Windsor region gaining traction in developing into auto cyber security hub

Monday, September 21, 2020

The Windsor Star/Dave Waddell


The Windsor region’s reputation as the metal-bashing, automotive capital of Canada is evolving into one where brains not just steel-bending brawn is the future.

With the industry rushing headlong into a future of electrified, connected, autonomous vehicles, Windsor is placing its bet on border logistics and cyber security.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“I’ve been engaged with Windsor in the last year and I saw a lot of different things happening that are interesting,” said A.J. Khan, who turned that interest into his announcement last week that he was moving his cyber security company’s headquarters (Vehiqilla) from Burlington to Windsor.

“With what I learned is happening here, I knew I needed to move to Windsor-Essex.”

Khan added with the automotive research, innovative advanced manufacturers, logistics industry, educational institutions and talent that exists locally, he foresees Windsor becoming the centre of auto mobility in Canada.

He believes that combined with the proximity to Detroit will prove an intoxicating mix that other cyber security and tech companies won’t be able to resist.

“Even those in the cyber security sector don’t completely understand automotive cyber security,” Khan said.

“There are programs but not specifically for manufacturing and the auto environment. This is going to be very useful for us being here.”

The latest addition to the region’s evolving cyber security ecosystem was Monday’s announcement of a new partnership between the University of Dallas and the University of Windsor.

Windsor’s MBA and master of management graduates from the Odette School Business now have the opportunity to gain internationally recognized cybersecurity skills and certification entirely online.

The Odette School of Business is the first Canadian university to partner with the University of Dallas’s Satish & Yasmin Gupta College of Business. The U.S.’s National Security Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have designated the Dallas school as a national centre of academic excellence in cyber defence education.

Students will develop skills in areas of data protection, compliance and legal issues, operational cybersecurity management and network security.

Raed Kadri, director, automotive technology, and mobility innovation for the Ontario Centres of Excellence, said what’s happening in Windsor-Essex is exactly what the OCE hoped for when it selected the city as a regional technology development region.

“The regional technical site program is meant to generate a cluster of startups, small and medium-sized enterprises that are developing new technology and solutions that will serve the future of the mobility sector,” Kadri said.

“It’s about knitting everything that’s happening in a region together.

“It sounds like that cluster is growing very successfully.”

WEEDC president Stephen MacKenzie said the region is beginning to see years of preparing the ground produce results.

“The province of Ontario, through OCE, gave us the first shot in the arm,” MacKenzie said.

“The Virtual Reality Cave was the first tangible asset. It was key and we’ve leveraged that.”

Institute for Border Logistics and Security executive director Matt Johnson said the organization is working with 14 companies digitally twinning programs or products for testing using the Virtual Reality Cave.

The cave has also boosted Windsor’s profile in attracting partnerships with American organizations such as the Detroit Mobility Lab and M City in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“We’re getting recognized as a regional tech site, “ Johnson said.

MacKenzie said landing Vehiqilla is some validation the decision to create the Auto Mobility Initiative was a wise choice.

The four pillars of the initiative are developing activity in auto connectivity, autonomous vehicles, security and electrification.

“Vehiqilla isn’t the end of the announcements,” MacKenzie said. “We’ll be having more of them in the coming weeks and months.”

Among those impending announcements are three foreign tech companies will put down roots in Windsor Essex.

MacKenzie said WEEDC is also in discussion with a foreign firm on what’s required for them to establish a mini-OEM production facility of electric vehicles in Windsor.

“From where we started a couple years ago to where we are today, we’re thrilled with the progress,” MacKenzie said.

The federal government has also helped nurture the development of the auto mobility/cyber security cluster with $5 million in funding last fall.

Khan is aiding St. Clair College in creating Canada’s first automotive cyber security program. He’s also worked with University of Windsor associate computer science professor Ikjot Saini in establishing the nation’s first chapter of the Automotive Security Research Group. Khan simultaneously created a group in Toronto.

Industry and educational institutions are also partnering on research and development.

The quality of work being done is illustrated in University of Windsor engineering and computer associate professor Mitra Mirhassani recently being named one of Canada’s Top 20 Women in Cyber Security by IT World Canada.

“I see real momentum to creating a cluster,” Saini said. “There’s real collaboration.

“Something positive is going on. The ball started rolling in the last year and now it’s snowballing.”

Saini added the skilled talent the college and university are producing no longer has to go to Toronto.

Saini sees a bright future for the region in automotive cyber security with demand in the sector exploding not only from automakers, but also the supply chain, the move to smart cities and applications that crossover into healthcare and finance.

“If we continue to move in the direction we’re going and leverage our strengths, this area can become the Silicon Valley of automotive cyber security,” Saini said.

“The connected car is going to have the same impact that the emergence of the Internet has had.”