Colleges with edge

Illustration of a business woman looking through a telescope standing on the graduation cap of a female student, set against a blue sky with clouds.

Colleges with edge

The College-Industry Innovation Fund places colleges across the country on the front lines of keeping Canadian business competitive
September 7, 2016

Most Canadians depend on large farms that transport produce tremendous distances. A movement toward locally grown fruits and vegetables is underway, but small farms in urban and peri-urban areas typically lack the capacity to supply viable regional food systems. To support this shift, Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) in Richmond, B.C., is building a plant science and seed testing lab, greenhouse and 20-acre research farm, with $670,000 from the CFI’s College-Industry Innovation Fund. The project’s goal, says sustainable agriculture professor Rebecca Harbut, is to help small farmers identify suitable crops and develop sustainable production systems — research that has generally benefited large-scale farms in the past. “It’s a rapidly changing landscape,” says Harbut, whose partners include a seed company and organic growers, “but we’re missing opportunities because there is lack of research-based information for farmers on small parcels of land.” The lab, with seed sorting and analysis equipment, will boost the province’s nascent organic seed industry. The greenhouse, growth chambers and chromatography equipment will support experiments on low-input, high-value crops, including the Asian greens in demand by the region’s diverse population. And innovative technologies, such as weeding robots and soil moisture sensors developed in tandem with KPU’s physics department, can be tested on the farm. Ultimately, higher yields and lower labour costs could help farmers grow more healthy food close to market, in B.C. and beyond.

Making new opportunities for metals and manufacturing

Canadian manufacturers rely on innovative technologies and value-added products to compete against companies from countries with cheaper labour and raw materials. Since 1985, Cégep de Trois-Rivières’ Québec Metallurgy Centre (QMC) has been solving problems for the province’s metallurgical sector. “We help large and small companies improve or develop new products, find niche markets and keep manufacturing jobs here,” says Nicolas Giguère, director of advanced alloys at the QMC. To consolidate its capacity to do precise chemical analysis, mechanical testing and corrosion testing for industrial clients, the QMC is using CFI support to acquire five new pieces of equipment: a pair of scanning electron microscope detectors to better see the microstructure, grain orientation and particle-phase chemistry of alloys; a tensile testing machine to gauge the strength of metals; a Clemex vision system to digitize microscopic photography; and an electro-chemical potentiostat to study corrosion. QMC research could help accelerate breakthroughs such as 3D printed parts for airplane landing gear and corrosion-resistant titanium valves for refineries, and facilitate biomedical advances like improved stents and hip joints. “We leave fundamental research to universities,” says Giguère. “We do applied research to better understand the behaviour of metals.” In addition to helping more than 150 clients develop high-quality products every year, the QMC also helps create “high-quality people” — Cégep students who do lab work and get summer jobs at the centre.

Helping small businesses get new food and beverage products to market faster

George Brown College’s Food Innovation and Research Studio (FIRSt) looks like an extremely well-equipped commercial kitchen, but it’s not the domain of an overbearing chef. The food scientists and culinary technicians who work here specialize in collaborations with partners from the Greater Toronto Area’s dynamic food and beverage manufacturing sector — small and medium-sized companies that need research expertise and equipment to develop or refine products. With support from the CFI, FIRSt will purchase more than five dozen pieces of equipment to help its partners deal with issues such as sensory evaluation, labelling requirements, and shipping and storage considerations. “We help SMEs accelerate the time it takes to reach the market,” says Dawn Davidson, the college’s director of research and innovation. “It’s not really efficient for them to do it on their own.” Entrepreneurs often have great ideas but need help scaling up for widespread distribution; you can’t simply cook a bigger batch. Davidson cites companies that make arepas (a Latin American flatbread) and herb- and fruit-infused water that have benefitted from collaborations with FIRSt, which can range from a few days of nutritional analysis to months of product development. Companies might have equipment for production, but not for testing, and it doesn’t make economic sense to purchase the latter. Although after working with FIRSt, many gain a deeper understanding of the research process and may be more inclined to invest in R&D as they grow.