FOCUS ON CROSS-SECTOR COLLABORATION
Strange bedfellows can lead to great science
Big "wicked" problems are driving unprecedented collaborations between industry sectors and the sciences
Something profound is happening in the way research is now conducted across Canada. Big complex challenges like health, environmental sustainability and the transition to low-carbon energy sources, combined with changes in how research is funded, are fueling new partnerships between companies, post-secondary institutions, government and not-for-profits, as well as between industry sectors and scientific disciplines with little or no experience in working together.
Such collaborations have become the new normal for much of the research happening today. They're happening locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. And, increasingly, they are engaging those communities with the most to lose, or to gain.
Synapse Life Science Consortium
A 2014 study by the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce highlighted how their city had everything it needed to be a global powerhouse in life sciences - everything except leadership. The study talked about a "once-in-a-generation" chance to build a new economic engine for the region if all the players already working in the sector began working together.
The catalyst for change came two years later with the launch of the Synapse Life Science Consortium, an ambitious alliance of nine regional heavyweights: Bay Area Health Trust, Hamilton Health Sciences, St. Joseph's Healthcare, Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, Hamilton Economic Development, McMaster University, Mohawk College, McMaster Innovation Park and Innovation Factory. Collectively, these anchors represent some 25,000 employees and about half a billion dollars in research.
"Everyone was keen to collaborate but we needed a neutral third party, a concierge whose priority each day was to facilitate networks and relationships on behalf of the whole community," says Alex Muggah, Director of Synapse and a former research associate of Harvard luminary Michael Porter, who popularized the idea of business clusters. "I learned cluster theory from him and brought that experience to Hamilton."
One recent success has been Mariner Endosurgery, which commercialized a technology that uses machine learning, robotics and medical imaging to help surgeons be more precise during minimally invasive operations. Like the board game Operation, the LaparoGuard device alerts the surgeon or trainee if they stray outside an established safe zone, reducing the risk of mistakes. Hamilton General Hospital was the first hospital in the world to acquire Mariner's technology, which is also approved for use in U.S. hospital rooms.
"Instead of Mariner trying to chug along on its own the community recognized it as a potential star and has gone out of its way to proactively support and nurture this company, thereby catalyzing and accelerating its commercialization path," says Muggah.
University of Calgary
Precision medicine is the next big revolution in healthcare, but its success depends on being able to rapidly diagnose disease.
The winning formula for a winning technology is government plus academia plus industry.
Dr. Stephen Larter, Associate VP (Research-Innovation),
University of Calgary
In September, the federal government's Western Diversification Program invested $2 million in the Alberta Precision Exchange (APEX), an academic, industry and government partnership that harnesses the province's global metabolomics leadership and consolidated healthcare system to clear a critical bottleneck in the commercialization of precision medicine therapies.
"The current procedure for diagnosing an infection is to take a swab, cultivate the organism, sequence it and then identify it. By the time you've identified the pathogen, some two or three days later, it can be too late to treat the infection. Replacing that approach with sophisticated analytical chemistry can reduce that time to hours. It will revolutionize the diagnosis of infectious diseases and save lives globally," says Dr. Stephen Larter, Associate VP (Research-Innovation) at the University of Calgary, one of 11 partners in APEX.
Larter says the evidence is clear that "the winning formula for a winning technology is government plus academia plus industry". And while cross-sector collaborations are "a bit of a no brainer", he says the biggest challenge they continue to face is stable funding.
"The government plays that crucial role in coordinating funding, but these funding programs last for only a few years," explains Larter. "To solve big problems related to issues like energy, water, food and health, you need long-term sustained funding involving such collaborative teams."
That "winning formula" is also helping companies like GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), one of several pharmaceutical multinationals behind CQDM, a business-led research consortium
that funds novel tools and technologies that will accelerate drug discovery and development.
Unique in the world, CQDM's business model is based on a collaborative approach where governments and companies share the costs and rewards of pre-competitive biopharmaceutical research. The Quebec-based consortium has invested $52 million in 77 research projects involving more than 1,200 researchers in 83 research institutions, including universities and health charities, as well as small and mid-sized biotech companies. GSK has contributed $1 million to CQDM since its launch in 2009.
