TAKE FIRE, or the wheel or even the alphabet, human history is bejeweled with game-changing technology that originated in the community to meet real needs — and gain an edge over the competition. But with the advent of the scientific process, the balance for innovation shifted to larger universities. Now it seems, according to Peter Warrian, the pendulum of innovation is headed back. Warrian, the senior research fellow for the Munk School of Global Affairs, says that the centre of gravity for applied, practical research is shifting away from big universities and into the community and small-to-medium sized enterprises (SMEs) which bear most of the risk for innovation.
At the government level (and this seems to be a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg scenario), industrial policies are focusing not on basic research but on support for sustainable regional investment in applied research. The aim appears to be to support an aggressively growing super cluster that is fuelled by employment and opportunities based on knowledge gained by doing.
According to Warrian, universities are undergoing a major shift in culture and personnel to follow this trend — and the bulk of the funding. Fifteen years ago, more than three quarters of all research in universities was focused at the early stages of scientific and engineering discovery. Today the same amount of effort in academic laboratories is directed at the later stages of technology readiness and prepping a product or service for market.
What we are seeing is not just big data research, but rather research on how data can be mined to create value for the fishing industry or retail outlets, how virtual environment algorithms can be used to improve safety at sea and then spun into a training company, or how a new approach to building wheel chairs can help truck drivers to be more productive and healthy, or how a theory of nanoscopic wood fibre can help companies adapt building materials to meet foreign market import requirements.
In Atlantic Canada there is a cast of thousands looking to introduce the next disruptive technology. Ten of them are profiled on the following pages: researchers and entrepreneurs who, despite differences, share the common ground of commercialization. Their matchmaking profiles are presented here to help you, whether you are an entrepreneur, researcher, investor or a policy maker, to engage in applied research for the diversification and prosperity of the Atlantic Region.
AGILE SENSORS Technologies Inc. produces state-of-the-art robotics technologies for the industrial automation and aerospace and defense markets. Founded in 2014, Agile is commercializing technologies developed during a multi-year project at Memorial University of Newfoundland. The initial research was co-funded by Boeing, the provincial Department of Business, the Research & Development Corporation, and by the Atlantic Innovation Fund.
Incubated at Memorial’s Genesis Centre, Agile introduced its first product prototype (a motor control system for drones) at a tradeshow in September of 2015. It was there, explains CEO Brian Terry, that he had a fateful meeting with Gaitech International Ltd., a Chinese robotics solutions provider.
“They were interested in our prototype,” says Terry. ““In December they contacted us looking to be a distributor. But when they learned we were looking for investors they jumped on it,” he reveals. In January Gaitech signed on with an investment.
Since then Agile has added two marketing and sales people and a team of six mechatronics and embedded systems engineers.
Howard Rideout, VP Engineering, says they’re adapting the drone motor control system, “to provide FPGA technology for multi-axis robotic arms.” This is the area for which Agile is seeking research expertise.
Agile would like to hear from researchers or companies with relevant expertise in specific areas including: motor control, power electronics, sensor integration, collaborative robots, robot safety systems and ROS (robot operating system).
ADVANCES IN computing technology in recent years now enable genetic researchers to explore the human genome in extraordinary detail, mining for new discoveries. Insights gained from this work could fuel medical advances to help prevent, diagnose and treat human disease such as cancer, epilepsy, and arthritis, in new and powerful ways.
One of the limiting factors, however, is the vast range of genetic information in samples from the general population. One way to overcome this is to focus on samples from a large, relatively homogenous group of people. Newfoundland and Labrador has such a population. Such an isolated pool of genes “allows us to see really small but important signals that may have a direct link to human disease,” says Chris Gardner. He and Tyler Wish cofounded Sequence Bio Inc. to take advantage of this opportunity. This new, data-driven biotechnology company, based in St. John’s, is aiming to launch the 100K project.
Sequence Bio will be asking 100,000 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to volunteer and provide a saliva sample that will undergo whole genome sequencing, then this information will be studied to find better, safer medications that could have far-reaching medical implications. CEO Tyler Wish is quick to emphasize that to protect privacy all samples will be anonymous. One of the initial analyses will be looking at epilepsy, but there are many other disease for which the data could be mined.
This is one of the world’s most ambitious human genome sequencing projects attracting local and international venture capital including, most recently, a Data Collective, based in Silicon Valley, led a Series Seed $3.9 million CDN investment.
Researchers in the field of human genetics who could contribute to the analysis of the data are invited to contact Sequence Bio.
FORCE 3 Innovations Inc. produces seating technology for the trucking industry. Between them, co-founders Shawn Leger and Darrell Mullen have more than a quarter century of experience in rehabilitation — Leger as a medical supplies business operator and Mullen as a medical technician with a mechanical background. Combine that background with a passion for helping people find a more comfortable way to sit and be productive, and you have the momentum behind Force 3 Innovations (started in Moncton in 2013).
