ARCHIVED - Evaluation of Central and Western Cluster Initiatives - Crops for Enhanced Human Health

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Executive Summary

In 2001, NRC was allocated resources to target a number of emerging research and technology fields that were identified by local partners in consultations with NRC. Under the central and western technology cluster initiatives (CWI) six initiatives were funded, each with an identified technology focus. These included:

  • aluminum transformation in the Saguenay;
  • photonics fabrication in Ottawa;
  • biomedical in Winnipeg;
  • nutraceuticals and functional foods in Saskatoon;
  • nanotechnology in Edmonton; and
  • fuel cells in Vancouver.

In 2005, an evaluation of these Round II technology cluster initiatives was launched and this report presents the key findings, conclusions and recommendations related to the Crops for Enhanced Human Health (CEHH) research program at NRC's Plant Biotechnology Institute (NRC-PBI) in Saskatoon.

The primary reasons for conducting an evaluation of the initiative at this time are as follows:

  • to collect information on the progress of the initiative to date, including lessons learned and novel practices, as a means of supporting NRC's strategic direction in contributing to the socio-economic sustainability of Canada's communities, through technology clusters;
  • to provide an opportunity to communicate with initiative stakeholders in the communities; and
  • to provide information on NRC's performance to date, to be used to facilitate decision-making around funding renewal of the cluster initiatives, which expires at the end of a five year funding cycle (2006-2007).

NRC Senior Executive Committee approved the Terms of Reference for this evaluation in September 2005.

The evaluation covered the period 2002-2003 to 2005-2006 inclusive. It addressed issues related to relevance; early outcomes and impacts; design, delivery and cost-effectiveness; and lessons learned and novel practices. The federal government's Expenditure Review Committee questions were also taken into account in the development of the evaluation issues.

The key methodologies used to address the evaluation issues included a review of documents; a review of administrative and performance data; key informant interviews; and a cluster measurement study.

Crops for Enhanced Human Health Cluster Initiative Overview

NRC launched its Crops for Enhanced Human Health (CEHH) cluster initiative in 2002 as part of a second round of funding dedicated to technology clustering. Lead delivery of the initiative is the responsibility of NRC-PBI. NRC-CISTI and NRC-IRAP also play roles in the initiative.

A total of $10M over five years, in federal resources, was allocated to the CEHH technology cluster initiative in the 2001 federal budget. All NRC resources in support of the technology cluster initiative have been directed to NRC-PBI. None were allocated to NRC-CISTI or NRC-IRAP.

The CEHH research program was a new scientific field for NRC-PBI that expanded on existing competencies at the Institute. CEHH is intended to augment NRC-PBI's efforts in plant and crop research and build on its capabilities in plant molecular biology, natural products chemistry, biochemistry and biotechnology. CEHH conducts research on bioactive molecules in plants that enhance human health and quality of life. Scientists are conducting research to improve and develop plants that produce natural health products, as well as to produce pharmaceutical products in plants through molecular farming technologies.

Based on the evaluation study conducted from October 2005 to June 2006, the following key evaluation findings and recommendations were identified.

General Conclusion

NRC's overarching rationale for launching technology cluster initiatives is to support the economic prosperity of communities. The evaluation found that the Crops for Enhanced Human Health technology cluster initiative, as part of the Plant Biotechnology Institute, is relevant and aligns with other plant research and industry facilities that currently exist in the Saskatoon area. The creation of a new research program that expands on the existing strengths at NRC-PBI and is dedicated to building scientific expertise in the field of nutraceuticals and functional foods is viewed by both the region and industry as being of preeminent importance. Functional foods/nutraceuticals (FFN) is an emerging industry. The small size of industry players and safety issues associated with developing products for human consumption underlie the need to develop the knowledge base supporting the health claims of FFN products.

The evaluation found that, although some higher level planning took place in the initial phases, no formal operational/business plan was developed for the initiative, making it difficult to assess whether the initiative has been executed according to plans. Nonetheless, CEHH research projects are underway with some collaborations in place, in addition, several hirings have occurred. The initiative has benefited from established linkages and relationships that existed with NRC-PBI management and staff prior to the initiative's funding. A program manager, dedicated to day-to-day management of the program, has been hired and advantages of this position are being realized including a formal project review process.

Despite not receiving specific funding under the CEHH technology cluster initiative, NRC-CISTI and NRC-IRAP have contributed in ways appropriate to their mandates.

Where major future challenges lie are in linking firm needs to research and development (R&D) and the commercialization of research outcomes in the longer term. In addition, a number of factors, out of the sphere of NRC's influence, were identified as having the potential to limit the growth of the cluster. These include: access to venture capital, minimal receptor capacity, availability of tax incentives for startups and global competition.

Summary of Findings and Recommendations – Relevance

The evaluation found that the Crops for Enhanced Human Health technology cluster initiative is consistent with federal government priorities established under the 2002 federal Innovation Strategy, the policies outlined by the Conservative Party, and with the priorities of the National Research Council of Canada, as described in its Vision 2006 and its more recent Renewal Strategy. The evaluation also found that there is a legitimate role for the federal government in cluster initiatives and more specifically a valid role for NRC-PBI to establish a research program to provide a scientific base in the field of nutraceuticals/functional foods.

