Focus On Canada's Recovery: Research is key
Top research institutions are playing a critical role to ensure Canada's post-pandemic recovery is sustainable, resilient and equitable
By Debbie Lawes
What will Canada's economic recovery look like? That will depend in large part on what the science reveals.
Across the country, tens of thousands of academic researchers and their students are working with partners in industry, the public sector and civil society to develop and test the technologies, policies, and other innovative solutions that will prove critical in driving a post-pandemic recovery that is sustainable, resilient and equitable.
Research Infosource interviewed several leaders to learn what the country's top research institutions are doing to build a better Canada for future generations.
The speed at which research took us from the discovery of a deadly new virus to the creation of a tested vaccine is nothing short of a modern miracle. But fears remain that new variants will emerge that are more transmissible, able to evade current vaccines and lead to more severe disease.
As the pandemic transitions into an endemic phase, scientists at McMaster University are racing to develop more efficient vaccines that would cost less, have fewer side effects and be easier to store.
The research team led by Dr. Fiona Smaill received Health Canada approval in December to begin human trials for two next-generation booster vaccines specifically designed to combat variants of concern. The vaccines express three different SARS-CoV-2 proteins, including the distinctive spike protein.
"In building a vaccine against three different proteins it allows for a much broader immune response which will enable protection against new variants but also with other or similar coronaviruses," said McMaster virologist and Vice-President, Research Dr. Karen Mossman, who was part of a team of Canadian researchers who were among the first to isolate the agent responsible for COVID-19 from Canadian patients.
Unlike all first-generation COVID-19 vaccines, these new vaccines are inhaled directly into the lungs where respiratory infections begin. The research builds on two decades of R&D on a tuberculosis vaccine lead by Dr. Zhou Xing at the McMaster Immunology Research Centre.
"Another advantage," added Mossman, "is that you only need one-one hundredth of the dose, which addresses concerns about Canada's lack of biomanufacturing capacity."
The new vaccines were produced at McMaster's Robert E. Fitzhenry Vector Laboratory, one of the few facilities in Canada with the capacity to develop and produce viral vector vaccines for early phase clinical trials. The lab is part of Canada's Global Nexus for Pandemics and Biological Threats, a McMaster-based network focused on developing innovative treatments, vaccines and diagnostics, as well epidemiological models and evidence-based plans and protocols to neutralize threats.
"Canada's Global Nexus is focused on the greater good," explained Mossman. "It's great to have a vaccine but it needs to be affordable, with the right supply chain and delivered in an equitable manner. The pandemic is not going to end until those issues are addressed."
Cancer continues to have a significant impact on the Canadian population and health care system, driven in large part by an aging population and rising costs for treatment and care.
A new $5.2-million national partnership led by the Canadian Cancer Trials Group (CCTG) at Queen's University promises to significantly reduce these costs and save more lives using novel cell-based therapies, including CAR T-cells, that modify a person's own immune cells to detect and kill their cancer.
Instead of costing $400,000 or $500,000 per patient [to treat cancer] our goal is to reduce that by ten-fold.
Dr. Janet Dancey
Director, Canadian Cancer Trials Group, Queen's University
"It's about as personalized a therapy as you can get. It's your own white blood cells being trained to go after that cancer in you," said Dr. Janet Dancey, Director of CCTG, a national program of the Canadian Cancer Society which is collaborating with researchers and institutions across the country as part of a new network called ExCELLirate Canada.
Engineered immune cells are already being used in clinical trials to treat some forms of leukemia and lymphoma but many patients do not survive the month required to produce CAR T- cells using the current system, which often involves shipping cells to the U.S. for development.
ExCELLirate Canada is developing a revolutionary approach to locally manufacture immune cells to provide effective, low-cost therapies that can be produced in two weeks or less for clinical trials.
"It allows for all sorts of rapid innovation to develop new and better, more effective and less toxic types of approaches to treating cancer," said Dancey.
For example, CAR-T cell therapies could provide a single treatment for cancer that Dancey said "might improve survivability or even cure people", without the need for surgery, radiation or chemotherapy.
It would also save the healthcare system money. "Instead of costing $400,000 or $500,000 per patient our goal is to reduce that by ten-fold, so that the treatment itself and the trial costs may be $50,000 or $100,000 per patient," she said.
ExCELLirate Canada has already launched its first two trials, one in Ottawa and British Columbia, and a second in Alberta.
"Our group [in Kingston, Ontario] is also working on a trial that will test a new cell therapy approach for patients with multiple myeloma," added Dancey. "We hope to have that underway by the end of this year."
University of Ottawa
Ottawa is a global tech hub anchored by multinational giants, start-ups and scaleups as well as leading research institutions and large government labs. But until recently, the connection between these various players was limited.
That began to change in 2018 when Dr. Sylvain Charbonneau was named the University of Ottawa's Vice-President, Research and Innovation. It was the same year the federal government invested $2.8 billion to revitalize federal labs and facilitate closer links with academia and industry.
"Before 2017, little effort was made to reach out to this ecosystem. A big priority for me was to further link our university with the Ottawa ecosystem, including federal labs and the high tech sector," said Charbonneau, a former physicist with the National Research Council of Canada.
One key initiative was to establish a satellite campus in Kanata North, Canada's largest technology park located in the west end of Ottawa.
"We surveyed companies in Kanata North and learned they need three things: talent, reskilling of their workforce and help with advanced research," he said. "Talent is the new currency and is key to helping Canada build back better, which is why it's important for us to have a physical presence there."
Charbonneau said uOttawa is also putting the city's health innovation ecosystem "on steroids" by better connecting its medical school and six affiliated health research institutes and five local hospitals through a planned 32,516 square metre research and innovation, incubation and acceleration centre.
