Innovation Synergy Centre explores barriers between IT and academia

MARKHAM, Ont. – One of the biggest challenges to businesses working with research institutions to develop new products and services is getting them to look beyond themselves and reach out to the wider community.

This was one of the main points that experts from both public and private sector groups made to local businesses that attended a panel discussion Wednesday on how to partner with the research community, including universities, colleges and government labs.

The presentation, which was in part put on by the Innovation Synergy Centre in Markham, Ont., featured two high-tech companies who have successfully — and in some cases not — worked with higher educational institutions to research products that would have been very costly to develop on their own.

Bob Glandfield, president of the Centre, who spoke at the event, said convincing businesses to tap into the resource pool available remains a challenge. The Centre is hoping to bridge the gap between the two communities by acting as an intermediary where businesses can go and get more information.

“We have to break those cultural barriers,” said Glandfield in an interview following the presentation. “From a business perspective, there are a lot of benefits to looking beyond your own team.”

Industrial design company Cesaroni Technology Inc. has realized some of those benefits and shared its experience working with Carleton University at Wednesday’s event. Cesaroni, which manufactures various products from alternator testers for tier-one auto manufacturers to environmentally-friendly bullets for firing ranges, is working with Carleton engineering students to launch a 100 kg satellite with a 700 km orbit in space. Based in Gormley, Ont., Cesaroni was founded in 1984 in Scarborough and has 75 research patents.

To date, Canada has never had the ability to put a satellite in space, said Cesaroni director of engineering, Gordon Clarke. The project was to launch a small rocket out of a vehicle. “I would not have expected a professor to get behind a commercial interest,” said Clarke.

While the Carleton prof understood the needs of a private company like Cesaroni, Ken Hughes, vice-president of scientific affairs at Toronto-based biotech company Microbix Biosystems Inc. said although it has gotten better in recent years, this is a common frustration for companies.

“Academics need to realize what industry goals are,” said Hughes. “We’re in it for the money. We want to make products we can commercialize.”

Microbix has collaborative partnerships with several Ontario universities, including MacMaster University in Hamilton and Queen’s University in Kingston. It also has partnerships with other universities internationally including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Johns Hopkins University in the U.S. and others in China and Great Britain.

Cesaroni established its partnership with Carleton through its relationship with CRESTech, a division of the Ontario Centres of Excellence. Cesaroni provided advice to the fourth-year students and brought them to their research facilities in Gormley to take a close look at the hardware.

“This is a little more than a co-op experience,” said Clarke. “It also gives us access to the facilities at Carleton.” For example, through its relationship with Carleton, Cesaroni is able to use a software application for trajectory modeling development developed by the European Space Agency instead of doing the modeling in-house.

Aside from access to universities’ research facilities and expertise, companies can also benefit from access to potential employees, said Hughes. Cesaroni, for example, has hired a couple of students, including a fourth-year engineering student who was doing his Master’s degree thesis on Canadian small launch vehicles.

Benefits aside, another common frustration from companies is appropriate data management, said Hughes. Universities need to make sure that the raw data collected during the research phase can be accessed at a later date in the event of an intellectual property (IP) dispute. Lab books, for example, are considered a legal document — something a grad student might not be aware of when he shoves it in a drawer.

“If you’re involved in IP issues, those things can have a damaging effect,” said Hughes. “IP rights are not a means to raise capital, IP rights are a means to create products.”

On the other side of the equation, the Defense Research and Development Canada (DRDC) department lab in Toronto, which is one of six across the country and focuses on human sciences, is trying to take its knowledge from working with the military and apply it to commercial uses. “We’re trying to get into public safety and security,” said Darren Menabney, business development officer for DRDC Toronto. “We’re taking our research in chemical warfare suits and seeing how long firefighters for example can last before they are affected.”

Once the research part of the project is done, many researchers believe the project is finished, said Glandfield.

“After the research, companies spend 10 to 100 times as much money to create it,” he said, adding the money goes towards meeting industry and regulatory standards, product trials, manufacturing and marketing activities. “That’s when the challenges start.”

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