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NBIF Expands Role

New Brunswick has decided that innovation is going to be its engine of economic growth, and the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation is the engineer making sure the machine runs smoothly. Already this year, New Brunswick Premier David Alward has announced a new program highlighted by a commitment to fund innovation initiatives with $80 million over five years, as well as the creation of the New Brunswick Research and Innovation Council. And he has signaled that NBIF will play a key role in implementing the programs.

NBIF president and CEO Calvin Milbury says the enhanced mandate will mean a larger role for the 10-year-old agency, but both the institution and the community it serves are ready for the expanded duties.

“We’re gaining momentum, in part because of the success of companies like Q1 Labs and Radian6,” says Milbury. Those companies had huge exits two years ago, and their success has drawn more entrepreneurs into the system, many of whom are developing great companies. “It all means we’ll be able to place more investments without lowering the bar in terms of quality.”

NBIF is already coming off a record year, having sunk an unprecedented $5.35 million into the innovation economy. That includes $1.95 million in venture capital financing, comprising 12 deals—all record levels for the agency.

Milbury says the group is ready to contribute larger amounts to companies it believes in. For example, investments last year included financings of $500,000 each in Pennfield-based sustainable caviar company Breviro Caviar and energy-efficiency software company RtTech Software of Riverview. NBIF is already launching new initiatives or renewing successful programs through the program. It has announced $500,000 in funding over three years to allow seven university researchers to hire research technicians, which was matched by each research organization.

Since 2003, NBIF and the New Brunswick Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training, and Labour have awarded $4.5 million to create 67 new positions under the Research Technician Initiative, and more than half are still in these jobs.

NBIF has also launched its new $7.25-million Innovation Voucher Fund, in which all New Brunswick-based SMEs can receive as much as $80,000 to fund a project that leads to revenue growth or cost savings. To obtain a voucher, companies must collaborate with a New Brunswick applied researcher or research organization and contribute a minimum of 20% of the total cost of the project.

As recently as June 6, NBIF awarded $460,000 to University of New Brunswick researcher Felipe Chibante to develop composites that can harness solar energy while cutting 65% from the cost of fullerenes, a key ingredient in plastic solar cells. The result would be solar cells that are less expensive to produce and more accessible to everyday consumers. “Companies making plastic solar cells say the fullerenes are the most expensive component of this technology and a lower cost could bring a real benefit,” Chibante said in a statement. “We are hoping this technology will start an industry here in this province.”

Milbury says more announcements are scheduled to round out the innovation program. New Brunswick already hosted the Big Data Congress this year, marking its place in the development of the burgeoning field of data analytics. NBIF held its successful Breakthru business-plan competition and has just begun planning for its next R-3 competition, which rewards research.

One of the hallmarks of the new innovation policy is the deep involvement of the government to ensure that the program continues and thrives, even during an era of government cuts. It’s noteworthy that Alward himself is co-chair of the council on research and innovation. But it’s also worth noting that one council seat is given to Opposition leader Victor Boudreau.

The idea is that this program must last at least five years, even if the government changes in two years. New Brunswick officialdom is serious about this program, and its capacity for commercialization should increase as a result.