The Crops for Enhanced Human Health technology cluster initiative is aligned with other priorities and needs of the research and industrial communities in the region. The Canadian Technological Roadmap on Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals was completed in 2002. A listing of 11 Canadian industry technological needs resulted from this exercise. Of these, the CEHH research program is aligned with three (extraction processes and characterization of bioactive ingredients; biological markers; and bio-informatics and genomics). In addition, interviewees commented that CEHH aligns with the many other plant research and industry facilities that exist in Saskatoon. As well, CEHH aligns with the provincial priorities of Saskatchewan, which has identified the "agri-value" sector as one of the six areas that have the most potential for significant economic growth for the province.

Summary of Findings and Recommendations – Early Outcomes and Impacts

Access to Research Facilities: Access to specialized research equipment has increased as a result of the CEHH technology cluster initiative funding. Equipment purchases expanded and enhanced NRC-PBI's existing facilities and enabled CEHH's research projects, particularly the NAPGEN initiative.

Attraction and Development of Highly Qualified Personnel: The Crops for Enhanced Human Health research program draws on human resources from NRC-PBI's existing research groups for CEHH funded projects. However, the initiative has been successful in attracting and developing HQPs to the region.

Level of Research Activity: The investment made in CEHH has led to an increase in fundamental scientific and technical knowledge in the area of plant science. Over the first four years of the initiative, CEHH staff have published 31 papers in referred journals, 26 papers in referred conference proceedings and made 46 invited presentations. As of March 2006, 12 CEHH research projects were underway. It was perceived by interviewees that the CEHH team lacks medical and/or nutritional expertise. The NAPGEN initiative is seen by Canadian researchers as valuable.

Access to NRC Technology and Industry Support Resources: NRC-CISTI and NRC-IRAP are making positive contributions to the CEHH cluster initiative. However, as NRC-CISTI did not receive specific funding to support the nutraceuticals cluster initiative its service level to CEHH researchers has been limited. The support that it has been able to provide is valued. NRC-IRAP had built on its longstanding linkages with NRC-PBI and established presence in the province. NRC-IRAP has played a role in providing information to CEHH about the nutraceutical/functional food industry.

Cluster Networking and Industry Development: The evaluation found that CEHH is involved in a number of networking and outreach activities with the scientific community and industry players. However, increased communication of research project details was requested by those stakeholders not directly involved with CEHH. Although NRC-PBI's Industry Partnership Facility was not part of the CEHH technology cluster initiative funding, it has provided incremental benefits to CEHH industry clients.

Incremental Benefits: In the field of bioactive molecules produced in plants that enhance human health, little or no progress in the development of new knowledge and expertise would have been achieved at NRC-PBI without the CEHH technology cluster initiative funding.

Recommendation 1: CEHH should increase linkages to the medical and nutritional research community working in the field of functional foods and nutraceuticals (FFN).

Management Response and Proposed Actions: NRC-PBI has currently begun establishing linkages with the medical and nutritional community at the University of Saskatchewan and NRC's Institute for Nutrisciences and Health (NRC-INH) in Prince Edward Island (PEI).

Summary of Findings and Recommendations – Design, Delivery and Cost-Effectiveness

Initiative Implementation: No formal operational/business plan for the implementation of the CEHH initiative was developed at the outset. Despite this, the initiative is perceived to be moving forward.

Effectiveness of Management Practices: A number of effective management practices are in place for CEHH including: a governance structure that includes advisory committees with external representation and formal project management practices.

Role of NRC Institutes, Programs and Branches: CEHH is linked to NRC's Institute for Nutraceuticals and Health (NRC-INH), NRC-CISTI and NRC-IRAP.

Joint Initiatives: There were no expectations for partner contributions to the CEHH technology cluster initiative.

Program Complementarity: The CEHH initiative is complementary to other nutraceutical/functional food research activities across the country. No formal linkages have yet been made between CEHH and these other organizations.

Level of Resources: Resources provided for the CEHH initiative were spent as intended; to develop and launch a new research program at NRC-PBI.

Alternatives: CEHH is an appropriate mechanism for supporting the region's R&D needs as they relate to nutraceuticals and functional food.

Recommendation 2: CEHH should develop an operational/business plan clearly outlining commitments and timelines for any future activities should additional technology cluster initiative funding be received.

Management Response and Proposed Actions: NRC-PBI will develop an operational plan in consultation with NRC-IRAP, NRC-CISTI and the BioInnovation Centre to support all facets of the cluster as outlined in its business plan.

Recommendation 3: CEHH should develop a communications plan to guide future outreach efforts with the FFN cluster players. The plan should include strategies to communicate with cluster actors in the research/academic community as well as other stakeholders and industry.

Management Response and Proposed Actions: As part of its business planning, NRC-PBI has identified outreach and communications planning as critical to providing momentum in the community to develop the cluster.

Lessons Learned and Novel Practices

The final area examined by the evaluation was lessons learned and novel practices. The findings highlight key lessons learned that could be applied or adopted by the central and western technology cluster initiatives as well as other initiatives launched by NRC in support of technology clustering.

Lessons Learned:

  • It takes time to establish capabilities and develop expertise in a new research field despite expanding on capabilities within an existing Institute. Creation of a knowledge base is a long-term process.

Hiring of a dedicated program manager for day-to-day management of the initiative can lead to better coordination, improved internal and external communications and increased accountability.

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