COVID-19 response: Canadian companies at the forefront


Small and medium-sized technology and innovation businesses (SMEs) are the backbone of our economy. The National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP) has been providing advice, connections, and financial support to help them increase their innovation capacity, take their ideas to market and grow for over 70 years. Since March 2020, NRC IRAP has been mobilizing to support SMEs that can contribute to the collective COVID-19 effort, and protect those struggling in the face of the pandemic to ensure Canada can emerge from this global crisis with its best foot forward.


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Wearable devices for social distancing and contact tracing (Phenomena VR)

Phenomena, a small start-up firm from Montreal, Quebec, develops virtual reality environment systems. With support from the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP), Phenomena was able to create a device that promotes social distancing measures in the workplace, while simultaneously respecting user privacy.

In 2019, through NRC IRAP advisory services and funding, Phenomena first developed a haptic system intended for virtual reality environment systems for the entertainment industry. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Phenomena quickly pivoted to adapt this technology for use in contact tracing and social distancing. The device, the Radius wristband, is worn on an employee's wrist and uses vibration and lights to signal when wearers are closer than 2 metres apart.

To ensure user privacy, the device relies solely on the identification number associated with a wristband, coupled with Bluetooth technology to communicate data of users who have been in close proximity throughout the day. These interactions can also be conveniently recorded in a private online portal managed by the employer, allowing for easier contact tracing within an organization if an employee tests positive for COVID-19.

By promoting social distancing, the Radius wristband could play an important role in reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. Phenomena's device was selected by Videotron, a Canadian telecommunications company, to commercialize the product and received its first order of 5,000 units.

"NRC IRAP has been a blessing to our company. They supported our R&D vision early on to create smart wearables. Not only has this support enabled us to partner with Videotron to create an innovative social distancing tool to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic, it has also allowed us to work with other major players in the entertainment industry. Programs like NRC IRAP are a pillar to the continual development of Canadian technology and its intellectual property."

Awane Jones, CEO & President, Phenomena

The NRC is the first to announce an Innovative Solutions Canada Phase 2 success

Starting in April 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic created an unprecedented surge for demand of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the materials to manufacture them. In response, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) launched the "Made in Canada filtration material for the manufacture of N95 respirators and surgical masks" COVID-19 challenge—under the Innovative Solutions Canada program. With this challenge, the NRC aimed to assist Canadian companies in developing permanent and significant domestic production capacity of these materials in Canada.

The NRC and materials specialists at the NRC, in collaboration with Innovative Solutions Canada, challenged small and medium-sized businesses to come up in a very short timeframe with innovative solutions for filtration material that could be made in large quantities to manufacture essential PPE items in Canada. The filtration material would be used to produce N95 respirators and surgical masks for our many front-line workers across the country.

The NRC invested over $200,000 as part of Phase 1 to support 3 companies working on different strategies to respond to this important challenge:

  • Roswell Downhole Technologies (Calgary, Alberta) worked on repurposing an existing extrusion line to produce conventional polypropylene meltblown for the manufacture of conventional disposable surgical masks and respirators
  • Stedfast Inc. (Granby, Quebec) worked on the development of a filtration fabric based on alternative materials for the manufacture of reusable surgical masks and respirators
  • Performance Biofilaments Inc. (Burnaby, British Columbia) worked on the development of a cellulosic compostable filtration material for the manufacture of disposable surgical masks and respirators

Through this Phase 1 funding and through scientific and technical support provided by NRC scientists to evaluate the properties of the resulting filtration materials, these companies demonstrated the feasibility of their ideas and developed working prototypes.

Two projects were granted Phase 2 funding, to scale up the production of filtration materials for respirators and masks.

The NRC is proud to announce that 2 Canadian companies were successful in meeting challenge objectives:

  • Roswell Downhole Technologies Inc. was successful in building capacity to produce conventional polypropylene meltblown fabric with over 95% particle filtration efficiency and excellent breathability. As of November 2020, this Calgary-based company is producing 58 tonnes per month—equivalent to 58 million masks per month—and supplying Canadian mask manufacturers producing medical-grade surgical masks and respirators.
  • Stedfast Inc. succeeded in developing a fabric with over 98% filtration efficiency while meeting the standards for breathability. This fabric was developed to be reusable, extending the product service life and reducing the environmental footprint.

