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Chul Lee, Founder and Chief Technology Officer of Thoora, a website that acts as a sort of news and information aggregator photographed in front of his staff at the company's office on Bloor St., Toronto. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Chul Lee, Founder and Chief Technology Officer of Thoora, a website that acts as a sort of news and information aggregator photographed in front of his staff at the company's office on Bloor St., Toronto. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Innovation

Companies tap expertise of academia Add to ...

Thoora faces a uniquely challenging problem.

The Toronto-based company is developing a website where visitors can see the top news stories the online community is talking about. To do that, it needs to identify in real time what the top trending stories are, and which ones people are finding most interesting so they surface on the Thoora site.

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The company doesn't want to ask people to vote on a favourite story of the day, nor does it want to perform a link analysis. Both methods could allow web-savvy individuals to manipulate the results. Instead, its approach is to create an automated system that listens to what is being said online, through blogs, Twitter and other social media.

The challenge is how to identify what is being said, and then determine what is relevant and what is authentic. Then the results must be ranked. Rising to the challenge requires a background in sociology, political science and computer science. To find someone with such a broad set of expertise, Thoora approached professors at the University of Toronto.

There are generally two types of research challenges that lead industry to turn to academia for help. The first is when the challenge requires expertise across a large variety of disciplines, such as Thoora. One industry segment that commonly finds itself in this category is digital media. Digital-media companies struggle to find ways to marry artistic ideas and content with technological innovation.

Historically, disciplines such as computer science and fine arts never mixed, but universities have recently responded to the emerging need for multidisciplinary expertise by creating cross-discipline faculties. Examples can be found at the University of Waterloo Stratford campus, or York University's digital media program.

The second research challenge that leads industry to academia is the need for in-depth knowledge about a specific technology or process: its strengths, its weaknesses and the alternatives. Companies that require this kind of help will typically approach disciplines such as engineering, math and sciences. CleanTech company NIMTech is working with academia in this area.

NIMTech has developed a proprietary ultrasonic technology that can see inside a pipeline to identify the type of substance running through it without interrupting the flow or characteristics. The process generates a lot of data. To makes sense of it all, expertise in an area called multivariate analytics is required. NIMTech found that specialization in academia by meeting professors.

You can see what the future of business and technology will look like by examining the research challenges professors are working on. Companies such as Thoora have recognized that to remain ahead in a field that changes rapidly, such as online content innovation and search, they need to build relationships with professors working on what's next.

Since many professors also have students doing research with them, these academic relationships give companies a chance to meet and get to know potential employees. And they give students the opportunity to decide whether they would be interested in working for these companies if they decide to move out of academia.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Brian Gordon is director of business development at MITACS, and president of Technology Gateway Canada. On Oct. 6, Mr. Gordon will deliver a 'lightning talk' at a forum in Toronto entitled Business 3.0: How The Future of Technology Will Change Business, featuring discussions ranging from wearable computing to emotional machines, climate change and surveillance.

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