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NAIT’s Jean-Francois Bouffard, right, chemical engineer Paolo Mussone, centre, and Jay Grosskleg of Federated Co-operatives Ltd. are working to find a quicker and cheaper way to rehabilitate former gas-station lands.Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

When Jeff McIsaac walks prospective partners through Ideaworks, Mohawk College’s busy applied-research hub, he always gets the same reaction. “It’s some variant of, ‘I had no idea you did this here,'” says Mr. McIsaac, the Hamilton institution’s dean of applied research. “The work we do, the technology we have – it comes as a shock to most people.”

Mohawk is among a growing number of Canadian colleges that have taken a hard pivot toward research over the past decade. With universities often focused on fundamental research, colleges have found a niche turning that knowledge into innovative solutions for industry partners.

“As industry sees the value in what we do, governments have responded by investing heavily in college research,” Mr. McIsaac says, while noting college research funding is still miniscule compared with investment in universities. “[Research] has done a lot to change the role of colleges …especially in areas dealing with new-technology adoption and integration.”

Ron Freedman – chief executive officer of Research Infosource, a publishing company that creates an annual list of top research colleges – says Canadian colleges received about $200-million in third-party sponsored research funding in the fiscal year ending in 2018. While this year’s list comes out in November, last year’s top three were Sarnia, Ont.’s Lambton College, Toronto’s George Brown College and Edmonton’s Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT).

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Richard Borger's drone technology project involves looking at the use of how camera-equipped pilotless aircraft can improve efficiency on construction sites.Mohawk College

At NAIT, launched in the 1960s to fill gaps in worker training, administrators see their relationship with industry to be “as deep and integrated” as that with their students, says associate vice-president of research and innovation Chris Dambrowitz. He says about 10 per cent of staff are involved with “industry solutions” work, including more than 90 staffers dedicated to applied research.

One of those is chemical engineer Paolo Mussone, whose work includes a project to rehabilitate former gas-station lands more quickly and cheaply than the traditional method of excavating and moving contaminated soil to a landfill. Working with scientists at the University of Saskatchewan and gas station owners Federated Co-operatives Limited, as well as the United Farmers of Alberta, Mr. Mussone’s team uses a proprietary combination of fertilizers to stimulate the bacteria in the soil, prompting it to start eating the hydrocarbons contaminating the site. The result is remediated – and thus usable – land in just a few years.

At Mohawk, researcher Richard Borger is on the leading edge of drone technology. His work involves looking at the use of how camera-equipped pilotless aircraft can improve efficiency on construction sites, determine the makeup of remote northern forests and help detect unauthorized drones. His team currently has 15 research projects, including work with the National Research Council providing feedback on regulations for drones that operate “beyond visual line of sight.” Those regulations will open the door to manned drones, which he believes will be in use within five years.

“We’re doing stuff with drones that’s never been done before,” he says. “But even better, I can bring that material back to the classroom. The education is staying current because we’re right on the cutting edge.”

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