The Ottawa Health Innovation Hub will support smart health and precision medicine, from discovery science to the translation of that research into new health practices and procedures, as well as biotech, medtech and digital health startups. The hub will be anchored in the Advanced Medical Research Centre, scheduled to break ground in early 2023.
The next generation of mobile technology will take these linkages to the next level. In January, uOttawa and Telus announced a five-year partnership to transform its campuses into a 5G-connected innovation hub, propelling advances in areas like smart medicine, health and cybersecurity.
Said Charbonneau: "Having a more coordinated innovation ecosystem will help us build back better and be more resilient as we prepare for the next pandemic."
University of Guelph
Food security is a priority at the University of Guelph, where researchers are examining how climate change, and more recently the pandemic, are driving the need for more sustainable practices in the agri-food sector.
Much of this work is happening as part of a $76.6-million grant - the largest single federal research investment in U of G history - that supports 165 interdisciplinary faculty and more than 300 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the Food from Thought project. Its goal is to leverage big data to improve food production and biodiversity, both globally and locally.
"We're now looking at the next phase of that project. The pandemic has exposed, laid bare and/or amplified challenges that exist within food systems," said Dr. Malcolm Campbell, Vice-President (Research) at U of G, known as Canada's Food University.
U of G is also helping public health units better track the spread of COVID-19 in communities, though that's not what the initial research intended. Food safety expert Dr. Lawrence Goodridge and his team had developed a way to use genomics to detect food-borne pathogens in sewage. That same technology is now searching for coronavirus variants in wastewater in several municipalities.
"This is a huge help right now in Ontario where we have pared back our individual testing to be able to have that population-level surveillance," said Campbell. "It was wonderful to see so many of our people that operate already in that safety space - food safety, food-borne pathogens and animal pathogens - pivot so quickly to use their research to help with the pandemic."
U of G works closely with industry and government to identify problems, and to develop evidence-informed, farm-tested innovations that can be put into practice. Key to this approach has been the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance, an approximately $90-million-a-year collaboration between the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the U of G that supports research, training, and laboratory capacity.
"This partnership is about addressing real-life priorities that are set by the province but are coming from industry," said Campbell. "Moving research out in the real world is a point of pride for us. Our tag line is 'improve life', and we live that tagline. It's not just a platitude for us."
University of Manitoba
Much of Canada's post-pandemic recovery plans align with the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals, including one to "reduce food losses along production and supply chains" by 2030.
Post-harvest losses have been a particular problem with grains such as wheat, barley and pulses, which suffer annual losses of about 20%, or 640 million tonnes, enough to feed nearly 1.5 billion people every year.
Dr. Digvir Jayas and other scientists at the University of Manitoba (UM) have already made significant progress in improving post-harvest storage and handling to minimize waste. Jayas, who is also Vice-President (Research and International), pioneered the concept of drying grain by forcing air horizontally rather than vertically to reduce energy costs during the drying process, resulting in more uniformly dried grains.
"Today, horizontal drying systems are being used in Canada and around the world, including Ukraine, the US and China. In 2018 when I visited China the engineers there estimated in that particular year more than two million tonnes of grain were dried using horizontal drying system," said Jayas, who currently leads the world in the development of 3-D mathematical models to predict heat, moisture and gas transfer, and movement of insets in stored grains.
UM has a long history of agri-food research successes, its most notable being the development in 1961 of canola by Baldur Stefansson, known as the "Father of Canola". Today, the canola value chain contributes nearly $30 billion to the economy annually, according to the Canola Council of Canada.
Researchers also focus on developing new grain varieties for winter wheat, canola and rapeseed, studying the impacts of climate change on crop yields, and developing healthier crops.
A more recent challenge is the vulnerabilities in Canada's food supply chains. One solution, according to a recent report by UM agricultural economist Dr. Jared Carlsberg, is to lift barriers to interprovincial trade - such as transport and meat-processing regulations - that constrict the freer flow of goods and services in Canada.
"One thing the pandemic showed very clearly was the problems with the logistics," said Jayas. "Even if you have food, if you cannot distribute it to the consumer it has the potential to have a negative impact on society."
University of Waterloo
Passenger air travel has been one of the hardest hit global industries throughout this pandemic. Even before the arrival of COVID-19, the industry was facing personnel shortages and regulatory pressure from many countries to reduce its carbon and noise emissions.
"These issues have been in play for a long time. Now they've become even more acute because of the pandemic," said Dr. Charmaine Dean, Vice-President, Research & International, University of Waterloo, home of Canada's largest university-level aviation program.
Having industry partners directly involved with the [Waterloo Institute for SustainableAeronautics] increases the likelihood of the research being quickly adopted by industry.
Dr. Charmaine Dean
Vice-President, Research & International, University of Waterloo
In response, the university recently launched Canada's first research institute for sustainable aviation and aerospace. The Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics (WISA) brings together 50 researchers from six faculties - science, environment, arts, mathematics, health and engineering - to work with industry and government to drive social, environmental and economic change. In addition to research to reduce CO2 emissions, researchers also address social factors like professional education, human-computer interaction and a diverse and inclusive workforce.
"The importance of the institute is that it's focused on a critical problem that the industry urgently needs to solve," said Dean. "Having industry partners directly involved with the institute increases the likelihood of the research being quickly adopted by industry."
Interdisciplinary research is becoming the go-to approach for addressing many complex issues, including how to help the elderly stay in their homes longer. COVID-19 exacted a heavy price on Canada's long-term care and retirement homes, especially during the first wave of the pandemic when residents accounted for more than 80% of all COVID-19 deaths, and staff at these facilities represented more than 10% of the country's total cases, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
Coming up with technological solutions is the focus of researchers at the RoboHub and its Intelligent Technologies for Wellness and Independent Living Lab.
