy hits a slump, the cries to “DIVERSIFY” ring loud. It’s as if governments hadn’t ever thought about diversification. But Alberta is not a one-trick pony.

The oil and gas sector represents about 25% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), down from 36% in 1985. That’s because other sectors have grown. One sector in particular is research and development.

It all began in 1980 when Premier Peter Lougheed established the Alberta Heritage Foundation in Medical Research (AHFMR), supporting medical scientists with grants of $35 to $40 million a year. AHFMR morphed into Alberta Innovates in 2010 with four branches: Bio, Health, Energy and Environment, and Technology. By 2012-13, Alberta was investing $814 million in R&D. That money is leveraged to attract private sector partnerships and investments.

It worked. Alberta is at the forefront of research areas such as nanotechnology, clean energy production, alternative energy, cardiovascular health, brain health, diabetes, bio-medical technologies, infectious diseases and more.

This sector now supports 4,500 research-based companies and 59,000 employees who generated about $13 billion in annual revenues (2013).

Alberta Driving to a Knowledge-Based Economy

It works because our governments have understood that it isn’t just about grants. Equally important is the right environment to encourage research and to attract top researchers.

That environment includes infrastructure like Information and Communications Technologies (ICT), the right tax incentives, and well-equipped brick-and-mortar facilities. It is also post-secondary education: fully 65% of Albertans over 25 have a post-secondary degree, diploma or certificate.

Current pleas for diversification seem to settle on oil upgraders or refineries. These are risky multi-billion-dollar hopes. Instead, take a fraction of that public money and move our flourishing knowledge-based economy up a level.

Here’s two ideas.

LPWANS are Game-Changers

Albertans are very well wired: the SuperNet is an ultra-high speed network of 13,000 km of fibre and 2,000 km of wireless connections, connecting 4700 government facilities including hospitals, schools, libraries and courts. It also enables high-speed internet in rural Alberta.

But technology doesn’t stand still. The future is Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWANs). LPWANs inexpensively link devices, enabling ’smart’ technologies that produce better, cheaper, more effective and more efficient management of resources and activity like energy consumption, traffic volumes or agriculture.

LPWANs use little power (batteries can last ten years on a single charge), and utilize the low cost broadband ranges that cellular tech has pretty much abandoned.

LPWANs would be game-changers in Alberta because of applications to agriculture and resource industries, and to connecting remote populations. Multiple applications are just waiting to be developed. Consider, for example, the cost savings if we linked doctors visually to remote locations, or even just linked local care facilities to the hospital to minimize unnecessary ambulance trips.

This is infrastructure worth investing in. It takes us somewhere new. It boosts existing industries that diversify our economy, plus supports the industry of innovation itself.

Big Data Tricky but Payoff is Enormous

Here’s another one: trickier, but the payoff would be enormous.

Alberta has several high quality, broadly based, inclusive health data bases – but they don’t talk to one another, in part because of privacy worries. But new technologies permit data to be anonymized securely. Computers then search for health linkages to identify trends and patterns. For example, let’s say 10,000 people have surgery, but 4,000 have to come back for additional antibiotic treatment. Some surgeons administer antibiotics before surgery; others afterwards. Comparing the data tells us whether a pre-dose of antibiotics lessens future complications. If it does, that knowledge reduces health care costs, provides better outcomes for patients, and makes more time for the next patient.

Computer analysis of big data can also be predictive. Clinical studies have shown that for every hour a patient remains undiagnosed, the mortality rate increases by 7%. Big data algorithms can predict if a patient is susceptible to sepsis; or can identify patients that are more likely to be readmitted after treatment for a cardiac incident.

Government leadership to enable big data application research right here would not only create a new centre of excellence, but could contain medical costs while improving patient outcomes. That isn’t wishful thinking: it is happening in places like the University of Pennsylvania.

Risky Refineries or Next Year Ideas

There are dozens of other innovative ideas that would drive us further into the knowledge economy, creating jobs and wealth, while also enhancing existing industries like energy, environment, agriculture and health to diversify us even more.

We can invest billions into oil refineries that the private sector thinks are too risky, or we can invest considerably less to keep building the knowledge economy that government kick-started 35 years ago.


Susan Elliott is a member of the Board of Directors of Genome Alberta, which leverages private and public investments into research and commercialization based on new understandings of genomics and related science. She is a partner with Strategy Portal Inc., a strategic management and communications advisory company in Calgary: www.strategyportal.ca.


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