By licensing their first innovation — the patented armadillo back for wheel chairs — Force 3 generated capital to begin their latest initiative. Based on feedback from health care professionals, they identified trucking as a sector where improved seating technology could help drivers reduce injury and increase safety and productivity.
“Starting with prototypes that incorporated aspects of wheelchair design they explored ways to ensure each seat was sized for the user,” said Mullen. Extensive testing of the prototype by a graduate student supported their hypothesis: ergonomically-designed seats effectively redistribute seating pressure, creating a beneficial neutral spine alignment. If they can incorporate smart design, drivers could download an app to adapt the seat for their changing needs.
Force 3 applied for patents in June of 2016.
Further research is needed to build on their data. “We have indicators that cognitive function improves, which is a benefit for workers who must stay awake for extended periods of time, including pilots, train drivers and even office workers,” he says. “But we’d like to have more quantitative evidence. We’d also like to conduct longer real time testing on a population that is demographically similar to our older target clients.”
FUNKY FINGER Productions is an independent application and video games development studio. It was founded to develop world-class applications and video games for leading hardware platforms and mobile devices through strategic partnerships, licensed intellectual properties, and research and development of original IPs.
After a year as director of product development, Andy Roberts speaks proudly of their small, focused team of developers and artists who specialize in products for the mobile market. Roberts, whose career began in the era of the Commodore 64, has worked with major industry players such as Sony and Microsoft.
Incorporated in 2012, Funky Finger Productions has published video games and applications and has several more in production. The company is also a developer-for-hire providing asset and game development for iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, PC, and VR technologies.
Having recently completed a medical diagnosis app for the Ontario Lung Association, Roberts is excited about the opportunities in medical monitoring applications. “We have funding from Innovation PEI to explore ways to develop a health monitor app for the smart watch,” says Roberts.
He readily admits that he has limited experience with medical diagnostics so, “We would readily partner with medical researchers or R&D companies that commercialize medical or diagnostic equipment or medical software, to develop applications that use data collected by the smart watch to monitor individual health indicators.” He also sees opportunities for diagnostic apps that could be used on the omnipresent iPad by health care professionals to give them real time monitoring results in the emergency hospital setting.
SKYSQUIRREL Technologies is a crop-analytics company that develops and deploys drone-based technology for monitoring crop health, with a focus on improving crop yields and reducing commercial vineyards cost.
“We add value to data by mapping calibrated plant vigor, water stress and other parameters. We even map disease in individual vines,” said Chris MacDonald. “Then plants are removed before the disease spreads, reducing pesticide use.”
SkySquirrel’s joint venture partner, Scientific Aerial Imaging (SAI) has used aircraft since the 2000s to provide California vineyards with aerial image services to help manage crops and control disease. SkySquirrel’s expertise in drone-based data collection and analysis provides more flexibility, accuracy, and affordability in data collection than the aircraft.
The company’s flagship product helps commercial vineyards improve crop yields and reduce costs, tackling viruses such as leafroll disease. “We are a data analytics company adding value to collected crop data,” said MacDonald. Their drones with modified imaging equipment help reduce the cost and increase data accuracy.
The company deploys drones in Canada, France, USA, Spain, Argentina, Chile, and China serving vineyard owners, vineyard management and advisory companies, and aerial services providers in the $85-billion wine market. All data analysis is conducted through cloud-based data services.
Potential new markets include the entire agricultural industry. According to MacDonald, their technology can collect data that will help scientists and agricultural operators monitor the health of plants and other vegetation in real-time to enable more responsive crop management. And the company is willing to implement advances in research that can improve or enhance any part of this innovative service.
HIS GOAL is simple: Improve safety at sea. As a professor of naval architecture and ocean engineering, Brian Veitch knows enough about commercialization to leave it others. He prefers to focus on assessing human performance in virtual environments (VE) at sea. Veitch believes humans can be “a source of robustness” for safe operations. “This has been proven in other industries,” he says and points to the infrequency of accidents in air traffic control and in the nuclear industry.
Veitch and his graduate research team develop virtual environments that integrate human factors into operational safety at sea. “We use VEs as a source of data, concentrating on critical situations that cannot be tested in reality but where it is critical to know how individuals will respond.”
An academic since 1998, Veitch has developed inter-disciplinary applied research on risk engineering for offshore platforms and vessels. He has “a dozen or more” invention disclosures and licenses and he’s won several prestigious awards. His research findings helped build a research/business relationship that’s unique in Canada. Virtual Marine Technology Inc., which has commercialized much of his research, is Canada’s largest marine-simulation training company.
Now there are new opportunities. “We have prototype tools that can likely transfer into other sectors,” says Veitch, “and would welcome contact with people who want to add value to their computer-based training products.”
MENG GONG knows engineered wood. And he knows demand is growing in lucrative markets such as China. He has a PhD from the University of New Brunswick in wood science and engineering and postdoctoral experience from Kyoto University (Japan) in timber engineering.
