Strengthening the research and innovation continuum and helping prepare career-ready graduates, connections between industry and academia are key for Canada’s economic strength
Partnerships between post-secondary education and business are crucial to Canada’s competitiveness and prosperity, according to a recent Conference Board of Canada study. While they take many forms – including research and development collaborations with universities, applied research initiatives with colleges and polytechnics, and work-integrated learning environments – they have a proven track record for strengthening Canada’s research and innovation continuum and getting graduates career-ready.
“Partnerships are essential for our economy and for helping to address the chronic issue of productivity,” says Daniel Muzyka, president and CEO of The Conference Board of Canada. “Improving productivity is not just about increasing efforts, but also about creating more value in products and services through our efforts – and for achieving this, innovation is key.”
Linking industry and academia has a number of benefits, according to Dr. Muzyka. It brings real-world challenges to the attention of post-secondary educational institutions that can then leverage research environments and talent for finding a solution. And industry and community input can inform the curriculum to ensure graduates’ skills and knowledge are up-to-date and relevant for contributing to the success of the organizations they’re going to join.
As the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s (NSERC) vice-president of Research Partnerships, Dr. Bettina Hamelin has gained a number of insights into collaborative research activities across Canada. She knows, for example, that partnerships between post-secondary educational institutions, industry and community are essential for addressing a range of challenges, including food security, clean energy, cyber security and quantum technology. “The list is long,” she says. “And the challenges may be local, provincial, national or global.”
An example in the clean technology space is Manitoba Hydro Place, a collaboration between Red River College and Manitoba Hydro, says Dr. Hamelin. The challenge was to revitalize an aging downtown area in Winnipeg with emphasis on sustainability, she explains. The result? The construction of what’s considered one of the most energy-efficient office towers in North America.
“Manitoba Hydro Place is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum-certified and has earned many awards. It’s very impressive,” says Dr. Hamelin, who toured the building recently. Her team also had a chance to ride in a zero-emissions electric battery transit bus, which represents another aspect of this collaboration.
The Red River College and Manitoba Hydro partnership was recognized with an NSERC Synergy Award for Innovation, says Dr. Hamelin, who believes raising the profile of collaborations may serve as an inspiration for others.
She also suggests increasing the level of recognition researchers gain for partnerships. “Academics are rewarded for publications – they are not necessarily recognized in the same way for research partnerships with the private sector. That’s a gap we’d like to address,” she adds.
Another successful partnership combines expertise from the University of British Columbia’s Manufacturing Automation Laboratory with the industry perspective of aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney Canada, says Dr. Hamelin. Yusuf Altintas, who heads the lab, is a professor of mechanical engineering and NSERC-Pratt & Whitney Industrial Research Chair in Virtual High-performance Machining.
“Prof. Altintas has worked with Pratt & Whitney since 1986 to develop the next generation of virtual machining systems technology, which enables industry to test machine parts in a virtual environment,” she explains. “New parts for airplanes can be very expensive, and having a good virtual assessment of how they work before building them saves a lot of costs.”
The partnership, which started with a small grant, has resulted in the best-equipped laboratory for this sort of work in North America, says Dr. Hamelin. She adds that Prof. Altintas brings together faculty members from mechanical engineering, computer engineering, material sciences and related fields for multidisciplinary research. “And the graduate students who are involved are exposed to high-calibre academic research, state-of-the-art technology and the entrepreneurial environment that a company like Pratt & Whitney represents,” she explains.
Dr. Muzyka also believes that working with industry, whether it is on applied research projects or in co-op and internship programs, allows students to “enhance their learning by grounding the concepts they cover in school in real-world experience,” he says.
In addition to partnerships with industry, linkages within the post-secondary educational system can provide students with enhanced pathways into the labour market, says Dr. Muzyka. “More connections between universities, colleges and institutes can help students acquire some of the competences they need and address the skills gap the business community is so vocal about.”
Dr. Hamelin also sees “lots of complementarity in what colleges and universities are doing. “We want to encourage them to work together more and we are getting to a stage where some of the barriers are broken down,” she says.
While it can take time to develop a productive partnership and see research findings find commercial application, Dr. Hamelin believes many results are impressive: “an explosion of new knowledge and innovation.”
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