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Quartier de l’Innovation to launch in September

McGill still seeking $39 million in funding for innovation project

New details of McGill’s Quartier de l’Innovation (QI) project in the former industrial centre of Griffintown emerged in a presentation to the University’s Board of Governors (BoG) Tuesday afternoon.

Rose Goldstein, vice-principal (Research and International Relations), and Phil Barker, interim director of the Montreal Neurological Institute, introduced the plans for the QI, a partnership between McGill and the École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS), an engineering institution in downtown Montreal.

According to Goldstein, the vision of QI is a “transformational partnership between ÉTS and McGill to establish an innovation ecosystem” in Griffintown. Its focus would be on educational, industrial, social-cultural, and urban innovation and entrepreneurship.

ÉTS approached McGill with the idea in the spring of 2010. In May 2011, Goldstein asked Barker to lead McGill’s internal planning process for the project.

Goldstein told the BoG that the project will “engage corporate partners by bringing them closer to our students.”

The project was criticized in a January Senate meeting for the lack of student involvement, as well as the potential corporate partners the project could attract. Barker’s report to Senate listed Bombardier, Google, and Monsanto among potential corporate partners.

Goldstein clarified corporate partnerships within QI in an email to The Daily on Wednesday. Goldstein wrote that the examples provided in Barker’s January report “were purely hypothetical and, in hindsight…not properly reviewed as to whether they would be appropriate partners.”

“We regret that any examples were included,” Goldstein continued.

In her email Goldstein wrote that neither Bombardier nor Monsanto are involved in the QI, and that McGill is “still in the process of determining how exactly the QI will interact with industry partners.”

The “pre-launch” year

The QI is set to launch this fall, although Goldstein told BoG a business plan will not be ready until the same time – also when the University is also planning on beginning consultation with students and faculty. At the January Senate meeting, the University had aimed to have a preliminary QI business plan by March.

Goldstein wrote in her email that “because of the complexity of the project and because we hope for the widest possible participation in the subsequent consultations, the decision was made to wait until September – when more students can participate – for the official launch.”

“It is important to remember that the QI is currently in its ‘pre-launch’ year,” continued Goldstein in her email. “While McGill and ÉTS are conducting a number of feasibility and planning studies, the full vision for the project will not be fully articulated or officially unveiled until early September.”

The QI will initially be located in two buildings dubbed INGO I and INGO II. INGO I, owned by the ÉTS, has already been renovated, and will house a McGill lab researching biofuels, according to Goldstein. The other building, INGO II, will require an investment of $40 million to renovate.

The project has over $1 million in secured funding, comprised of $350,000 each from the Montreal, Quebec, and Canadian governments. When Board member-at-large Lili de Grandpré asked how the project would continue to be financed, Goldstein said that there is no overall budget plan in place yet, answering, “We’re imagining some kind of PPP [Private and Public Partnerships] model.”

The PPP model has been applied recently in Canada to mixed success. While universities in British Columbia have been engaged with business partners since 2001, a PPP initiative with Busac Real Estate undertaken by the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) in 2005 to build two new buildings ended in failure. The project went $106 million over budget and left UQAM $400 million in debt.

Goldstein said in her interview that she didn’t foresee McGill investing a substantial part of its own money in the project, bud didn’t rule it out.

“We’re really looking for external funding,” she said.

QI “champions”

Goldstein added in her presentation that various business and community leaders – whom she dubbed “QI ‘champions’” – had already agreed to sponsor the project. In her email, Goldstein said there were several more still considering sponsoring the project, saying she did not think it was “appropriate to announce the participants until everyone has made a decision.”

In her presentation, she said the project already has an interim governance structure in place, and that “we’re in the process of identifying and recruiting [a] group” to form a permanent advisory board.”

She clarified in her email that McGill is “still exploring whether [the ‘champions’] will have a formal role in the QI governing structure or whether they will simply help share information about the project among their professional networks.”

After the presentation, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum said that “at this stage in development it’s always a bit nebulous,” but called the partnership a “critical step” for McGill.

“It’s going to be a bit of an experiment because there’s no rule book to go by,” continued Munroe-Blum.

Munroe-Blum said that in her meetings with students, their overwhelming priorities were internships and job placement.

“Compared to peer research universities, we are underdeveloped in giving students hands-on experience,” she said.

The project aims to fill this gap through its partnership with ÉTS, which requires one year of industry experience prior to graduation and boasts a 100 per cent job placement rate for students post-graduation, according to Goldstein.

Mitigating gentrification

Goldstein said that the project represents a way for McGill to “give back [to the community] in a way we haven’t been known to before.”

However, administrative and support staff representative David Kalant voiced concerns with a possible increase in housing costs as a result of the project. Goldstein answered that the University is working with the municipal government “to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

She said mixed-cost housing was one such solution being considered for the area. “We want to make sure everyone’s circumstances are respected,” she said.