"Waterloo has focused for some time on how assistive devices like exoskeletons, a type of wearable device that helps with mobility, can make independent living a reality for more elderly citizens," said Dean. The research draws on fields such as materials science, medical imaging, engineering and the emerging field of social robotics, where human-centred robots can help ease the social isolation and loneliness experienced by many older adults.
Technology alone won't solve the challenge of reaching Canada's target of net zero emissions by 2050. At Carleton University, Dr. James Meadowcroft is studying how dramatic changes are needed to large-scale systems of social provisioning, including transportation, urban design and food production.
"We have had many similar changes in such systems in the past, such as the electrification of society, the rise of the internal combustion engine, indoor plumbing and, more recently, the digital revolution," explained Meadowcroft. "My research looks at what lessons we can learn from those historic episodes to help us navigate through the climate change issue. That will require multiple transitions in multiple systems."
Meadowcroft recently co-launched the Transition Accelerator, a not-for-profit that collaborates with targeted groups to solve major business or social challenges, and identify where greenhouse gas reductions can be built into the solutions. For example, it helped found an organization to unite the Zero Emission Vehicle industry supply chain.
"This includes mining companies through to battery and cell manufacturers and automotive manufacturing right through to charging stations" he said. "You also need to change regulations and insurance, get automobile dealers on board and build public acceptance. You need all these people working together to help build out this industry in Canada."
In Alberta, for example, the Transition Accelerator partnered with the Alberta Motor Transport Association to test the ability of hydrogen fuel cells to replace diesel for heavy-duty freight trucks. It also played a key role in setting up the Edmonton Hydrogen Hub.
"Now others have been calling us from other regions asking if they could be part of this too," said Meadowcroft. "You have to show that change is possible and then more people get involved and then more doors open that weren't open to you before."
In another initiative, The Transition Accelerator is working with government, companies and NGOs to decarbonize the building sector in ways that are affordable and equitable.
"People don't just want net-zero houses, they want houses that are comfortable and affordable. If they're in indigenous communities they don't want substandard housing," said Meadowcroft. "The challenge is how do we link this work to deal with these other social issues affecting the various sectors of the decarbonisation process?"
Most older adults in Canada want to remain at home for as long as possible as they age. That's a priority for governments across Canada and for Baycrest, a University of Toronto-affiliated research and teaching hospital for older adults.
Predictive neuroscience can drive new approaches to prevention, early detection, and care …
If we can slow down the progression of Alzheimer's by just five years, we will decrease its prevalence by 50%.
Dr. Allison Sekuler
President & Chief Scientist, Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation, and
Baycrest Academy for Research and Education at Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care
"We want to help older people live their best possible lives, no matter where they live," said Dr. Allison Sekuler, President & Chief Scientist, Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation (CABHI) and Baycrest Academy for Research and Education at Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care.
Scientific discovery at Baycrest, which also provides a range of elder-focused healthcare and residential living, is focused at the Rotman Research Institute (RRI), one of the world's top research institutes in cognitive neuroscience and aging. The RRI pairs novel behavioural and mental health assessments and neuroimaging with sophisticated analyses to answer fundamental questions about memory, aging, and the neuroscience of perception and cognition.
"Predictive neuroscience can drive new approaches to prevention, early detection, and care," said Sekuler. "We can prevent cognitive decline by detecting its behavioural and biological markers as early as possible, ideally before there are any memory symptoms. If we can slow down the progression of Alzheimer's by just five years, we will decrease its prevalence by 50 percent."
Researchers are also looking at how a person living with dementia can thrive in the community or in long-term care. For example, with support from the Baycrest-powered CABHI, a University of Toronto and Baycrest scientist developed a smartphone app, called HippoCamera, which assists those suffering from memory loss, including Alzheimer's.
Another Baycrest project, bringing together collaborators from Baycrest's Ontario Centre for Learning, Research and Innovation, the RRI, and CABHI, recently received $1.2 million from the Ontario government to develop the Learning Inter-Professionally Healthcare Accelerator (LIPHA) - a virtual training program that combines simulation and game-based learning to rapidly train personal support workers, nurses, and students working in long-term care.
"LIPHA, which is available for free in Ontario, is being used by long term care homes who want to upskill or retrain their staff," said Sekuler. "We're using it here at Baycrest's long-term care home as well, because whether older adults live at home in the community or in long term care, we want our research to help them age fearlessly."
Social media, connected devices, sensor technology and other modern information systems collect an immense wealth of data that can be harnessed to help with Canada's post-pandemic recovery. But businesses and communities first have to understand what all this data means before they can use it.
Dr. Ginger Grant, Dean in the Office of Research and Innovation at Humber College, is leading a $200,000 project to establish an Institute for Design Analytics, which is developing new ways to analyze data from the past to design a better future.
"Think of it as taking an artistic approach to data called design-driven analytics (DDA)," explained Grant. "We're focused on data storytelling because data is massive. If you can't explain why you collected the numbers and what you're trying to do with the numbers, then it doesn't matter how much data you have."
Humber has already pioneered several new approaches to data-driven storytelling at its StoryLab where an interdisciplinary team of experts works journalists to turn raw data into news stories. The Institute for Design Analytics will take a similar approach to help small and mid-sized companies develop DDA practices and products that predict trends, improve innovation and make productivity-boosting, fact-based decisions.
This approach to understanding data can be used for social innovation as well, where metrics like improved health and wellbeing are viewed as important as profits.
"I try to focus on return on impact, more so than return on investment. This is part of social innovation. You could use this approach, for example, to look at diverse demographic data - age, gender, and ethnicity, children at home - to identify patterns that allow people to revision retirement or the value systems that drive behaviour," said Grant, an experienced researcher in designing new research methods for open innovation and co-creating solutions with communities.
Social innovation is a major research thrust at Humber, where identifying the problem and developing the solution starts with partnering with communities.
"It starts from the problem, not from theory, and finding ways to fix the problem," explained Grant. "If we're going to recover from this pandemic we have to take an open innovation approach to developing solutions, and that means co-creating solutions with partners."
