Digital Technology Supercluster unveils eight new projects as part of COVID-19 response

Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains at Lighthouse Labs in Vancouver during a Digital Technology Supercluster event in January 2020.
Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains at Lighthouse Labs in Vancouver during a Digital Technology Supercluster event in January 2020. Karli Leitl/Digital Technology Supercluster

The federally backed Digital Technology Supercluster on Thursday unveiled eight new initiatives from its $60-million COVID-19 program, including a new system for local authorities to model the impacts of reopening as well as platforms for virtual mental health, addiction treatment and telework for youth and health-care workers. 

One of the Liberal government’s flagship programs, the five superclusters are consortia of startups, big businesses, academia and government agencies. As umbrella organizations they select projects for funding, with a focus on research and commercialization of new products. In March, Ottawa tasked them to work on pandemic solutions; the digital supercluster has taken “an even more significant focus on health-related issues coming at us as a result of COVID-19,” CEO Sue Paish told The Logic.

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Talking Point

The Digital Technology Supercluster announced eight new projects under its $60 million COVID-19 stream on Thursday, including platforms for virtual mental health, addiction treatment and telework for youth and health-care workers. The Vancouver-based non-profit has now allocated half the pandemic program funding, after Ottawa re-focused the five organizations in its flagship innovation initiative on antiviral solutions following a slow start. 

The federal government is giving the digital supercluster $153 million, and expects it to increase GDP by over $5 billion and create more than 13,500 jobs over a decade, though some experts have questioned Ottawa’s impact projections.  

The Vancouver-based non-profit has allocated $30.3 million to COVID-19 projects so far, with participating organizations—which include the likes of quantum computing firm 1QBit, the University of British Columbia, Microsoft, pharmaceutical giant Bayer and health software startup AlayaCare—putting up another $29 million. 

In one initiative announced Thursday, Vancouver-based Thrive Health is working with Providence Health Care, a B.C. hospital network, to offer app-based mental-health and substance-abuse support to youth in programs run by Foundry, a B.C. government-backed care organization. The platform will support video and messaging consultations with doctors, counsellors and peer-support workers, and users will also be able to maintain and access their medical records. “It’s not just a standalone Skype call that doesn’t allow any continuity with the rest of the experience,” said Thrive CEO David Helliwell.

Helliwell co-founded the firm in 2016 to design better software to help patients through specialist care, including intake forms, surveys and medical histories. Demand for its products has spiked during the pandemic, and Thrive has also built COVID-19 self-assessment and education apps for the federal and B.C. governments. 

The company has existing partnerships with Providence and Foundry; the new app is “something that [Thrive has] been talking about for a while, but didn’t have the bandwidth to actually do,” Helliwell told The Logic. Victoria-based development firm FreshWorks Studio will adapt Thrive’s platform for the supercluster project, with a final version scheduled for early 2021. “With all the other things going on right now, it saves us a year or two for time to market,” said Helliwell, who is looking to add 20 new hires to his staff of 60.

COVID-19 program participants are retaining and recruiting employees to work on their projects, according to Paish. “We are still very much on track for our 10-year outcome with our jobs numbers,” she said. Some projects also aim to mitigate the economic effects of the pandemic, which has put millions out of work. 

Kingston, Ont.-based Kings Distributed Systems is spearheading Looking Glass, a platform that will use survey and public government data to model various reopening scenarios. “We can predict the outcome of a fast return [for] a particular part of our society as compared to a slower return, and this will help policymakers … plan the future weeks and months,” said Paish. Municipalities in B.C., Saskatchewan, Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador will provide feedback during trials, which are scheduled to begin “within six months.”  

Ottawa has faced scrutiny over the speed of its funding rollout for the superclusters. In March, The Globe and Mail reported Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada spent just $5.6 million of the $244 million it planned for the 2018–2019 fiscal year.

But Paish said the digital supercluster had no difficulty getting going. The organization launched its first call for projects in April 2018, even before it had signed a contribution agreement with Ottawa, and was the first of the five to announce projects in March 2019. “Our supercluster has been going at a very fast pace from the outset,” said Paish. “COVID has really just accelerated everything.”

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In early March, the digital supercluster selected seven projects worth $45.8 million out of 22 proposals in its third cycle, but held off on unveiling them as the outbreak accelerated; it had announced 21 other initiatives pre-pandemic, allocating $43.6 million of its own funding in total. 

Paish said the government didn’t provide much direction for the superclusters’ COVID-19 programs, beyond asking that the organizations focus on the outbreak. NGen, the Hamilton, Ont.-based advanced manufacturing group, closed applications for its $50-million pandemic-focused stream on Wednesday, after funding 19 projects. Montreal’s Scale AI has announced eight initiatives so far, worth more than $3.4 million.