From virtual cells to geology machines, there’s a whole lot of research going on at Canadian universities.
But it’s not easy getting IT research projects off the ground. Often, industry partnerships provide much-needed funding and resources to struggling researchers. But, since the downturn
in the tech industry, less funding is available for R&D. And, even after they secure funding, how do researchers turn their work into viable commercial products?
Communications and Information Technology Ontario (CITO) is one organization that helps facilitate relationships between industry and academia within Ontario. CITO is part of the provincial government’s $2-billion investment in Ontario’s knowledge economy — its objective is to build better connections between industry and academic researchers. It’s also involved in transferring technologies from the lab to the marketplace.
Each year, it invests more than $7 million through its CITO Research Investment program to support research in the areas of IT and communications. The money helps fund a range of research, from advanced projects dedicated to generating “”disruptive”” technologies (breakthrough innovations that fundamentally change the way things are done) to more applied endeavours aimed at answering specific market challenges.
“”Many of these investments are made in partnership with an industrial collaborator who brings additional financial support to the table,”” says Darin Graham, president and CEO of CITO.
CITO has developed a framework to create and manage connections between industry and academia, he says, and fosters more than 50 collaborative partnerships each year.
For example, Markus Latzel, founder of Palomino System Innovations Inc., launched WebPal last April. WebPal is a software program that teaches users — regardless of their technical ability or Web expertise —how to design and manage Web sites in under 90 minutes. It is an offshoot of a project based at York University and supported by the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCEs) to improve robotics intelligence systems. The research is funded by CITO, the Centre for Research in Earth and Space Technology (CRESTech) and the Centres of Excellence’s Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Systems.
“”People will tell you that you can’t go anywhere without venture capital, but my advice to start-ups is to look into government help such as the OCEs,”” says Latzel.
Graham says universities often find it hard to engage with Ontario’s high-tech industry. “”That’s why many universities are looking to CITO’s network and our business development team for help in making those connections.””
Another way of engaging with the high-tech industry is through research grant programs available from some of the larger IT vendors.
IBM’s Shared University Research (SUR) program, for example, awards computing equipment to universities and colleges to facilitate research projects in areas of mutual interest, such as life sciences, grid computing, autonomic computing and deep computing.
At the University of Alberta’s Institute of Biomolecular Design, for example, researchers have begun work on a virtual cell — a microorganism that lives in cyberspace.
Project Cybercell, aided by a technology award from IBM’s SUR program, will create a simulation of an E.coli cell in order to develop the knowledge necessary to simulate more complex living organisms.
Scientists will be able to manipulate the virtual cell at different levels of molecular resolution and study how the cell responds, adapts and exploits its virtual environment. This could help accelerate the discovery of new drug treatments and, in the future, cut health care costs.
“”Once this model is in place, you can bring new therapeutics, drugs and biologics to market faster and cheaper because you can do the simulation of the new drugs without the expensive animal and human testing,”” says Sal Causi, Canadian business development executive for IBM Life Sciences.
He says this could potentially save 20 per cent of the cost to bring a new product to market and take as much as two to three years off research and development from the current 10-14 year cycle.
In terms of new drugs and treatments that could result from this research, Causi says the possibilities are limitless, “”as this model can be adapted to any type of disease study whether in human or animal.””
Funding is always a challenge for universities when it comes to these types of large-scale projects, he says, as is getting the necessary resources (including skilled personnel).
“”Many projects of this type would never get off the ground unless private industry was involved,”” he adds.
IT: MEET BIOLOGY
IBM has its own Computational Biology Centre (CBC) with more than 35 computational biologists. It also has intellectual property, Discovery Link, to pull together the necessary data required for modelling. Project Cybercell has access to IBM’s CBC resources and some of its intellectual property.
“”We are entering the era of systems biology where IT meets biology,”” says Causi. While this opens doors to all sorts of possibilities, it also brings up new challenges.
“”This has never been achieved before and the challenges are the ones yet to be uncovered,”” he says. “”It is like Columbus trying to look for America — we know approximately what we have to do and how to get there but we’re not sure what we will encounter.””
At Dalhousie University — another recipient of an IBM SUR award — research is underway to answer questions about the Earth’s inner and outer workings.
Using IBM’s eServer p690, Dalhousie researchers will build a “”Geology Machine”” to simulate geological processes and study the interactions of the Earth’s crust to determine how mountains and sedimentary basins form.
“”People commonly build analogue models to make physical models in their laboratories, like physicists and engineers,”” says Chris Beaumont, lead researcher on the project and a professor in Dalhousie’s Department of Oceanography.