University of Toronto
Global challenges, from pandemics and climate change to plastic pollution, have expedited the need to develop new materials with improved performance that are more affordable and eco-friendly. The University of Toronto is spearheading a revolutionary solution, led by Professor Alán Aspuru-Guzik, the inaugural Director of the Acceleration Consortium.
This new international consortium brings together 80 scientists from 11 countries, along with industry and government partners, to make next-generation materials faster, cheaper and smarter using self-driving laboratories driven by automation, robotics and artificial intelligence.
"It typically takes 20 years and $100 million to develop and bring to market new advanced materials. The consortium's goal is to reduce this to more like one year and $1 million," said Dr. Christine Allen, U of T's Associate Vice-President and Vice-Provost of Strategic Initiatives.
Allen is also a pharmaceutical scientist whose own lab began to rely on artificial intelligence and automation during the pandemic. "Alán helped us integrate artificial intelligence and automation into our work. Using a liquid handling robot, for example, allowed just one person to get so much more work done. It also enabled us to get around some of the COVID-19 related physical distancing requirements."
The design of advanced materials with superior performance characteristics is seen as vital to driving a range of innovations, including clean energy storage, development of sustainable packaging for consumer products, drug discovery, quantum computing, clean transportation solutions and the creation of stronger, lightweight, low-carbon building materials.
"What makes this consortium unique internationally is that the research is pre-competitive, sector agnostic and focused on commercialization," she said. "All the tools, approaches and methods can be adapted for other sectors."
Attracting talented scientists and graduate students to Canada and training the next generation of researchers are top priorities for the Acceleration Consortium. It plans to open a training facility in Mississauga, in partnership with the National Research Council of Canada, in addition to offering workshops, conferences, hackathons, post-doctoral fellowships, a master's degree program and training on self-driving labs.
"Every industry partner we speak with tells us about the importance of highly qualified personnel who are industry ready," said Allen. "That talent will be critical in supporting Canada's post-pandemic economic recovery."
Two years of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many economic and social vulnerabilities that institutions like Sheridan College are working to address.
"We're taking more of a holistic perspective to economic recovery and how we support businesses and communities," said Dr. Vicki Mowat, Sheridan's Director of Research. "That means taking a broader view of research to consider the more human aspects of supporting organizations in pandemic recovery."
Mowat, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, uses her social sciences background and Sheridan's increasing priority on social innovation as the lens to help shape the college's research, innovation and entrepreneurship approach to partnerships, which now includes more community and not-for-profit partners.
We're taking more of a holistic perspective to economic recovery. That means taking a broader view of research to consider the more human aspects of supporting organizations in pandemic recovery.
Dr. Vicki Mowat
Director of Research, Sheridan College
For example, Sheridan's Centre for Elder Research partnered with Food for Life and Community Development Hamilton to help hundreds of older adults living in community housing who faced increased social isolation and loneliness during the pandemic. The Putting Food on the Table Project changed a simple food basket into more of a wellness package which, in addition to food, also included valuable resources and information to connect older adults to social supports.
Sheridan is home to faculty-led research and six research centres that include screen industries, advanced manufacturing and mobile innovation. The centres are increasingly working across disciplines and faculties, in what Mowat describes as "that intersection of technology and social innovation".
The diversity of new partners is also reflected in those supported by Sheridan's Entrepreneurship Discovery and Growth Engine (EDGE) social innovation hub. In 2020, RBC Future Launch donated $435,000 to support social entrepreneurship at Sheridan, including an expansion of EDGE's Social Impact Catalyst program which supports youth entrepreneurs to pursue social venture ideas supporting equity, inclusion and justice.
The 14-week program has so far supported 23 new social ventures targeting climate change and environmental sustainability, with a particular focus on supporting BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) entrepreneurs.
"One venture that was supported is BLK-Owned Hamilton. It organized an online directory that lists over 160 Black-owned businesses on Instagram," said Mowat. "They also developed a social media strategy that specifically targets and supports black-owned businesses to continue to support the success of these new companies."
Long before COVID-19, there was an affordable housing crisis in Canada. Today, some 12% of households struggle to access affordable, suitable and adequate housing.
Two research projects led by Lakehead University's Dr. Rebecca Schiff are working with local communities to produce the evidence that will persuade governments to invest more in proven approaches that improve the availability of affordable housing across Canada.
"The National Housing Strategy identifies the need for more research into housing and homelessness," said Schiff, Chair and Professor in the Department of Health Sciences. "As a result, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation partnered with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to fund research that address priorities, including our projects on community housing and northern housing," with each project receiving more than $1.3 million.
Current strategies to address chronic housing need and homelessness have primarily been developed outside of the North, making them disconnected from northern needs, priorities and strengths, said Schiff.
The At Home in the North: Partners in Housing in Home project addresses that gap by bringing together academic researchers and community partners to inform the development of programs, services and models for housing and homelessness, developed by and centred in northern communities.
"A one-size-fits-all approach to housing won't work in the North where we need affordable housing that this both culturally safe and culturally appropriate," she explained.
The second project, Community Housing Canada, focuses on households with low and modest incomes across Canada and how cooperatives and other forms of community housing can offer a sustainable solution that also improves people's physical and mental health.
"Co-op housing hasn't been appreciated enough in terms of federal policy and federal funding priorities for the impact it can make in people's lives," said Schiff. "For example, the pandemic showed how people living in housing cooperatives were less socially isolated than those living in independent market rental housing."
The project is finding several other benefits of co-op housing, including children who do better in school and adults who are more successful in terms of employment.
Said Schiff: "We call this the social return on investment, those impacts that go beyond the bottom line of an accounting book."