"Canada is a global hub in research and punches way above its weight in many of the key therapeutic areas like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, respiratory and vaccines," says Dr. Alex Romanovschi, Country Medical Director, GlaxoSmithKline. "This investment in CQDM allows us to invest in that Canadian expertise, and bring our R&D organization closer to the Canadian community."
Canada is also getting better at forming cross-sector collaborations that produce results, which is why Romanovschi says they are getting noticed more by global companies.
"There is now a clearer understanding of the value of cross-sector collaborations", he says. The key, he adds, is to for all partners to have a unified purpose, "which in our case is to bring new medicines to patients as soon as possible".
Permafrost underlies one-third to half of the land in Canada and its accelerating thaw is threatening infrastructure, ecosystems and local populations. While Canada has decades of experience when it comes to building on permafrost, there are serious gaps when comes to understanding, predicting and adapting to future permafrost thaw and its consequences.
"The few people working on this in Canada are often over-extended. We needed to bring together the different institutions, researchers and stakeholders to make timely and robust progress," says Dr. Stephan Gruber, one of Canada's foremost experts on permafrost and Principal Investigator with PermafrostNet.
To address this gap, in August the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council awarded more than $5 million over five years to fund PermafrostNet, a Canadian research network of 12 universities and more than 40 partner organizations, including territorial, provincial and federal departments, industry and Indigenous communities.
Led by Carleton University, the network is using data analytics, field observations, and laboratory studies to create new capabilities for predicting where and when permafrost thaw is occurring, and what hazards will arise from this.
"We need to know how much ice is in the ground and how deep. That's probably going to be one of the biggest contributions of this network," says Gruber.
Having early access to the evidence will allow communities and industry to better address permafrost thaw, for example, through improved and forward-looking engineering design and land-use planning.
"The combination of local knowledge and indigenous knowledge with what science has to offer will generate the evidence policymakers and local communities need to adapt. But more than that, PermafrostNet trains the next generation of experts that will support and lead adaptation in the decades ahead," says Gruber.
Collaborations have become the new normal in cybersecurity, one of the fastest-growing sectors in the world. Working together across governments, academia, and the private sector is a central theme in Canada's new National Cybersecurity Strategy. The 2019 federal budget also set aside $80 million for cybersecurity networks affiliated with post-secondary institutions to expand R&D partnerships with the private sector, and to address a cyber skills gap.
If we are to effectively engage with government and gain their support, partnerships are essential.
Dr. Steven Liss, Vice-President, Research and Innovation,
One of main players on the academic side is Ryerson University. "We're working with the University of New Brunswick, Concordia University, University of Calgary, and the University of Waterloo on a national framework where universities are playing a strategic role in cybersecurity," says Dr. Steven Liss, Vice-President, Research and Innovation, at Ryerson.
Ryerson is also partnering with several government departments, including Public Safety Canada and the RCMP, as well as other police and security organizations, as part of the new Rogers Cybersecure Catalyst. Earlier this year the Catalyst received $10 million from the federal agency, FedDev Ontario, $10 million from Rogers Communications, $5 million from the Royal Bank of Canada and $5 million from the City of Brampton.
"When we went to Ottawa with our industry partners to promote the Catalyst it was important to demonstrate we were industry-facing in our vision and that our partners were on board. If we are to effectively engage with government and gain their support, excellence aside, partnerships are essential and the importance and benefits to Canadians need to be clearly evident," says Liss.
Headquartered in Brampton, the Catalyst offers public education, support for R&D and commercialization, as well as training and certification for private and public sector professionals. It will draw heavily on Ryerson's expertise in cybersecurity and continuing education, as well as its experience with its DMZ, one of Canada's largest business incubators for emerging tech start-ups. Through Catalyst, Ryerson plans to help at least 60 start-ups in its first five years.
Southern Alberta Institute of Technology
Collaborations between industry and academia are helping Canada's oil sands industry develop cost-effective solutions that reduce their environmental footprint.