These 2 companies are the first in Canada to complete Phase 2 of an Innovative Solutions Canada challenge. Their resolve demonstrates how Canadian ingenuity, supported by public policy, can have a meaningful impact, improving the lives of all Canadians.

As Canada responds to the ongoing pandemic, the NRC continues to collaborate with industry and partner organizations to help companies advance their R&D efforts in support of COVID-19 priorities. Visit Innovative Solutions Canada's website to see other COVID-19 projects the NRC is working on.


NRC IRAP Innovation Assistance Program

While many Canadian businesses have been able to retool their processes and facilities to respond to COVID-19, there are many more who have struggled with supply chain disruptions, cash flow issues, a collapse in demand, and a lack of access to COVID-19 business support. In addition to advising and supporting our small and medium-sized business clients, as NRC IRAP has been doing for more than 70 years, the Government of Canada's $250 million injection into NRC IRAP allowed us to launch the Innovation Assistance Program on April 22, 2020. This program is supporting over 24,000 jobs, which is helping to protect the next generation of Canadian entrepreneurs and the people they employ so we can have the best chance at emerging from this pandemic in a position to move forward.

For more on the NRC IRAP Innovation Assistance Program, please visit the program's Frequently Asked Questions webpage.


Helping Canadian industry produce ventilators

At the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Government of Canada issued a call to action to Canadian businesses and manufacturers to step up production of much needed "made-in-Canada" medical supplies. Chief among these supplies are ventilators, essential life-saving equipment used to treat patients with critical symptoms of the virus by helping them breathe when they can no longer do so on their own.

A coordinated response

Canadian businesses quickly mobilized their efforts by coming together under different national and provincial consortia to accelerate the production of 40,000 ventilators requested by the federal government. The NRC has played an important role in supporting these consortia by helping members overcome the many technical barriers and hurdles involved in quickly retooling or pivoting operations to support ventilator production.

With close ties to industry and a vast network of expertise, NRC IRAP has provided an essential lifeline to Canada's ventilator producers. NRC IRAP developed a "Ventilator Subject Expert Team (SET)" to help businesses quickly solve challenges and ramp up production, including sourcing key ventilator components, finding the right technical expertise and navigating regulatory complexities. To support these efforts, the NRC IRAP Ventilator SET initiated a report providing a preliminary analysis on ventilator market capabilities in Canada, which it has used and shared with other Government of Canada departments to address existing gaps and identify opportunities. With these support mechanisms in place, Canadian businesses are beginning to make great strides in ventilator production, ensuring that the nation will have a strong supply of essential life-saving equipment to combat the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Making great strides

Since the start of the pandemic, the NRC has been actively involved in supporting numerous ventilator initiatives with Canadian businesses, manufacturers and supply chain providers. These interactions have led to a collective building and sharing of knowledge and expertise across the organization which has contributed to a number of successes. The following stories, are just a few examples.

Baylis Medical (Mississauga, Ontario)

Baylis Medical is leveraging its experience in advanced manufacturing of medical devices for the fields of cardiology and spinal health to produce the Baylis-V4C-560 ventilator in partnership with the Ventilators for Canadians consortium. NRC IRAP helped the company source a critical ASL 5000 breathing simulator to test and validate its device, as well as connected the company with a supplier and expert in blower fan assembly and balancing. NRC IRAP also pulled together a team of on-call industrial technology advisors and NRC researchers with expertise in motor balancing to help the company overcome any technical challenges. Baylis' ventilator recently received Health Canada approval.

"We are proud to have partnered with NRC IRAP in this important initiative in service of Canadian patients. Support from NRC IRAP has been invaluable, allowing us to quickly overcome technical hurdles and expedite the production of the much-needed ventilators. In particular, NRC IRAP advisor, Baraa El-Kadri and Manfred Vormbaum have been instrumental in our ability to successfully manufacture these ventilators."

Neil Godara, Vice President & General Manager, Baylis Medical Company Inc.

