Ontario Centres of Excellence put spotlight on commercialization

TORONTO – Ontario post-secondary institutions are working on middleware, wireless sensors and content filtering projects that they hope will help close the gap between academic research and its commercialization into IT products and services.

At the first-ever conference hosted by the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) Inc. on Tuesday, a range of graduate and Ph.D. students showcased algorithms, early-stage software and prototype hardware aimed at both business and government users. The one-day event, called Discovery 2006, also featured a noon appearance by Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Although the Ontario Centres of Excellence include a facility focused on photonics and another on communications and IT research, the innovations on display at Discovery 2006 were not exclusively devoted to technology. The OCE’s mission is to connect universities with the marketplace, and manufacturing and energy-related research are also part of its mandate.

“When the OCE was launched in 1987, the Web was still in its infancy – there were only 50 public Web sites,” said David McFadden, OCE chair and a partner with Gowling Lafleur Henderon LLP. “Cell phones were clunky, and certainly not ubiquitous. There were no BlackBerries.” 

OCE has since launched dozens of companies employing hundreds of Ontarians, but several of the projects at Discovery 2006 were not quite ready to leave campus.

Guoli Li, a Ph.D. in the University of Toronto’s computer science department, was exhibiting Padres, a middleware platform designed to route data messages while allowing administrators to visualize network topologies. Li said the project highlights a new approach to organizing workflows using Web services and executing business processes.

“Most of the architectures we see are centralized, which means there is a single point of failure,” Li said. “We are trying to demonstrate how resources in a distributed architecture can be more effective.”

The results of the U of T research has already been published, Li said, and the team behind PADRES hopes it will inspire other middleware vendors.

Kenan Xu, a student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., was showcasing research into techniques organizations could use to plan the deployment of wireless sensor networks, a group of small devices used for monitoring in military, building automation and agriculture markets, among others. The main barriers to wireless sensors, according to Xu, are costs and system performance. The latter factor takes in the sensing fidelity, coverage and reliability of the network. Queen’s has come up with algorithms that would automate some of the calculations involved in getting a wireless sensor network up and running. 

“People want to know the minimum cost and the maximum performance,” he said, adding that Queen’s team is developing a software product based on the algorithms through its technology transfer office.

Discovery 2006 also included several vendor booths, including one hosted by Guelph, Ont.-based Netsweeper Inc., a provider of Web-filtering technology. Netsweeper was the key sponsor for a project underway by University of Waterloo student Ehsan Fazi, who was developing a skin detection algorithm that could potentially detect pornographic content.

Greg Apple, Netsweeper’s director of business development, said the company could be only a month away from commercializing Fazi’s research. “We did a study of 100 pornographic URLs and 100 non-pornographic URLs, and it detected all 100 of them,” he said. “It’s a small sample size, but it shows the potential this has.”

Other IT-related projects at Discovery 2006 included a U of T initiative to develop software to assist companies with optimizing stock holding and privacy technologies in development at a Bell Canada Centre of Excellence.

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