In 2018, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) received funding from the federal and Alberta governments, Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), Suncor Energy and Conoco Phillips to build an $11-million program to simulate industry-scale processes in a pilot scale facility without disrupting ongoing production in the field.
"It allows researchers to go from their basic research into trialing it in a scale-model steam generator machine right away so we can get answers for industry much quicker," says Rick Tofani, Director, Applied Research and Innovation Services at SAIT, home of the new Once Through Steam Generator (OTSG) Applied Research Laboratory.
Technological innovations have made it possible to recycle up to 80% of the water used in steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) bitumen recovery. But minerals in the water are building up on the inside of steam generators during production, like the white substance that forms on the inside of an electric kettle. Generators need to be taken offline to remove this build up, or they breakdown. Either way it can cost a company a million dollars a day.
"Any solutions we develop that makes steam generation more efficient and less maintenance-intensive will be shared amongst the COSIA members in Alberta that have steam generators," says Tofani. "The next step is to involve the steam generation equipment builders, chemical companies and water purification companies so we can have the most efficient steam generators that, in perfect world, would recycle 100% of the water and run 10 times longer because they're no longer breaking down."
University of Waterloo
Technologies developed for one industry can often be adapted to other sectors. For example, the Centre for Bioengineering and Biotechnology (CBB) at the University of Waterloo is leveraging the institution's expertise in automotive research, robotics, engineering and computer science to help a U.S. company make better surgical robots. The company learned about the university's expertise from an automotive manufacturer.
When researchers work across sectors,that's where you really start to see innovation happen.
Dr. Catherine Burns, Executive Director,
Centre for Bioengineering and Biotechnology, University of Waterloo
"The kinds of systems you have in your car for cruise control transfer really well in surgical robotics, where they can help guide surgeons to a tumor, for example, without the surgeon having to be an expert in robotics," says Dr. Catherine Burns, Executive Director of CBB, home to about 150 researchers from engineering, science and other faculties.
Similarly, imaging research at the university that helps automated vehicles "see" street signs and lane markers can be adapted by a CBB researcher to identify tumors on an X-ray or mammogram.
"The University of Waterloo has built these research centres that have strong sector affiliates, such as in health, automotive, artificial intelligence and nanotech," says Burns. "What we're seeing is that collaborations between the different sectors are happening quite organically, with researchers joining two or maybe three centres. When researchers work across sectors, that's where you really start to see innovation happen."
CBB also collaborates with Grand River Hospital to test new ideas. There is even a long-term care home on campus which provides researchers with a "living research environment" for developing assisted and other technologies.
Government programs have also extended funding to colleges in recent years to encourage more collaboration. In 2017, Sheridan College received $2.3 million from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, $1 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and another $1 million from the Ontario government to support the Centre for Mobile Innovation (CMI), one of five research centres at Sheridan.
CMI partners with hospitals, universities, non-profits and small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to help healthcare companies innovate through the use of mobile and related technologies like wearable computing and augmented and virtual reality.
In one project, CMI developed a fall detection algorithm to unobtrusively detect if a person has fallen in a home environment. Its collaborator on the project, cloud platform developer PointClickCare of Mississauga, develops technologies that help seniors live independently longer.
"We're also using natural language processing for creating intelligent assistants to reach out and ask, ‘I think I heard you fall. Are you okay? Do you need assistance?' If so, the intelligent assistant would automatically notify emergency services and loved-ones to coordinate help," says Dr. Edward Sykes, Director of CMI and one of the researchers on the project.
The goal is to create a smart home environment that establishes ‘typical' behaviours for a senior and then creates a mechanism that recognizes abnormal behaviour that could put the senior at risk.
"We also want to try to prevent falls. We do that analyzing human gaits and human poses to understand the typical behaviour of that person and the stability of their walking. The goal of this system is to intervene appropriately if there is any noticeable degradation of gait, indicating increased potential for falls," adds Sykes.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution - or Industry 4.0 - is transforming the face of traditional manufacturing. It is also transforming Lambton College's approach to training, research and innovation, and partnerships.