StarFish Medical (Victoria, BC)

StarFish Medical, Canada's largest medical-device design company, is part of the Canadian Emergency Ventilators project - one of 4 initiatives to produce ventilators for Canada. Led by StarFish Medical, in collaboration with partners and funding through the Next Generation Manufacturing Canada supercluster (NGen), the project involves updating the design and intellectual property of the 30-year-old "Winnipeg Ventilator" to meet current Canadian supply chain and COVID-19 needs. Support from NRC IRAP has enabled the firm to access ASL 5000 breathing simulators to test and validate its device, as well as resolve other supply chain issues. StarFish is awaiting Health Canada clearance of its redesigned ventilator.

"NRC IRAP was vital in helping us connect with the necessary expertise and equipment to test and validate the re-designed Winnipeg Ventilator. They have also been a great point of referral for coordinating and connecting other companies with solutions to offer."

John Walmsley, Vice President Strategic relationships, StarFish Medical

CAE (Montreal, Quebec)

CAE Healthcare is one of the 3 core businesses of CAE, a global leader in the delivery of training for the civil aviation, defence and security, and health care markets. CAE Healthcare delivers educational tools that help health care professionals provide safe, high-quality patient care.

The NRC provided valuable support to the company as it refocussed its effort to meet the need to design and manufacture additional ventilators for Canadians. Experts from the NRC's Medical Devices and Automotive and Surface Transportation research centres, as well as Business Management Support and Design and Fabrication Services, joined forces to support the initiative. In particular, the NRC provided key guidance to CAE in responding to the Government of Canada's call to action, and delivered advice and scientific expertise in addressing oxidation and ISO standards on biocompatibility to ensure that the ventilator generates clean and safe air for patients to breathe. The NRC also helped the company select essential design materials, as well as suggested cleaning methods to ensure the safe and proper functioning of key device components. CAE announced on June 17, 2020, that it received Health Canada approval and began shipping ventilators to the Government of Canada in July 2020.

"The NRC was instrumental in supporting CAE during the call to action process and provided the right technical expertise to help us adapt our operations to build safe and reliable ventilators for Canadians."

Pascal Grenier, Vice President, Global Operations, Technologies & Innovation, CAE

What's next

The NRC continues to support efforts to develop made-in-Canada ventilators as businesses and consortia ramp up production and bring these essential medical devices to Canadian health care settings over the coming months.


Leading a global COVID-19 research and development response with the Eureka Network

The NRC delivers Canada's associate membership in the EUREKA Network and provides advice as well as access to networks and funding to eligible Canadian small and medium-sized businesses through NRC IRAP.

Following the COVID-19 global pandemic declaration on March 11, 2020, the NRC International Innovation Office EUREKA team rapidly recognized the opportunity to leverage the Eureka network members to combine forces and work together to develop solutions for COVID-19.

Through their strong network of engaged international partners, in less than three weeks, the NRC EUREKA team was able to mobilize 12 EUREKA participating countries to get involved in 2 calls for proposals focussed on developing co-innovation collaborations between small businesses, researchers, and innovators to find and accelerate solutions to the new challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. To address the realities of connecting virtually, EUREKA launched, under our leadership, a brokerage website to help enable partnering at a distance.

The first call for proposals, "Solutions for COVID-19 Echo Period - Life without a vaccine," was launched on April 15, 2020, to support research, development and innovation for short-term and medium-term solutions to protect against COVID-19 while a vaccine is being developed. Several countries, including Austria, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Turkey and South Africa joined this Canada-led global research and development initiative.

The second call for proposals, targeting long-term solutions under the theme of "Solutions for post-COVID-19 - Next high-impact human pandemic," was launched one month later, alongside Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and Turkey.

The unforeseen challenge of COVID-19 has brought together several key federal actors in co-innovation programs around the globe, including Canadian government departments and programs such as Global Affairs Canada Canadian International Innovation Program, who provided an exceptional financial contribution to the first call for proposals. The NRC engaged relevant research centres to work alongside Canadian small and medium-sized businesses for the second call for proposals. Finally, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada helped promote this initiative through their academic network.

This initiative was noticed by a broad range of actors, including businesses, researchers, universities and innovators. Many quickly indicated their interest in joining this collaborative effort against this global pandemic by submitting project proposals. A total of 18 collaboration projects including Canadian partners were submitted, presenting various research and development projects to either address short-term solutions to overcome the pandemic challenges or to prepare for life after the COVID-19 pandemic, and to prepare for the next potentially high-impact one. Successful projects are expected to be selected imminently.