Supply chain bottlenecks for critical minerals throughout the pandemic have reinforced the need for a reliable and sustainable domestic mining industry. Getting there will rely in large part on a long overdue technological retrofit, particularly in the adoption of clean energy and digitalization.
Cambrian College is helping with this transition. In 2019 it established the Centre for Smart Mining (CSM), one of 60 national Technology Access Centres in Canada and the only one focused on driving technology adoption in mining - a sector where deviation from established practices is often viewed as unduly expensive.
Based in the international mining capital of Sudbury, Ontario, CSM works on industry-driven problems to de-risk technologies through proof-of-concept, pilot studies, prototyping, and customized technology training. Its areas of expertise include underground communications, alternative tailings treatment technologies, and battery-powered and connected mining vehicles.
"Mining companies face financial and operational risks with working underground so they need to know that a new technology will solve their problem and work in this type of environment," said Dr. Mike Commito, Director of Cambrian R&D, Cambrian College's applied research division.
This is no longer my grandfather's industry … there are now enticing career pathways for students in mining that they wouldn't never have even thought of 10 or 15 years ago.
Dr. Mike Commito
Director of Cambrian R&D, Cambrian College
"The industry has entered this sort of renaissance where they're recognizing that a lot of these new innovations and technologies can help them be safer, more efficient and ultimately be more profitable," he added.
For example, CSM is working with companies to accelerate the adoption of battery electric vehicles which will replace diesel-fueled equipment. The benefits include lower fuel costs, reduced ventilation costs and reduced exposure of underground workers to diesel emissions.
Proven technologies that can work in rugged conditions aren't the only thing mining companies need. Cambrian is also training both students, as well as heavy equipment mechanics already working in the sector, on how to work on electric vehicles and other new technologies.
"With the advent of all these new technologies, mining companies are looking for students with IoT [Internet of Things] skills, who are programmers, who are coders, mechatronic engineers," said Commito. "This is no longer my grandfather's industry … there are now enticing career pathways for students in mining that they would never have even thought of 10 or 15 years ago."
Battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs) are becoming more commonplace in rugged environments, including Canada's north.
Frontiers North Adventures, a family-owned tourism business in Churchill, Manitoba, needed to know if it was possible to convert its Tundra Buggy® fleet from diesel-powered to battery electric. The goal was two-fold: to lessen their environmental footprint and reduce the vehicle's sound pollution, providing tourists with a silent experience when viewing polar bears and other wildlife on the sub-Arctic tundra.
For assistance the company turned to the researchers, engineers and students at RRC Polytech's Vehicle Technology & Energy Centre (VTEC), which has testing and validation experience in shifting transportation fleets from diesel to electric. VTEC's 5,574 square metre centre is also home to two facilities unique to Western Canada: MotiveLab™ and the Vehicle Technology & Research Centre.
"VTEC supports on- and off-highway vehicle innovation and most of our applied research activities have been related to EVs, starting from the electric bus prototype to some cold-weather performance testing, and looking into the future of having EV vehicles for other heavy duty vehicle sectors," said Jojo Delos Reyes, Research Program Manager at VTEC.
VTEC initially conducted a feasibility study in 2018 showing it was technically possible to convert the Tundra Buggies to electric. That was followed in 2021 by a proof-of-concept project using a repurposed battery from an electric bus. VTEC experts also provided training materials on safe handling and operation of the repurposed batteries.
Frontiers North put the prototype into full operation in November 2021, and plans to convert their entire fleet of 12 Tundra Buggies to electric by 2030. The company estimates the switch to green energy will reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by more than 3,600 tonnes over the next 25 years.
"We validated that the conversion could be done," said Delos Reyes. "One of the reasons we participated in this project was to prove that electrification of a wide range of heavy duty vehicles, including tractors, snow moving and mining equipment, is possible and they can work in extreme cold temperatures."
One of the biggest post-pandemic challenges will be finding enough skilled people, particularly in emerging sectors like cybersecurity. It's an issue Ryerson University has been working on well before the pandemic started, whether it was identifying labour market disruptions and government policies at the Brookfield Institute or working with the Ontario Chamber of Commerce to develop an intelligent matchmaking portal, called Magnet, which connects qualified jobseekers with potential employers.
"Ryerson has been at the forefront of many of the important policy discussions. Now, looking to the future of Canada, we're at an important juncture with respect to issues like urban renewal and how immigration will be key to maintaining and sustaining our standard of living in the face of changing demographics," said Dr. Steven N. Liss, Ryerson's Vice-President, Research and Innovation.
Dr. Anna Triandafyllidou is leading several projects examining migration and integration, including how the pandemic is influencing decisions by highly-skilled immigrants to come to Canada and their difficulty in obtaining jobs commensurate with their experience.
"Where there continues to be a huge gap is in the area of cybersecurity," said Liss. "Several years ago we identified that pathways to the labour market through accelerated training could be an innovative way to do things. But that had to be coupled with research, innovation and with public policy and engagement."
That research laid the foundation for the 2019 launch of the Future Skills Centre, a pan-Canadian initiative led by Ryerson in partnership with The Conference Board of Canada and non-profit Blueprint ADE to support real-world tests of promising skills development solutions and contribute to a growing evidence base on what works, why, and how.
For example, the pandemic has many workers looking for new careers, but a recent report from the Future Skills Centre found that most Canadians don't have the information they need to decide which training program - from the tens of thousands that are available - is the right one for them.
"I'm concerned about the proliferation of lifelong learning programs," said Liss. "Micro-credentials, for example, are the flavour of the month but you have to understand the supply and demand side of that, which is why we need strong evidence to support and evaluate them."
The government of Saskatchewan has an ambitious plan of tripling the province's tech sector over the next decade by adding 100,000 new jobs. Saskatchewan Polytechnic is doing its part to fill the talent pipeline for this growing labour market through its Digital Integration Centre of Excellence.
