Xerox plans training ground for new breed of engineer

On the 30th anniversary of the Xerox Research Centre of Canada, Xerox Canada announced plans to donate $1 million to a new centre of innovation at McMaster University that it described as unique in Ontario.

Plans are for the Xerox Centre for Engineering Entrepreneurship and Innovation to open

to students by next January or September 2005, pending program approval by the Ontario Council of Graduate Studies, said Andrew Hrymak, professor and chair of the department of chemical engineering at Hamilton, Ont.-based McMaster University.

About 100 to 120 students will pass through the centre when its firmly established.

Two other centres — one related to engineering and public policy, the other focused on engineering design — will also be part of the school of engineering practice at McMaster, said Hrymak. He said the school will hire up to five engineering professors and sessional instructors related to the non-engineering disciplines.

“”One of the reasons this research centre’s here is because of the fertile ground that’s in between McMaster and the other major universities in southwestern Ontario, and the ability to work in partnerships,”” said Doug Lord, chair, president and CEO of Xerox Canada Ltd., as well as a McMaster alumnist.

Lord said Xerox Canada has inked partnerships with several Canadian universities, but its relationship with McMaster is one of the strongest. The company employs 52 McMaster graduates with 12 based at its 30-year-old research centre, which does work in the areas of imaging materials and organic electronics in Mississauga, Ont.

“”Over the past several years, both federal and provincial governments have become more supportive of university-based research because they see how important it is for global competitiveness,”” Peter George, McMaster president, said.

Government has been particularly interested in moving university-based research towards commercialization and innovation that will benefit industrial expansion and employment growth, George explained. But he said the key is for this research to be competitive globally, rather than just locally, to ensure research work translates into actual investment opportunities.

“”So you get a three-way partnership that’s much stronger than government going it alone or business going it alone or the university trying to go it alone,””George said. “”I don’t want to be too bold, but I think it’s a golden age for this tri-partite partnership among government, business and universities.””

George said he has no qualms about aligning McMaster so closely with one particular company. He said the university selects its industry partners based on its academic mission and strengths, and Xerox so happens to share the research interests of faculty and students at McMaster.

Xerox and McMaster’s joint vision is that the innovation centre will become a “”spawning ground for the next generation of inventors,”” added Lord.

The new brand of engineer McMaster is trying to create will have his or her feet grounded in the challenges of engineering practice, George explained. Whereas traditionally the master of engineering degree has been based on research, McMaster wants to churn out a graduate who’s had industry experience and is familiar with the issues stifling innovation and entrepreneurship.

George believes entrepreneurship can be taught as long as the professor has “”made a real mark”” in addressing challenges related to running a business. To this end, he said McMaster is on the verge of announcing a lead appointment for the Xerox Centre for Engineering Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

On the whole, Ontario has had a weak track record of capitalizing on university-based research compared to the U.S., said Ontario Minister of Economic Development and Trade Joseph Cordiano. He said through its so-called innovation agenda, the provincial government recently injected tens of millions of dollars into research at universities, colleges and hospitals.

But Cordiano said the key to making it work is for Queen’s Park and other governments to facilitate partnerships between schools and the private sector.

When the Xerox Research Centre of Canada was established in 1974, it joined three other American counterparts in California and New York, and one in Grenoble, France. The Mississauga office has grown from 20 staff in 1974 to more than 150 employees from around the world, including 110 scientists.

With more than 950 U.S. patents to its credit, the Xerox Research Centre of Canada generates about one patent a week (accounting for about 10 per cent of Xerox Corp.’s U.S. patent portfolio) and develops more than 150 inventions each year, said Rafik Loutfy, corporate vice-president, Xerox Innovation Group. He was one of the document company’s first researchers in Canada and has 40 patents to his name.

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