Closing the Gap

By pooling resources and knowledge, Composites Innovation Centre brings together experts across industries to solve pressing technological issues

Parts of this motorcycle were manufactured out of CIC-developed composite materials.

True to its name, Composites Innovation Centre (CIC) is innovative in more ways than one. To start, the company boasts a business model different from similar nonprofit organizations that seek to achieve the same goals. “We help clients with our technical services and manage their projects,” says executive director Sean McKay. “In addition, we lead customers to the funding that they need to make their vision a reality. Generally, you don’t find all three elements in the mix that similar organizations offer.”

5 Questions
with Sean McKay

1. What does innovation mean to your company?
The ability to comprehend technological maturity and, from there, assisting clients in implementing technology in the most cost-effective and timely fashion. A lot of ideas emerge from large research organizations. These need to be transitioned from theory into reality.

2. How does a technology trend drive your company forward?
We select specific technologies that help fill gaps [in the areas we serve]. By filling these technology gaps, we support local and national industries—especially industries that require skills related to design and analysis.

3. What defines an innovative company in the 21st century?
Fostering innovation means the development of a new business model. We’ve developed a unique model that supports clients and their own models in the most effective fashion. Typically, the government doesn’t support such activities. That’s where we come in.

4. Does innovation mean that a company needs to break the bank?
Not if you learn to collaborate effectively with others, and that gets back to the technology gaps. Globally, I believe we’re all at the same point about understanding technology maturity—but we need to take it to the next level, to ensure that we overcome some issues, like profitability, durability, and consistency.

5. Where will innovation take you in the next five years?
We’re looking beyond five years. You take an idea, translate it into reality, and that makes a client operate more efficiently. The impact on the client is long term, as is the impact on us.

While it focuses on promoting industry and, in turn, economic growth in Western Canada, CIC’s influence is felt throughout the world, particularly though its involvement with biomaterials. Since its founding, in 2003, the company has experienced tremendous growth. Currently, CIC boasts revenues in the $4 million range. This revenue growth is underscored by its physical expansion: in January 2012, the company moved into a new, 21,000-square-foot facility in Winnipeg.

CIC engages in projects that demonstrate advances and new evolutions in cutting-edge technology for a variety of industrial sectors. Some of CIC’s work stems from its development of biomaterials. Several projects have the company harnessing natural fibres native to Western Canada to replace fibreglass fibres in composite applications. In another area, CIC is working with material suppliers to develop innovative resin systems.

These innovations can lead to a variety of real-world applications, such as making a bus lighter or developing a completely sustainable shelter. And by developing partnerships in Australia, New Zealand, China, the United States, and South Africa, CIC is harnessing the capabilities of world-leading experts.

“We established these partnerships because we want to accelerate both the development and acceptance of these biomaterials [for] general application,” McKay says. “We take on the facilitator role, through our international research network. The organization’s members’ main purpose is to determine the technology gaps and what needs to be done to close those gaps.”

The end goal isn’t research, however, but to commercialize the technologies. “Our mandate involves the economic growth of manufacturers,” McKay says. “We do that by supporting development of new materials and technologies, and assisting in transferring these into industries and viable applications.”

CIC implements a unique service menu—including design and analysis, prototyping, process development and testing, and project management—to facilitate this process. “We find that many of our clients don’t have the resources or capabilities to properly manage a project,” McKay says, “so we manage it, making sure that everyone stays on track and that the project marches forward.”

CIC will often bring in other industrial partners to add to its own competencies, with the aim of providing the best service for CIC’s clients. “For instance, if the situation calls for it, we engage a composite fabricator in the project plan, one specifically suited for the type of client application,” McKay explains. “This leads to [the industrial partner] developing the prototype and, ultimately, becoming engaged in its ongoing production.”

This also addresses the aforementioned “technology gap,” which manifests in gaps in funding, technology, capabilities, research, and government interest. CIC collaborates with industry and government agencies, and even educational establishments, to address these issues, and has worked with such entities as Western Economic Diversification Canada, the Province of Manitoba, Economic Development Winnipeg, the National Research Council of Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the University of Manitoba, and Red River College.

Specific client requirements have driven CIC’s success into several fields, including ground transportation, aerospace, civil infrastructure, and industrial products. Because of its unique nature and the numerous markets it serves, CIC can truly be considered sui generis—that is, one of a kind.