Launched in 2018 with funding from both the federal and provincial governments, DICE is Saskatchewan's only Technology Access Centre. It has proven particularly popular throughout the pandemic, with demand for its services up 50% compared to previous years, "and it's still going up exponentially," said
Dr. Susan Blum, who helped establish DICE and other applied research centres when she joined Sask Polytechnic as its first-ever Vice President of Applied Research and Innovation.
DICE's highly qualified specialists and technologists - several of whom hail from industry - provide digital solutions focused on data, including data integrity, data transmission and data analysis and storage. Many of the students who work on DICE projects end up being hired by the industry partners.
The nice thing about [Digital Integration Centre of Excellence] is it crosses all industry sectors, including mining, agriculture, health, education and transport.
Dr. Susan Blum
Vice President, Applied Research and Innovation, Saskatchewan Polytechnic
"There wasn't really anyone else providing that service to the industry sector, especially for the large number of startups and small companies in the province," said Blum. "The nice thing about DICE is it crosses all industry sectors, including mining, agriculture, health, education and transport."
In one project, for example, DICE partnered with VeriGrain, an agriculture technology company, to enhance an app that gives farmers the ability to accurately determine grain quality and optimize grain utilization and reduce spoilage, which increases the quantity and quality of food available.
DICE also works with social ventures and the not-for-profit sector. The Restorative Action Program, which helps high school youth in Saskatoon outside the classroom, worked with DICE to develop a new database to allow fast data analysis to identify which practices and services work best for helping youth sort through conflicts like bullying, crime and mental health needs.
Now Sask Polytechnic is in the process of developing another applied research centre, the Sustainability-Led Integrated Centre of Excellence, or SLICE.
"It's bringing the other areas of expertise that we have in alternative energy, agriculture, manufacturing and forestry sectors together to deliver solutions to companies in the circular economy," said Blum.
The impact of the pandemic on food supply chains, combined with a growing trend to buy local, has fueled a voracious appetite for urban gardening. Seneca is leveraging its expertise in science, business and sustainability to help build local businesses that address food insecurity and increase access to healthy food in urban communities.
With $360,000 in funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Seneca and Ryerson University launched a three-year project in collaboration with community partners Greenest City and Toronto Urban Growers, a network of more than 1,000 urban growers and supporters. What makes the project unique is that it brings science, business and sustainability together in one package.
The objective of our [urban farming] program is to help existing and potential urban farmers create a sustainable urban agriculture business.
Dean, Seneca Innovation
"The objective of our program is to help existing and potential urban farmers create a sustainable urban agriculture business. One of the biggest barriers urban farmers face is in accessing start-up capital so we will also be helping with microfinancing, as well as business planning, mentorship and training," said Ben Rogers, Dean, Seneca Innovation. Once piloted and proven the training modules will be packaged to be implemented in communities across Canada.
In another project funded by NSERC, Seneca's School of Software Design & Data Science and School of Nursing combined their research strengths to address the immediate and pressing need for qualified personal support workers (PSWs). During the COVID-19 pandemic, many PSW positions went unfilled due to bottlenecks in validating staffing requirements, despite qualified candidates looking for work.
TriNetra Systems Inc., a Markham, ON-based software company, collaborated with Seneca to create a new online portal to better connect PSW employers with PSWs seeking work. The partnership soon expanded to include Octochain Inc., which develops blockchain software products, and ConnexHealth, an agency that connects healthcare users with healthcare professionals through their online portal.
Together, the team developed OctoMatchAI, an online system that confirms PSW credentials in a fast, easy and reliable way.
"They then used artificial intelligence and machine learning to optimize the assignment of PSWs to different healthcare settings," said Rogers. "This not only helps recruiters find ideal candidates faster, it also helps PSWs find their ideal jobs."
University of Calgary
The pandemic has triggered a massive shift in global work patterns, with more people working from home. Empty office buildings have been a particular problem in Calgary which was already experiencing high vacancy rates because of an economic downturn that began after oil prices crashed in late 2014.
The University of Calgary and the City of Calgary are working on solutions, building on their longstanding collaboration through Urban Alliance which expedites the transfer of research to address important policy issues.
The new the Civic Commons Catalyst brings together faculty and students from architecture, landscape planning and public policy, along with urban environmental charity Evergreen, to help reinvent downtown Calgary's vacant public spaces and spur economic recovery and investment. Ideas include a hyperloop station, a waste-to-energy facility, a Calgary Airport-Downtown-Banff Rail, crypto-mining farms, hydroponic facilities, an innovation district and an artist/rainbow village.
Strong research universities create a mix of talent, ideas, intellectual property, and then having those well-oiled pathways to get into company creation and innovation creation is really necessary.
Dr. William Ghali
Vice-President (Research), University of Calgary
"Coming out of the COP26 climate change conference, there's no question that we are now challenged as a province and country to produce innovative solutions and technologies. Yes, this is daunting in some ways, but it's also a very exciting opportunity to reimagine our future," said Dr. William Ghali, Vice-President (Research).
The United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals are guiding more of the research these days at UCalgary, from urban planning to developing better health systems, societies and public policies.
"The SDGs provide a compass and a sense of urgency for us to channel our scholarship to have impact on the things that really challenge us in society," he said. "That's a philosophy we are embracing as a university and it's making a difference in terms of how we operate."
UCalgary already had a strong reputation as an entrepreneurial university. The AUTM recently ranked it number one for creating startup companies compared to all Canadian research institutions. Ghali attributes this success to UCalgary-affiliated incubators (Innovate Calgary and CDL Rockies), a strong innovation ecosystem, and the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking, which provides seed funding for startups and social enterprises.
"Strong research universities create a mix of talent, ideas, intellectual property, and then having those well-oiled pathways to get into company creation and innovation creation is really necessary," added Ghali.
