For specialty mushroom farmers, Marie-Claude Héroux and Grégoire Dorval have lofty ambitions.
The couple produce five tonnes of oyster mushrooms a year in their small business, Champignons Advitam Inc., situated in an old horse stable in Saint-Ours, Que., on the outskirts of Montreal.
They are branching into shiitake and reishi mushrooms, which, like the oyster variety, grow on decomposing wood. But another type of edible mushroom, one that thrives symbiotically in the roots of living trees, really excites them.
The couple would like to develop trees inoculated with these prized mushrooms, such as chanterelles and bolets, which are typically found growing wild in the forest. The resulting “mushroom trees” would be bought by consumers to plant in their gardens or perhaps even by nurseries to produce the gourmet mushrooms on a commercial scale.
With little budget for research and development in their seven-person company, Ms. Héroux and Mr. Dorval are working in partnership with Mohamed Hirji, an associate professor of mycology at the University of Montreal’s Plant Biology Research Institute, to help realize their goals.
It’s a beneficial relationship, giving the company access to expertise and resources while allowing the university to do leading-edge, real-world research. An increasing number of companies are involved in a wide range of such collaborations with universities that were once more typically found at the college level.
“If we want to continue and have a big business, we have to diversify, and the university has the know-how, the equipment, the students and the time to do this kind of research,” explains Ms. Héroux, president of Advitam, which has been in business since 2007 and plans to bring the mushroom-inoculated trees to market within two years.
The company was introduced to Dr. Hijri, an expert in environmental microbiology, through an Engage grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). The $25,000 grant, as well as an in-kind contribution of pots and soil from Advitam and equipment financed by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, is allowing his team in a laboratory at the Montreal Botanical Garden to test different mushroom and tree varieties, to determine which grow together best.
Engage grants are among a suite of products that NSERC offers to encourage collaboration between industry and academia, ranging right up to research chairs worth millions of dollars, says Janet Walden, the council’s vice-president of research partnerships programs.
A recent NSERC report showed that the number of such partnerships has grown, to more than 2,400 companies this year from 1,500 companies in 2009, many of them small businesses, she notes. Entry-level grants help to break down barriers and act as “speed-dating” opportunities between companies and researchers, she says. “The company sees the value and gets past the first hurdle of how you work with the universities.”
With Canada’s history of significant investment in higher education, industry is increasingly tapping into universities’ expertise and facilities, leading to a 10-per-cent, year-over-year growth in industry-academia partnerships, she notes. “Companies are reaching into the universities for appropriate levels of research and finding strong receptivity there.”
Universities are also realizing the role they can play. The University of British Columbia is putting partnerships with companies onto its huge campus, which includes 50,000 students, staff and faculty in more than 400 buildings, spread over 400 hectares.
UBC’s Campus as a Living Laboratory program allows private, public and non-governmental organization partners to use its physical plant, combined with its education and research capabilities, to test, study, teach, apply and share technologies and policies “on a commercially significant scale,” says Iain Evans, associate director of strategic partnerships for the university.
The first such project is a $28-million Bioenergy Research and Demonstration Facility, developed in partnership with Nexterra Systems and GE Electric. The system uses biomass, made up of wood grindings, shavings and bark, to create synthesis gas for heating and to generate electricity.
The syngas facility, which has been operational since last September, provides 14 per cent of UBC’s hot water and electricity, Mr. Evans says. About $300-million in projects are in the Living Laboratory pipeline; he would like to find strategic partners to tackle UBC’s fleet of 600 vehicles, especially with the university’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.
The advantage of such applied research partnerships is that universities “bring to the table and can leverage their knowledge and expertise and mitigate the risks” on a wide range of elements such as legal and policy matters, environment, health and new business models, Mr. Evans says. “That’s a massive advantage.”
Universities can pursue applied research independently, Ms. Walden says, but this can be costly and complex, while the companies for which they do contract research already often have marketing expertise, distribution channels and the capacity for commercialization.
Who owns the intellectual property at the end is a matter to be negotiated. With smaller Engage grants, it typically remains with companies, says Dr. Hijri at the University of Montreal. The work on behalf of Champignons Advitam is one of three projects his lab is working on with industry, with others involving larger areas such as bio-remediation.
“With applied research, you can show benefits for society and the economy of the country, which is really nice,” he says, although 80 per cent of his work still involves fundamental science. “It’s impossible to do applied research without basic research, because we have to understand the mechanisms by which things happen.”
Ms. Walden says that many of the university-industry collaborations involve “driven research,” which “is looking for the solution to a problem.” But she says that sometimes research undertaken for short-term, immediate business purposes can lead to more fundamental, long-term work that advances knowledge.
“There’s a continuum, but there are two ends to the spectrum,” she says.