“”However, in this case, our Geology Machine is a computer modelling software package that solves the same problems through numerical calculations in the computer that we acquired from IBM through the SUR grant.””
The Geodynamics Group at Dalhousie, in partnership with Jean Braun at the Research School of Earth Sciences with the Australian National University in Canberra, will develop this software for two- and three-dimensional calculations using modern computational fluid dynamics and solid mechanics techniques.
“”Understanding the mechanical and thermal processes that control the way sedimentary basins form and the surface processes such as erosion of the continents that provide the sediment to the basins allows us to gain a better handle on the petroleum systems in these basins and evaluate the potential targets for oil and gas exploration by the petroleum industry,”” says Beaumont.
The Geology Machine can be used for experiments that simulate how these systems behave. For example, researchers can simulate a 100-million-year evolution in a few days of computer time.
“”What is gained by all of this is a real insight into the workings of these systems — how different controls affect the evolution,”” he says. “”Given particular starting conditions and subsequent sedimentation, we can predict the evolution time and how oil and gas may be produced by thermal maturation and, sometime in the future, what the migration pathways to the traps may be.””
Given that exploration drill holes in deep water each cost $50-100 million, any technique that improves the odds of a successful discovery can potentially save huge sums of money and improve oil and gas sector profitability.
“”It is also important from the perspective of global warming,”” he adds. “”In a post-Kyoto world, natural gas is the energy source of choice until the technologies associated with other sources — wind, solar, nuclear — can be developed to the same economical level.””
Parties involved in the project include IBM, the Atlantic Innovation Fund/Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, Petroleum Research Atlantic Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, ExxonMobil, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation.
The software will benefit other researchers, governments and the petroleum industry, and in the future may be developed into a commercial product for use by small or medium enterprises looking to offer expert petroleum exploration services to major corporations.
“”In the case of our project, there would be no project without industry partnerships. Achieving functional industry partnerships that work is especially difficult in Atlantic Canada, owing to our small industrial base,”” says Beaumont. “”Putting together projects like this one consumes a lot of time and resources. It would be good if we, in a Canadian context, could apply more effort to improve the ease and efficiency of these endeavours. Clearly, this is now and in the future going to be how we develop our Innovation Strategy, but it needs a series of enabling mechanisms that don’t appear to be in place at the moment.””
He is not the only one who believes there need to be improvements in this area.
At Sun’s recent Education Summit, Stephane Boisvert, president of Sun Microsystems of Canada, told audience members he believes Canada needs a new approach to innovation: “”The key to this unique Canadian approach is more openness to innovation and collaboration between educational institutions, governments and private sector.””
He said governments need to continue facilitating collaborations, encourage growth through financing initiatives and incentives, and continue support for private and public R&D.
Sun is collaborating with the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Alberta and the Government of Alberta to establish a Centre of Excellence in Integrated NanoTools. The centre will provide an environment for researchers to use software tools and hardware for the design and understanding of nanosystems. It will offer training and consulting for members of the nano community involved in the integration of nano and other compatible tools into future products.
Steven K. Dew, associate dean (research and planning) of engineering and a professor with the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Alberta, is working with Sun on the development of the Centre of Excellence.
NanoTools include design tools andmodelling and simulation software, as well as visualization and analysis tools to advance the development of nanotechnology and nanoscience.
“”The goal is to develop, integrate and assemble a comprehensive suite of state-of-the-art nano-related software, support and promote it to the nano-community and provide a dedicated platform on which to run it,”” says Dew. “”The centre will provide strategic co-ordination of development activities, identify and address gaps, integrate components, pool resources and organize the community.””
Direct products that could result from this research include software for the developing nanotechnology industry. Indirect products include biomedical, information technology and materials products that can be more readily developed as a result of the centre’s activities.
“”One challenge is securing funds to operate major facilities,”” says Dew.
“”There are a variety of opportunities to secure grants and donations for capital projects, but finding the more modest amounts to keep the facilities productive is often very difficult. This is not a problem limited to IT research.””
He says it’s always valuable to partner with industry. Researchers at the centre will work with the National Institute of Nanotechnology, which has a strong focus on commercialization. NINT will not only partner with the centre in the development of NanoTools, but will also identify commercial opportunities — bringing conceptual design to product reality.
“”Quite apart from the multiplication of resources, this interaction provides complementary insights and motivations for the work,”” says Dew.
“”Industry’s market-oriented perspective often leads to different ways of viewing the problem at hand. The relationship with Sun, for example, means continual engineering exchanges between the various parties that add to the development of the project.””