In 2018, the Sarnia, ON college launched a new Innovation Institute to help both students and companies prepare for Industry 4.0, which will see the introduction of new automated processes that leverage smart and connected technologies such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (IoT) and big data.
The Innovation Institute will work with industries, organizations and institutions to adopt new technologies in their processes. The experience gleaned from those collaborations will be used to train students for new highly skilled jobs.
"We have a very multi-disciplinary approach in the institute. That's because Industry 4.0 tools, technologies and processes are going to impact all aspects of our lives. That will affect how we train students in our technical programs, but also non-technical programs like health, and biosciences, and business management," says Dr. Mehdi Sheikhzadeh, Executive Dean, Applied Research & Innovation, Lambton College, located in the heartland of Southern Ontario's refining, chemical and biochemical manufacturing sector.
While traditional manufacturing companies will benefit from Industry 4.0, the Innovation Institute is opening its doors to any sector that can benefit from digital technologies.
"We're working with all sectors because all sectors are impacted by digital technology," says Sheikhzadeh. "We have supported companies from composting to health companies to education companies to bio-based companies. They're not in the IT (information technology) business but they see that if they integrate digital tech it will help them to be more competitive national and globally."
University of Toronto
The University of Toronto has appointed its first ever silo-buster to break down barriers and increase collaboration between multiple departments and faculties. It's part of a campus-wide effort to harness the collective expertise of Canada's largest university to address complex challenges that require an interdisciplinary response.
"It's a huge job for an academicto build and maintain all these different partners," says Dr. Christine Allen, Associate VP and Vice-Provost, Strategic Initiatives at U of T. "That's where me and my team can help, by acting as a facilitator to support new strategic initiatives and those that have already been launched and are looking to scale."
The new Precision Medicine Initiative (PRiME), for example, leverages U of T's expertise in four faculties - Pharmacy, Medicine, Arts and Sciences and Engineering - to accelerate treatments targeting the biological underpinnings of an individual's disease. Allen says this closer integration also makes U of T more attractive to external partners.
"Now, when industry or government agencies come to us and say we're interested in precision medicine, we can say we're ready for you," says Allen.
Allen's office will help researchers with time-consuming activities like budgets and human resources, proposal development, workshop planning and facilitating partnerships with industry, government and other collaborators. She is also developing a toolkit of best practices on how to launch and scale these types of interdisciplinary collaborations.
"The key to success is to focus on the grand challenge that everyone is addressing," says Allen. "As long as you keep the focus on that then it's easy to bring aboard academics because all of us are really interested in making an impact."
Huawei Technologies Canada
While government funding is an important motivator when it comes to research partnerships, for many companies like Huawei the bigger incentive is access to talent. In 2009 it established its first Canadian research facility in Ottawa, a global hub of wireless and photonics expertise.
Since then, the company has invested over $653 million in Canada and has committed to spend at least 10% of its annual budget on partnerships with Canadian research institutions. Huawei collaborates at any given time with between 16 and 22 post-secondary institutions here, with its biggest activities in Ottawa, Toronto and Waterloo.
"Of the monies we invest in universities to conduct research, more than 80% of that is spent on students. That is what's important to us, and that's where you get impact for business," says Song Zhang, VP Research Strategy and Partnership, Canada R&D, Huawei Technologies Canada. Of its nearly 1,000 employees in Canada, more than 60% work in R&D.
Huawei's founder Ren Zhengfei recently said he still wants to make Canada its "global centre
for theoretical research" and to build more research centres across the country, leveraging Canada's strengths in areas such as wireless, photonics, computing, security and artificial intelligence. Much of its research over the past decade has focused on developing next-generation 5G wireless technology.
"You build research excellence based on where that excellence is," says Zhang. "Canada is a very open and diverse society, and it has excellent science, which help it to attract talent from around the world."
Sometimes a small amount of money can go a long way. That's what York University discovered when it partnered with the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP) on a collaborative program that is providing students with job-ready skills and SMEs with productivity-boosting technologies.