Many Canadians are consuming more alcohol during this pandemic - but not all. A growing number of health conscious consumers is fueling demand for non-alcoholic beverages, which is providing an opportunity for companies like DistillX Beverages.
But the Toronto firm needed a beverage that had both the taste and "mouthfeel" of real alcohol and that's where Niagara College was able to help. Led by Dr. Ana Cristina Vega-Lugo, a senior food scientist at Niagara's
Canadian Food and Wine Institute Innovation Centre (CFWI IC), faculty and students were instrumental in the flavour development and proprietary distillation process for the company's new product, Sobril 0-Gin. The company recently landed a major Dragon's Den deal for the product, which is made with all natural ingredients, and no sugar, calories or hangovers.
DistillX soon returned to Niagara for help in developing non-alcoholic tequila, which hit the market last October.
"Our industry partners often come back," said Dr. Marc Nantel, Vice-President, Research and External Relations, Niagara College. "They see the value we bring to them in de-risking the development process."
That de-risking involves more than technology development. Niagara's Business and Commercialization Solutions team provides expertise in human resources, international business, operations management and sales and marketing. The services are available to industry partners in the college's three innovation centres - the Walter Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre, the Agriculture and Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre and the CFWI IC, which also specializes in cannabis-infused drinks and edibles.
"We not only give companies a technology solution, but also a commercialization solution," said Nantel "What's the market, who is their competition, what's the supply chain look like, what's the go-to-market strategy? That added layer enables them to be more successful."
Niagara's newest capability is the beverage production facility which can manufacture enough units to get a company into the market.
"We recently received certification from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to make thousands of litres," said Nantel. "It enables small companies like DistillX to put some product on the shelves so that when they get that massive deal with a large grocery chain we've already debugged the scaling up process and they can go to a co-packer [large-scale manufacturer] to make 20,000 or 50,000-litre batches."
Brock University has a long history of partnering with the agri-food and biomanufacturing sectors to support research and talent development in southern Ontario's agricultural heartland.
Its most recent initiative is the new Brock-Niagara Validation, Prototyping and Manufacturing Institute (VPMI). The $6.1-million facility targets the bioproducts, bioscience and bioagriculture sectors, as well as chemical manufacturers. VPMI works to support the agrifood sector alongside two other Brock research institutes - the Niagara Community Observatory (NCO) and the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI).
"These three institutes offer an entire suite of scientific and business expertise, problem solving, policy recommendations and partnership support," said Dr. Tim Kenyon, Brock's Vice-President, Research.
He describes the VPMI as a "one stop shop" for a wide range of analytic, prototyping and early stage biomanufacturing services. "Many of these services existed already but they were scattered in different locations around southern Ontario."
In one project, VPMI experts partnered with Toronto-based CanBud, which grows and distributes hemp cannabinoids (CBD) products, to study how different fungi can provide an organic alternative to chemical fertilizers.
Another Brock research centre, CCOVI, was established in 1996 in partnership with the Grape Growers of Ontario, the Winery & Grower Alliance of Ontario, and the Wine Council of Ontario. One current project is studying the use of a hand-held hyperspectral imaging system to detect grapevine viruses before symptoms are visible in the vineyard.
"CCOVI is seen as a trusted and credible problem solver by grapevine farmers and wine makers not just in Niagara but across the country," said Kenyon.
Brock is also home to the NCO, a think tank established in 2009 to explore public policy issues related to several sectors, including transportation and agriculture. It recently received funding through the federal-provincial Canadian Agricultural Partnership program to investigate the barriers and drivers to the adoption of automation and robotics in Ontario's agriculture sector.
"That research has already identified two significant barriers to technology adoption: farmers' lack of in-house expertise and a lack of government funding and support," said Kenyon. "The next step will see a full report released this year that offers some strong policy recommendations and concrete action items to address these barriers."
Ontario Tech University
Canada's transition to a green economy will inevitably include a role for high-energy, low carbon technologies like nuclear and hydrogen. But how will these technologies, along with renewables like hydro, solar and wind, be integrated into existing energy systems?
That's one of several challenges being tackled by the new Brilliant Energy Institute (BEI) at Ontario Tech University.
Canada doesn't have a single energy system; we have different regions with different systems. A net-zero economy needs to figure out how all these pieces are integrated. It's a policy issue, a technology issue and a data science issue.
Dr. Les Jacobs
Vice-President, Research and Innovation, Ontario Tech University
"Canada doesn't have a single energy system; we have different regions with different systems," explained Dr. Les Jacobs, Vice-President, Research and Innovation. "A net-zero economy needs to figure out how all these pieces are integrated. It's a policy issue, a technology issue and a data science issue."
Ontario Tech is a national leader in clean energy and environmental sustainability research, including hydrogen, nuclear, small modular reactors (SMRs), thermal power, advanced data analytics and software development.
About 30% of its faculty work on energy-related research, including clean energy and hydrogen researchers Dr. Marc Rosen and Dr. Ibrahim Dincer, who are in the top 1% of the world's most cited researchers. Ontario Tech also accounts for about 40% of all research done on hydrogen in Canada.
"We had all these disparate pieces but prior to BEI had never tied them together before to show how strong we were in this space," said Jacobs.
That strength was formally recognized last year when the International Atomic Energy Agency designated Ontario Tech as the first Collaborating Centre in Canada to support IAEA activities on advanced nuclear power technology, including SMRs as well as advancing integrated energy systems relying on diverse sources from hydro dams and renewables to nuclear.
"Our research strengths also line up with national priorities on clean energy," added Jacobs, notably Canada's SMR Action Plan as well as the Hydrogen Strategy for Canada.
In the shorter term, BEI is working with trusted industry partners on issues ranging from battery storage and the deployment of electric vehicle fast charters to lifecycle analysis of renewables. The university will also help Ontario Power Generation with its first SMR deployment later this decade at the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, along with the skilled workforce needed to operate this new system.