Gong conducts applied research with a team of grad students, scientists, research assistants and technicians. He specializes in applied research on modified and engineered wood products. He has a patent pending on wood densification technology that increases the surface hardness of balsam fir to match that of red maple.
Support for his work comes from a range of sources including investment from Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and New Brunswick Innovation Foundation (NBIF), with in-kind support and investment from client companies.
Locally he’s worked with wood product companies on a range of issues. He helped Marwood Ltd. increase the lifespan of their wood siding. For York North Veneer Products he summarized the technical details of the product so it could be assessed as compliant with EU specifications — thus helping to foster its export to China. Working with ThermalWood Canada, he tested potential new products to ensure they met European import regulations. And with Corruven Inc., he’s involved in evaluation of the properties of its lightweight panels and identification of new applications.
Gong is looking for new opportunities in applied research for the regional wood products industry and engineered wood products manufacturers.
NICHOLAS Krouglicof’s field of research is machine vision. Before taking on the role of associate dean at UPEI, Krouglicof conducted research at Memorial University where he was head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Before that he taught engineering at Union College in New York and at the University of Quebec and Concordia University in Montreal.
In following his research interests Krouglicof has worked on the development of measurement techniques, sensors and devices for biomechanics and sports medicine. He has consulted for a range of companies and parapublic institutions. Most recently he collaborated on the development of a machine vision-based LCD inspection system for BAE Systems Inc.; a specialized data acquisition and control system for the National Research Council of Canada; and industrial instrumentation for Intempco Controls Ltd. of Montreal.
Krouglicof is a recognized international expert with more than a dozen co-authored publications since 2010 mainly for IEEE conferences on Robotics and Automation (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers).
Krouglicof was the principal investigator for a five-year R&D project focused on the development of intelligent sensor platforms for unmanned vehicles. Agile Technologies Inc. was founded based on that work to commercialize their findings (see parallel story in this article). Krouglicof is Agile’s VP research and development.
His main emphasis in research is on the development of real-time automated inspection systems and he has a special interest in mechatronics. He defines this as the “integration of mechanical, electrical and computer engineering to the design of intelligent systems that cannot easily be designed within the confines of traditional engineering.”
WHEN THE Bonne Bay Ocean Observatory opened more than a decade ago, Brad de Young became Canada’s first scientist to deploy a cabled underwater observatory. With Memorial since 1988, de Young is a leader in international ocean science. His focus is new approaches to ocean observation and understanding. And his research is frequently cited.
de Young continues to expand underwater observation capabilities, deploying hundreds of sensors on ocean moorings and working in the development of monitoring technology. Included in his recent work is an intensive study of icebergs using a unique array of technologies.
“We’re trying to understand what happens to icebergs at sea, their changing size and shape, and how that influences ocean circulation,” he said. His research team deploys the SeaDragon, a surface drone for close-up surface readings, a sensor-equipped autonomous underwater vehicle and an aerial drone with cameras. “Nobody else has this kind of technology to build comprehensive descriptions of icebergs and answer questions such as, ‘What is going on in the ocean?’” he said.
In line with that big-picture research, de Young is a lead scientist in the cumbersomely named Ventilation, Interactions and Transports Across the Labrador Sea initiative. Known as VITALS, the aim of this multi-university partnership is to understand and model the functioning and vulnerability of the Labrador Sea as a key component of the Earth’s climate system, including uptake of oxygen, carbon, and atmospheric heat exchange.
With increasing human activity in the Arctic, de Young’s expertise in observational science and analysis has the potential for application in a wide range of activities.
STAN MATWIN is an international authority in applied data and text mining, text analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence and data privacy. He’s taken leadership roles in international governing bodies, centres of excellence, and conferences and he’s received prestigious awards.
Since 2013, Matwin and colleagues at Dalhousie are positioning the university as the leading centre for ocean-related data analysis. “Ocean research is relevant to local industry and experts here are generating ocean-related data,” he said. Much of this can yield value-added information.
Two initiatives made news in September. Matwin was awarded $5 million for MERIDIAN research infrastructure through the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s Cyberinfrastructure Initiative. “MERIDIAN is a globally unique opportunity for data scientists and ocean scientists to collaborate at the cutting edge of data management and data analytics technologies,” he said.
The Dalhousie team was also referenced in the New York Times as a key player in data analysis behind “Global Fishing Watch.” This “revolutionary” website, launched by Google, enables anyone with internet to track thousands of fishing vessels globally to detect illegal fishing.
Matwin says there’s a great deal of potential to add value to data that often is already being collected and from which new algorithms could extract additional information.
He’s interested in working with developers of oceans sensors and monitors to add value to the data they’re collecting and also in working with fleet operations for marine transport and fish harvesting companies to convert their data into useful knowledge.