The Artificial Intelligence Industry Partnership Fund identifies SMEs with challenges and then connects them with researchers and students at York. Projects start small - $10,000 to $12,000 over two to four months - but can scale-up if the initial research results are promising.
"It's a great way to test the waters and see if a good working relationship can be formed," says Sarah Howe, Director, Innovation York. "Building trust is an important first step before we move onto to much larger and longer term strategic collaborations. It's a model that is working really well."
For example, York researchers are working with Toronto-based Mero Technologies to develop an algorithm that uses sensor data to optimize the routing of day-to-day cleaning in large buildings. The sensors provide real-time monitoring of items like paper towels, garbage levels and even pedestrian traffic through buildings. It can save on labour costs and supplies, as well as reduce unnecessary waste associated with washroom cleaning.
The key to success is to focus on the grand challenge that everyone is addressing.
Dr. Christine Allen, Associate VP and Vice-Provost, Strategic Initiatives,
University of Toronto
Not only do such projects help companies, they also give students real-world experience. "We have a talent shortage yet when many people graduate they don't necessarily know what the opportunities are," says Howe. "Partnering with industry gives them a new experience and a new idea of where they might want to go in the future."
Grand challenges like climate change are driving many cross-sector research collaborations across Canada. Hydro-Québec's is no exception, despite being in the enviable position of generating more than 99% of its electricity from water, a source of clean and renewable energy.
Hydro-Québec is also unique in that it has the largest research facility of any electric utility in North America. Established more than 40 years ago, the Hydro-Québec Research Institute (IREQ) spends $100-millionannually to support some 500 scientists, technicians, engineers and specialists investigating all facets of electrical power, from advanced batteries and energy efficiency to renewable energy and information systems. It carries out research at two facilities: Varennes Research and Testing Laboratories and the Shawinigan Energy Technology Laboratory.
"With this transition towards a decarbonization of our economy, cross-sector collaborations are becoming extremely important because it involves competencies and expertise from different fields. We cannot as a utility have all of this expertise internally - we need strategic collaborations," says Christian Bélanger, the utility's Director Strategic and Transversal Projects.
Hydro-Québec's collaborators include other utilities, other companies, and universities, as well as international partners. It spends at least 5% of its budget on academic partnerships, including research chairs at six Quebec universities which help to train the next generation of skilled workers and facilitate industry partnerships.
For example, one Hydro-Québec project is partnering with utilities in Asia and Europe and two universities in the area of cybersecurity. "Three or four years ago we didn't have any competencies in this area internally, so the best way to go in this field very fast is by putting in place collaborations with well identified partners," says Bélanger.
Partnering with local communities is not always easy, but the pay offs can be huge, particularly in developing nations where local challenges can have lasting global impacts.
Researchers at McGill University are working with communities in Kenya and Tanzania as part of the International Canopy of Conservation, a seven-year research project supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the International Development Research Centre.
The goal is to identify innovative options for community conservation that can help protect East Africa's wildlife populations while also strengthening local livelihoods. So-called ‘fortress' conservation, which is managed exclusively by government, tends to alienate community members whose lands had been taken for conservation purposes, thus jeopardizing the wildlife populations they were intended to protect.
"Solutions to these types of challenges are never easy," says Dr. Martha Crago, Vice-Principal (Research and Innovation), McGill University. "You have local populations who are situated to either undermine or support biodiversity. The communities may want to clear land for livestock or crops and then there's the other side which is non-governmental and governmental organizations that want to preserve the forests. Both sides have to see how they can benefit from working together."
Building trust is key. That starts by ensuring community participation in the research and governance of the project, which creates a sense of "ownership" over the conservation process. There must also be mutual respect among the diverse conservation actors involved: landholders, neighbours, investors, security officers, conservancy managers and employees, and tourists.
"A lot of the research is done by people living there," says Crago. "You need local partners involved from the ground up, from the time you're building the proposal to the time you're carrying it out and then reporting on the results. Then the benefits are shared by all stakeholders. That's what's needed for a successful collaboration."
Debbie Lawes, Debbie@dovercourteditorial.ca, is an Ottawa-based writer specializing in science, technology and innovation.