"This is an important niche for Ontario Tech in building the workforce of the future," said Jacob.
University of Saskatchewan
Putting academic research to work solving local problems is also a priority at the University of Saskatchewan, where collaborations with both the province and the City of Saskatoon have a long history dating back over a century.
"The University of Saskatchewan was established nearly the same time as the province and the city, so those connections have been there since the beginning," said Dr. Baljit Singh, Vice-President Research at USask.
A three-year-old initiative to further link city staff and USask researchers and students is taking an even more strategic approach to help Saskatoon overcome barriers to contemporary urban issues like employment, transit and sustainable energy.
Research Junction has so far provided about $350,000 to 15 projects, including a wastewater monitoring project that measured levels of human pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics in Saskatoon's wastewater to assess potential risks these chemicals might pose to the downstream environment. The award-winning project pivoted with the COVID-19 pandemic, when in 2020 the city and the Saskatchewan Health Authority began using this surveillance system to measure traces of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater.
Another project is applying geophysical methods to monitor the east riverbank of the South Saskatchewan River, where slope failures have occurred.
"They're looking at where and why these mudslides happen and how they can be prevented. It has implications for the houses that are built there, as well as city infrastructure and public space," said Singh.
The city and university also have a data licensing agreement that provides USask researchers with secure access to city data via the university's library. For example, researchers are designing fast, reliable, and explainable algorithms using Saskatoon Transit data that allow the city and transit planners to make data-driven decisions, optimize service at different times and better handle emergencies such as road closures and the COVID-19 pandemic.
"These types of collaborations make universities less of an ivory tower," said Singh. "It creates a valuable support system for the city to do research they need, and it creates great experiential learning opportunities for students to become aware of these complex problems and what is needed to build robust communities."
Thinking about how to grow their business post-pandemic is still a luxury for many small companies struggling to make their next payroll or rent payment. The struggle has been particularly tough for restaurants.
Inspired by large fast food chains like McDonalds, students from Conestoga College's School of Applied Computer Science & Information Technology worked with Ottawa-based CPOS Inc. to develop a web-based kiosk style system that allows restaurant customers to avoid long lines by ordering and paying based on a QR code.
We are leveraging our technology and the skillsets of our faculty and students to help businesses adapt to doing business in the pandemic.
Dr. Michelle Chrétien
Associate Vice-President, Research & Innovation, Conestoga College
"This technology was previously only available to larger retailers," said Dr. Michelle Chrétien, Associate Vice-President, Research & Innovation, Conestoga College. "We are leveraging our technology and the skillsets of our faculty and students to help businesses adapt to doing business in the pandemic."
Another project is taking aim at the tens of thousands of tonnes of personal protective equipment (PPE) waste that has been generated over the last two years. Kitchener-based MEA Health Corp. and the college's Smart Manufacturing and Advanced Recycling Technologies Centre are developing a process to recycle masks and other PPE. That reprocessed material can then be sold to the plastics industry for non-woven and plastic injection molding manufacturing.
"MEA plans to reintroduce the recycled plastic into the value stream so we can reduce the amount of waste we're generating with our increased use of PPE. It's opening a new market for them," said Chrétien.
Another Conestoga research centre, the Canadian Institute for Seniors Care (CISC), unfortunately had to put some of its research on hold when the pandemic hit in March 2020 as several faculty and students shifted to the front lines to assist with a shortage of nurses and personal support workers in hospitals and long-term care homes. Among them was Dr. Veronique Boscart, the CISC's Executive Director and CIHR/Schlegel Industrial Research Chair for Colleges in Seniors Care.
"She is also a registered nurse and started working night shifts at the Village of Winston Park when it was experiencing an outbreak," said Chrétien. "This speaks to the agility of colleges, and their strong connection with the community, to pivot quickly in times of need."
A York University-led research team is employing big data and artificial intelligence (AI) to help governments and local communities contain and manage the spread of COVID-19.
Launched in 2020, the Africa-Canada Artificial Intelligence and Data Innovation Consortium (ACADIC) brings together more than 50 researchers from data science, epidemiology, physics, mathematics, software engineering and AI, as well as disaster and emergency management, clinical public health, citizen science, and community engagement experts. Countries represented include Botswana, Cameroon, Canada, Eswatini, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, with more expected to join.
ACADIC collaborates with expert stakeholders in Africa to analyze epidemiological data in a locally nuanced way to identify emergent outbreaks, prioritize individuals at higher risk, and develop highly targeted and staged vaccine delivery plans that are equitable and effective, said Dr. Jude Kong, ACADIC founding director and Assistant Professor in York's Department of Mathematics & Statistics. The consortium also developed
COVID-19 monitoring dashboards that visualize data that is locally relevant to the public and policy makers.
"With these tools, we're able to assess the impact of different vaccine distribution strategies given the limited quantity Africa is receiving and identify hotspots to ensure vaccines go where they're most needed," he explained. "Working with local authorities is key to developing strategies that are unique to each community, rather than a one-size fits all approach."
Armed with this data, communities can respond quickly when deciding whether to close schools and businesses. Authorities can also see the impact of an outbreak on local economies and whether public health interventions are equitable and effective.
"We're in discussions to build on this success by using these tools to fight diseases like malaria, cholera, sleeping sickness and emerging diseases," said Kong. "We are equally thinking about how we can apply these tools to identify women with high risk pregnancies and how health authorities can respond."
Canada could also benefit as a warming climate threatens to bring infectious diseases normally only seen in warmer countries.
"Some of these modelling tools could be brought back to Canada to help us understand the dynamics of these diseases so when or even before they arrive we'll know what it is and how to respond at the local level," said Kong.
Debbie Lawes, Debbie@dovercourteditorial.ca, is an Ottawa-based writer specializing in science, technology and innovation.